Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Reaching the Christian Wedge

Henry Fonda: Democratic Party symbol

Sorry that my Nightblogging has been, well, “light.” I’ve been traveling. I have been reading, however. Ellen Dana Nagler has an important post on The Constitution vs. God up at Blogging of the President. This is a piece that deserves serious consideration. In it, she suggests framing the Democrats as the Party of the Constitution. I think this form of ‘branding’ deserves far more serious consideration than the logos and slogans being circulated by Oliver Willis and others. As pleasing as some of these may be, they strike me as items meant to please those of us in the "echo chamber", not as tools that can truly change hearts & minds or win elections.

The Constitution, however, has a powerful folk appeal in this country. Our foundational documents, and the stories of our early national heroes, can still mist the eye of at least some Americans in every demographic bracket (this one included.) Branding the party as Ellen suggests would pit one set of icons against another – Ben Franklin vs. Moses, Honest Abe vs. Joseph and Mary, etc. It’s not that I personally see a conflict between the real values represent by each iconography. I see them in harmony, but the “Christianists” place one symbology over the other for political purposes. That’s why I see the brilliance in fighting back this way.

I wouldn’t identify the counter-movement as “secular liberal” as Ellen does, if I had my way. Here's why: part of the great appeal of the Religious Right, in my opinion, is the fact that it speaks to the heart while liberalism speaks to the head. That’s what excites me about this idea: It presents the seed of a liberalism, or progressivism, that speaks to the heart too. Recall John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” where the director of classic Western movies recounts the early days of the martyred President. In the final scene, Henry Fonda as young Abe steps away from his wife’s grave, and walks over a hill into the gale winds and flashes of a thunderstorm the audiences can’t see but can foretell all too well. Don’t you want that yearning, idealism, and tragic heroism calling people to your side?

I think Democrats often make the mistake of thinking of evangelical Christian voters as a monolithic bloc. Many of them may be sentimental, ill informed, or simplistic, but that’s true of all groups. They may vote against their own economic interests for what they consider to be higher values – but what’s nobler than that? Many of them are idealistic and patriotic, but I consider myself to be those things too. I believe that some of those voters will return to the Democratic Party if they can feel good about themselves for doing so. I call them “Christian Wedge" voters, because I think Democrats can use them to drive a wedge between the Republican party and its Red state base.

There should be a major initiative to bring Christian Wedge voters back to the Democratic Party, using the heart as well as the head to attract them. It wouldn’t take too many conversions to let the Democrats win some of those close elections for President, and especially for the Senate. (See my post on close Red-state Senate races and debunking that self-defeating realignment myth.) I think the ‘Party of the Constitution’ approach could work, especially if it’s presented as being in harmony with, rather than in opposition to, basic Christian values of love, tolerance, respect for strangers, and concern for the poor.

Plus, liberal or not, I’m a sucker for John Ford movies.