An article on Yahoo News regarding the desire of the religious left to counter the influence of the religious right in the upcoming 2006 elections triggered some thoughts. First, a personal note: I have a BA in political science from Alderson-Broaddus College and an MA in political science from Ohio University. At OU, my specialty was political philosophy but I have my creds in US politics as well. (In the 2004 presidential election, I actually called each state correctly and even the margin, 3%.)
What is largely misunderstood by almost everybody is why the traditionally religious (Catholic, Protestant and Jewish) tend to favor political conservatism. The assumption is that this voter bloc (actually a complex series of overlapping voter blocs) is moved by hot-button issues: same-sex marriage, abortion, stem-cell research and so forth. The truth is far more basic and complicated.
The traditionally religious embrace delayed gratification and "the long view" as the cornerstone of making right decisions. So does political conservatism. The heart of political conservatism is delayed, not immediate gratification, coupled with a conviction that immediate gratification is deeply corrupting not only to individuals, but to nations as well.
The Yahoo articles cited above notes, "Exit polls in the 2004 White House election showed Bush had a big edge among regular churchgoers while Democrat John Kerry' had strong backing among those who said they never attend." As recently as the 1970s, there was no significant difference between the parties in terms of religious fervency.
There were three events which changed that. First, George McGovern was the Democrat nominee for President in 1972, and he ran on a platform of immediate gratification (immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.) Second, a self-identified "born again" Christian, Jimmy Carter was the sucessful nominee of the Democratic Party in 1976, elected by a surprisingly small margin after the Watergate meltdown. In retrospect, that was the last time evangelicals and other traditionally religious people supported a Democratic nominee. Carter proved to be both a disaster as President and cosmically unlucky. (This is said by one who cast his ballot for him twice.)
The final event was the election of Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980. While Reagan did not possess the evangelical bone fides of Carter, including a failed marriage, Reagan embodied the idea of delayed gratification in his policies and in his demeanor. "Reagan Democrats" gradually made the transition over to the GOP not so much on specific issues (which the Gipper could articulate so well) as on the Reagan ethos.
The effort on the part of the religious left to offset the religious right is unlikely to succeed not so much on the basis of specific policies as much as on the much deeper long-view, delayed gratification issue.
I know this column is a departure from the usual fare of Durable Data; I hope you found it helpful. You can leave your comments below. If you are recieving this by email, it is posted at www.durabledata.blogspot.com.