News & Views from 465 California Street

The Presidential Election

Clint Reilly

Commentary on the 2008 Presidential Election centers on the presumption that the Christian Right will again play a decisive role in the outcome. I disagree. What often occurs in politics has happened to the religious right. In the 2004 election, Evangelicals invented a fairy tale White House where Republicans were Good and Democrats were Evil. Christian denominations were convinced by their preachers that a President John F. Kerry would undermine Christian Values – even though Kerry is a life-long Catholic. The religious right dominated the 2004 vote. A united Christian movement mobilized behind President George W. Bush, who became a symbol of fundamentalism’s war on a materialistic, permissive culture. Christian volunteers helped with phone banks and door-to-door voter contact programs that put Bush over the top in key swing states.

A Sunday October 28 story by David D. Kirkpatrick in The New York Times Magazine under the title The Evangelical Crackup begins, “After the 2004 Election, evangelical Christians looked like one of the most powerful and cohesive voting blocs in America. Three years later, they can’t find a candidate – and their leadership is split along generational and theological lines. How did it come apart so quickly?” Kirkpatrick cites such examples as the forced resignation of multiple pastors by disgruntled congregations fed up with too much partisan preaching and the defeat of the Pro-Republican leader of the Southern Baptist Convention for excessive partisanship. Growing hostility to the War in Iraq, economic uncertainty, and spiraling deficits are driving evangelicals away from the Republican Party. Whatever the reasons, the Christian Right is no longer the homogeneous army that spearheaded the Bush victory in 2004.

As often happens when a new group of activists plays inside the political arena, naïve illusions are shattered. A recent Pew Research Center Study showed that Bush’s support among Evangelicals has fallen from 90% in 2004 to about 45% today. At this moment Rudy Giuliani, a pro-choice, pro-Gay Rights Republican, who has been married three times, is the Republican frontrunner. The image of the Christian Right as a monolithic voting bloc was further undermined by Televangelist Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani for President. Why would Pat Robertson endorse Rudy Giuliani? The hypocrisy is transparent.

The separation of religious principles and the rule of law is critical in a democracy. The religious totalitarianism of modern Iran is a case study of the problems created for democratic freedoms when fundamentalist governments impose religious imperatives on an entire population.

The Catholic Church heavily influences public policy without attempting to dictate it. In 1893 Pope Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum, articulated key principles of Catholic Social Teaching. These principles have been expanded by subsequent Popes and by the United States Catholic Bishops to speak out forcefully for the rights of workers to form unions; to end poverty in America; to create affordable housing programs; to end racial discrimination; to stop the death penalty and end the Iraq War. There is no doubt that the moral authority of the Catholic Church and the personal credibility of Pope John Paul II led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in Poland and contributed heavily to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

But the death penalty still exists. The Iraq War rages on. The Catholic Church, however, continues to preach and persuade. The United States Catholic Bishops issued a draft statement last week on faith and politics which read “We bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”

The Catholic Church maintains neutrality during partisan elections but strongly advocates for moral principles. The leaders of the Christian Right should abandon partisan politics before disgruntled believers exit the pews.

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