It's nearly impossible to talk about the future of the GOP without hearing an opinion, one way or another, about the future role of "the Religious Right" in the party. Some would argue it's time for the GOP to drop talk of God, that religion has poisoned the party and has turned away Independents and moderates; others say maintaining a focus on Christian values is essential to the survival of the Right.
But in Barack Obama's 2004 address at the Democratic Convention, he remarked "We worship an awesome God in the blue states...", and he's right - it's not just in the "red states" that folks are pouring into churches tonight to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
So since we're in a spiritual time of the year, what better a time to do some serious reflection on the role that Christianity should play in the Republican Party? For the GOP to position itself as an exclusive club for the devoutly evangelical is to forfeit elections for years to come. But is there a place for God in the Republican Party?
But when we think of Christianity in our politics, what do we immediately think of? We think of angry protests over Proposition 8 in California. We think of the left angrily denouncing Rick Warren's selection to offer a prayer at Obama's inauguration. We think of angry clashes over abortion. We think of angry parents having angry battles over the teaching of evolution in school. We think of putting up the Ten Commandments in courthouses and lawsuits over nativity scenes. Both sides are guilty of stirring up anger in the name of moral values.
But if those debates are how the Republican Party has supposedly "cornered the market" on Christianity, we sure haven't been dealing with the kind of Christianity that I saw tonight at church, that millions of Americans deal with as a powerful force for good in their everyday lives.
For all of the emphasis on winning over Christian voters by appealing to a narrow set of "Christian values"- defending marriage, protecting the unborn, teaching Intelligent Design in schools [see comments for edit] - I'd much rather see Republican (or, in fact, all) politicians speaking about the "Christian value" that I think matters just as much if not more to the vast majority of Christian Americans - love thy neighbor.
The idea of "love thy neighbor" isn't an exclusively Christian belief. And we shouldn't be an exclusively Christian party.
Yet we as a party have painted ourselves into a corner. Part of driving a "base strategy" means too often we've turned religion into a divider instead of a uniter. We've focused on the aspects of Christianity that fracture while all but ignoring what Republican policies can do to make sure Americans can afford to buy a Christmas tree, to have a roof over their head and a healthy family to celebrate with.
And I'll tell you what - the tree and the roof and the healthy family matter more to most Americans than the divisive issues we've primarily used to bring Christianity into our political discourse.
Moreover, can we claim to be a party that represents Christian values when we run campaign ads that are willfully malicious, disingenuous, or misleading? When we are focused on tearing down our opponent without discussing how our own personal values shape the sorts of policies we'd like to pursue? From a political perspective, our brand as the party that isn't afraid to sling mud and go to nasty extremes to win elections (without discussing solutions) has been built up and continues to eat away at the American people's trust in us. ("Compassionate conservatism" didn't pan out so well.)
And setting politics aside, I'd like to think we can do better.
(On a related note, stop what you're doing right now and go run to Amazon.com and buy yourself a copy of Morris Fiorina's Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.)
The notion that every human life is sacred is an important one, and not one that should be cast out of the party, I'll readily agree. But the dignity of human life is important for the unborn as well as those born and living among us as our neighbors - the alone, the sick, the needy. We need advocates for the unborn in our party, but so too do we need an agenda that focuses on the dignity of human life and mutual respect in our inner cities, in the third world, in our schools. We can't focus on one and ignore the other without essentially cherry picking when we decide we care about human life.
Is it easier to appear "compassionate" when you can simply say that the government should provide everything to everyone? Sure. The Left has an easier tale to tell in many regards. The idea of an activist government lends itself to painting a pretty picture of a world where every child gets educated by a great teacher in a class of 12 students, where every American can go to the doctor whenever they need to and receive top-quality health care regardless of their ability to pay, where the poor are given a home and a job.
Wouldn't that be great? And there, you have an outcome that the other side has articulated. And it's a pretty good one. It's one where there's a lot of "loving thy neighbor" going on, even if the love is government mandated.
We on the Right know that the policies the Left will push to achieve these outcomes only lead to dependency and dead-ends, a stagnant economy and a stagnant nation. We know that Americans are at their best when they are doing good in their communities, and that private citizens and organizations have a powerful ability to make change in the lives of those in need. But it can be tough to reconcile believing that everyone should be treated with respect and compassion, that everyone has a right to a happy, healthy life...while also saying it's not the government's job to give it to everyone or to construct a perfect (and "perfectly" managed) society. OK then, if not the government's job, whose job is it?
I think this is where Matt Moon's earlier posts about the "opportunity society" come in - we on the Right don't think government is the be-all end-all answer to all the ills of society, but we can give everyone a chance. And we as a party need to talk about these issues instead of running in fear and ceding the ground to the Left because we don't know how to have a conversation about what we believe about poverty, about health care, about education. If we want to connect to Americans and their values, we can't pretend these issues don't matter or that we can just talk about tax credits and try to change the subject.
Do our candidates and leaders need to wear their religion on their sleeve? No. Religion itself is a very personal matter to many Americans, and the blend of religion and politics that is intended to demagogue and divide will hopefully find its way out the door. A focus on religion as a litmus test for our leaders, as an exclusionary aspect of partisanship, is doomed to failure.
But many Americans have a place for spirituality in their lives, whatever shape or form that comes in, and there is something important driving millions of Americans to go to church tonight. God matters to America, and matters in politics - just maybe not in the way we've been lead to believe. The season of hope, happiness and love isn't just a Christian phenomenon; it's something everyone can take part in, and it's a spirit I hope won't be forgotten as soon as the presents are all opened.
This debate will go on and on and on in the coming weeks as we prepare to select our RNC chair and to set our party on a course to bounce back in 2010. The role that religion, and in particular Christianity, will play in the party will hopefully receive a healthy amount of attention and discussion.
And in the spirit of the holidays, I'd encourage Republicans to remember that there's a lot more to the Christian faith than the hot-button issues that we're told drive religious voters.
Tonight in church, I heard a lot about hope, about happiness, about giving and love for one another. If we want to move forward as a party that takes sound values to heart, I'd suggest these values as the best place to start.