The Religious Industrial Complex

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Faith in Public Life.jpegAs noted in this space, a few days ago Religion Dispatches ran a piece by Sarah Posner taking a mildly dyspeptic look a what has somewhat nastily (and hyperbolically) been termed the “Religious Industrial Complex” (RIC), by which is meant the small agglomeration of people and institutions that have sprung up over the past several years to help the Democratic Party reach out to–and, of course, round up–people of faith, values voters, social conservatives, those people, or whatever else you’d like to call them.
The burden of Posner’s critique was that the RIC has helped shaped a media narrative suggesting (wrongly) that there is some kind of new evangelical left out there dedicated to a broad agenda and led by the likes of Rick Warren and Joel Hunter. Her point is that these evangelical leaders are not who they’re made out to be, that RIC has sold its progressive religious birthright for a mess of conservative pottage that, in the end, had precious little electorally to show for it.
Yesterday, under the byline “Katie Paris and the Faith in Public Life Team,” one of the charter members of the RIC (and a nicer bunch of folks you’d never want to meet) responded, insisting a bit defensively that its approach has too gotten results and that in any event it’s a good thing for progressives to seek common ground with conservatives. To which Pastordan retorted in an extended post that the efforts of Faith in Public Life et al. amount to less than meets the eye. Paraphrasing Jesus, he demands, “Show me the math.”
Actually, there is a bit of math on the RIC’s side. Much to the surprise of a number of observers (including this one), Obama ended up picking up some significant support among evangelicals, especially those at the younger end of the age scale–just the cohort that voted overwhelmingly for George Bush in 2004. Of course, it’s open to debate how much the RIC’s efforts contributed to that result. My sense is that the tectonic plate of American evangelicalism is indeed shifting, and that the efforts of (let’s call them) center-right evangelical leaders to expand their agenda has legitimated the shift. That’s why the old bulls of the evangelical right have gotten so hysterical about them.
That said, there’s little question that the RIC and its journalistic proponents (Amy Sullivan, E.J. Dionne) have sometimes let wishful thinking run away with sober judgment, hopefully announcing the evangel of what has not (yet?) come to pass. The problem here is not with the RIC, which is simply going about the traditional political business of grabbing for folks in the middle of the road and spinning the results. Sticking strictly to your prophetic guns, as Pastordan urges, amounts to a lefty version of the Rovian strategy of playing to the base. (Sorry, Dan.)
The real difficulty is with the journalistic narrative. At this point in time, the GOP has much more of a problem with the less religious than the Democrats have with the more religious. And the less religious are rather more numerous these days than the more religious. So while it may make good sense for partisan Democrats to push for a bigger piece of the religious pie, the real story for the next cycle is how Republicans reach beyond their “social conservative” base. And as of now, there’s no Secular Industrial Complex to show them the way.
Update: Response of Sarah Posner to an initial response of mine.