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Taking The Right Too Seriously?

By far the most interesting passage in David Kuo's article in Beliefnet on his disillusionment with the White House Faith-Based Initiative is this:

3) Liberal antipathy magnified the Initiative's accomplishments.

Secular liberal advocacy and interest groups attacked every little thing the faith initiative did. When Executive Orders were issued permitting an organization to simply display a cross or a Star of David, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it "a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government." When we helped Boston's historic Old North Church (of Paul Revere fame) get new windows through a historic preservation grants program at the Department of the Interior, the clamor was the same. The net effect of all the jabbering was the appearance that great progress was being made.

Had these liberal groups or an alliance of charities held the White House accountable for how little was being done -- especially compared to what was promised -- there is no telling what might have happened...or what might still happen.

His point is not that the opposition was wrong -- although he obviously believes that -- but that the fact that liberals took the faith-based initiative so seriously allowed the White House to get away with actually doing very little of what it promised. It got credit with the religious community not for its achievements, but simply for antagonizing liberals. If they're so agitated, we must be doing something, they said, in effect.

Is he right? My first thought was that his examples were silly: Did anyone really oppose a historic preservation grant for the Old North Church? Well, apparently they did, even though the church's ratio of historical tourists to current congregants is about 3000:1. This is the kind of thing I'm completely unable to get worked up about, even though I'm sure it's the camel's nose under the slippery slope and all that. But I think Kuo's point, which is that the faith-based initiative skillfully distracted liberals with fairly irrelevant symbolic fights, allowing the White House to avoid the actual financial and ethical commitment to "compassionate conservatism" is probably well taken.

This is an example of liberals' "policy literalism" on the other side. If we were to propose something like the faith-based initiative, it would be because we literally wanted to deliver services through churches and thought that religious groups needed to play a bigger role in social services. When the Bush-DeLay crowd proposes such a thing, it's because they want to make sure they get the votes of people who believe this thing. They themselves don't give a shit: "White House indifference" is Kuo's diagnosis.

Shortly after the Gingrich takeover of Congress, a colleague of mine said, "You should never underestimate the degree to which they don't give a shit. It's their strength." A decade of observation later, I think that aphorism is about 80% true. "They" -- the particular faction of the Republican party that currently holds power -- give a shit about a few things: Taxes. They don't like taxes. Lawsuits. Social Security. Regulation. The minimum wage. As a college classmate of mine's father once said, after a few martinis, "There hasn't been a good day in this country since Franklin Roosevelt became president." Those are their core beliefs. And I do believe that some portion of the right feels very strongly about abortion. The rest of it , though -- "compassionate conservatism," anti-gay-marriage, anti-small government, Medicare prescription drug benefits -- are all just rhetorical means to an end.

It is a subtle difference, but liberals have to respond in different ways to opponents who really believe that gay marriage is threatening to their value system, as opposed to those who don't give a shit about it, but believe there is a political advantage to be gained by stoking the fear and intolerance of others. Likewise, one responds differently to those who really want to break down the strict church-state barriers, as opposed to those who don't give a shit but want to draw votes from those who do.

This is also relevant to the debate over Jon Chait's argument from the New Republic that conservatives are deeply principled and unwavering, while liberals adopt to changed circumstances and emprical evidence. There's some truth to that, but that's not the whole story. I'll write a little more about that shortly.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 21, 2005 | Permalink


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I remember the "old north church" thing. I don't think it got much opposition but if it did it was precisely because it was presented by the press and the president's friends as a kind of poison pill. No one would have batted an eye if the federal government had stepped in and offered to pay for the church directly as a kind of historical thing. Instead we were specifically told (by we I mean people living in the boston area) that this was a kind of test case--if we would take money for something good we'd let money for something not good be disbursed more easily down the road. So, if there was protest, it was precisely because the government chose this as one of its first test cases for seeing if it could co-opt liberal opposition.aimai

Posted by: aimai | Feb 21, 2005 8:22:07 AM

'As a college classmate of mine's father once said, after a few martinis, "There hasn't been a good day in this country since Franklin Roosevelt became president." Those are their core beliefs.'

You knew my grandfather! However, he *had* core beliefs -- Martin Peretz (TNR, "Not much left") says we don't. I look forward to your response to Jon Chait.

Posted by: Bill Gardner | Feb 22, 2005 1:15:13 AM

The article says that democrats are "allergic" to faith.

Not true, but we do try and show some discernment, something totally lacking by the soul selling right.

I guess we should be so open that we sell our nation out to theocrats and fascists as the leadership of the conservative movement did.

Find and outline of what happened to our nation HERE

Posted by: noodle | Feb 22, 2005 12:40:07 PM

It is a subtle difference, but liberals have to respond in different ways to opponents who really believe that gay marriage is threatening to their value system, as opposed to those who don't give a shit about it...

I agree that it's a meaningful difference in understanding the opponents, but what difference in response do you suggest, other than cooptation of their goals? I mean, compassion I'm willing to coopt, but fear and selfishness less so. would like to hear how you imagine shading the responses.

Posted by: acm | Feb 24, 2005 2:52:12 PM

Kuos's analysis is accurate, as far as it goes–the opposition proabably overestimates the practical capabilities of the faith-based faction. It’s clear that the real Republicans–laissez faire monopolists–mostly do not give a shit about faith, except faith in money. They pander to the faith faction for their election contributions and votes. Kuos is wrong, however, on one main point, echoed by Mr. Schmitt, that the battle is over “fairly irrelevant symbolic fights.” Take a look at any United States agency web site and you will see a category on the main search page for “Faith Based Initiatives” or similar reference. These references are intended to demonstrate the integration of religious belief into the federal government’s programs and policies. With such integration we lose two important values: (1) a reality based system of government that evaluates policy on the basis of substantive product, not mere belief; and (2) a system that, for about 150 years, has not been controlled overtly by sectarian dogma. The latter point is qualified by the obvious role sectarian dogma underlies policy yesterday and today. When it becomes acceptable, however, to openly make policy based on sectarian dogma, without regard to reality based standards, we have slipped a very significant step away from a standards based system of policy and decision making and back toward a medieval system based on religious fantasy conjoined to brute military and economic forces. My point? It is important to resist this slouching toward Bethlehem in our policy formation and implementation. Symbolic fights are not irrelevant, at all; they are critically important to avoid the creep of the rough beast of religious dogma into a system where it marginalizes a significant minority of us, an directly impedes evolution of egalitarian principles that ought to inhere in our democracy, if it is to have life.

Posted by: Carl Varady | Feb 24, 2005 2:57:15 PM

Decembrist: Does this mean that (sometimes) we should embrace this notion of compassionate conservatism, presuming somewhere someone has the good faith to carry it through? Or is it just (at other times), a ideological catch phrase? To me, the phrase is not only contradictory, but is, when translated into practical political effort, impossible without the kind of manipulation to which you refer.

Posted by: Rwells | Feb 25, 2005 12:56:47 AM