I’ve set Pastordan on a tear with my little shout-out on Mike McCurry’s version of How the Democrats Got Religion. While it’s always fun to bait him whether or not it drives up traffic (but thanks, Dan), let me essay a serious response.
Soft-headed boomer that I am, McCurry’s account rings true in a way younger folk may not realize. Those of us who came into political consciousness in the wake of the Eisenhower Revival lived in an intellectual world far more suffused with religion than is generally recognized. Forget about the Niebuhrs and their neo-orthodox realism. What counted was the existential witness of Bonhoeffer et al. on the one hand and the neo-social gospel of the civil rights leaders on the other. One reason that the prophetic witness was so powerful in those days was that the priests of the 1950s had done their work well. There was a lot of spiritual energy in those batteries to discharge.
But discharged it was. And I challenge anyone to make the case that progressive politics after, say, 1975 had anything like the religious underpinnings of what had gone before. Sure, leading Democratic pols (including the Clintons themselves) continued to enact their faith in public, for better and sometimes for worse. But the sense that doing the right thing meant engaging one’s religious identity was far less widespread. McCurry’s point, let’s be clear, is not that Democrats ceased being religious. He didn’t, nor did Rahm Emanuel. But the religion tended to be privatized and, according to the secular lights of the era, only implicitly connected to a public agenda. Very possibly the self-righteous, Sunday School piety of Jimmy Carter soured Democrats on the exercise. Certainly the failure of the Carter presidency didn’t help. Whatever the case, Democratic Party politics began increasingly to depend on a secularist base–and for what it’s worth, there’s much to be said for secularist approaches to politics.
Now I’ve argued repeatedly in this blog that the narrative of Democratic religiosification has been oversold generally, and specifically with respect to the Obama campaign, which I believe got somewhat more credit for faith outreach than it deserved. Nevertheless, in his moral seriousness, his calls to service, and his readiness to connect both to a kind of religious calling, Obama harks back to something those of McCurry’s generation haven’t experienced since our youth. I wouldn’t call it wankerism.