Political Debate: How the Religious Right Stole It

I’m not old enough to remember the days that Congress enjoyed sustained approval ratings above 70%. I’ve never known a Democratic Senator that was able to debate a Republican on the floor and then discuss strategies for synergy over drinks at night. Instead, I’ve grew up during the era of the so-called Conservative Revolution. American political forces are polarizing: Bill & Hillary Clinton, George Bush, Newt Gingrich, Edward Kennedy. So what happened?

Perhaps I will sound biased, but hear me out. The root of the change seems to be, in my mind, the rise of the religious right. When I listen to many of the Republican candidates speak on healthcare, they are quick to contrast American values with European values. When professors at my university bring up world politics, they inevitably point to Europe as the opposite of America. But there are conservative and liberal countries in Europe. Much like America has “blue states” and “red states,” Europe has “blue nations” and “red nations.”

So what is the x-factor? What delineates between American conservatism and European conservatism? The religious right. For the past several decades so-called social conservatives in America have taken a stranglehold to the Republican party. So why is this important?

Because I want to see and experience real debate between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. I want to be able to hear why conservative economists applaud Reaganomics. I want to listen to a conservative defend realpolitik. And I want to watch a liberal and a conservative engage on welfare and social security.

But I don’t. Perhaps it is that I am from a small, rural, heavily Christianized part of Ohio. But rather than hear these debates, I hear about abortion and gay marriage. Last year I represented College Democrats at my college in a debate with Campus Republicans. In the midst of debating taxation, my opponent broke down in tears, exclaiming, “It doesn’t matter what tax breaks the poor get if they don’t know Jesus!” What? Seriously?

What is ironic is that perhaps the most publicly and devoutly Christian president in modern American history was Jimmy Carter. Conservative or liberal, Christian or not, it would be hart to refute the notion that Jimmy Carter is a genuine, evangelical, Christian believer. So why did the evangelicals abandon him in 1980? Why would a Bible-believing evangelical vote against one of their own in favor of a man with questionable religious beliefs?

Abortion. Jerry Falwell. Newt Gingrich.

Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority galvanized Christians, particularly evangelicals, on the issue of abortion. Unfortunately for Carter (who is personally opposed to abortion, mind you), his party was on the wrong side of the equation. Christians came out in droves to support Ronald Reagan, the savior of unborn human life. Before long, the once solid south for the Democratic party was safe territory for any Republican candidate. Ironically enough, Reagan was easily much less devout than Carter.

At the same time, Newt Gingrich was rising in power in the minority of the House of Representatives. But Newt, everyone’s favorite former history professor, didn’t like being in the minority. And so he organized conservative Republicans and began an assault on Democrats, largely using religious rhetoric to get there.

As a liberal-to-moderate Democrat, I see great potential for my party to regain the White House this November. If the Republicans nominate a Mike Huckabee or a Mitt Romney, I see my part winning rather handily. On the other hand, if the Republicans smarten up an nominate a John McCain, I think there will be a close, hard fought contest.

So naturally, I should hope the Republicans nominate Huckabee, yes? Wrong. I would love to see John McCain win the nomination. I would love to see McCain engage Clinton or Obama on economics and foreign policy. I would love for America’s political system to return to civilized debate about the issues rather than peripheral topics. I want to vote for a politician because he has the best plan for America, not because he is or is not religious.

Incidentally, if McCain were nominated, my vote would go from being a sure bet for Democrats to being a toss-up between the two candidates.

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