Fred Clarkson responds to my priests v. prophets piece over at Religion Dispatches, and as Clarkson broadsides go, this one is pretty tolerable. Boiled down, he accuses me of 1) impiety (making light of the struggle); 2) orthodoxy (buying into the conventional narrative); and ignorance (failing to recognize that the vote-getting strategy of the commongroundniks, aka the Religious Industrial Complex, is predicated on the false belief that there are votes out there to get). I plead 1) guilty; 2) a little guilty; and 3) not guilty.
1. Mea culpa, but it’s not just that I have a congenital inability to take spiritual politics as seriously as the combatants do. What we’re talking about here is a tempest in a pretty tiny teapot.
2. Well yes, it’s not news that the Religious Industrial Complex (RIC) is about politics–electoral and legislative. My point, however, was that its critics to the left aren’t about political strategy, but about holding its feet to the progressive fire. If that weren’t the case, Clarkson would be offering some rejoinder to my point that the religious left is lacking in troops. Prophets are not measured by the size of their following but the truth of their witness. I expect that even if they were persuaded that the RIC strategy was well founded, they would stick to their ideological guns. And deserve credit for doing so.
3. That said, Clarkson’s substantive claim that the commongroundniks are hunting for a quarry that can’t be caught needs answering. For starters, there is solid evidence–check it out here–that Obama made solid inroads among younger evangelicals, inroads that were disguised in the aggregate figures by the fact that he lost ground among the oldest evangelical cohort. Going forward, it’s not an unreasonable bet that the RIC strategy of friending evangelicals can reap electoral dividends. Whether there are Catholic votes to pick up via a common ground approach is less clear, since (as I’ve argued as recently as yesterday), a presidential candidate’s position on abortion makes no difference in how Catholics vote these days. But what the prophets need to recognize is that the politics here are not just presidential. Faith in Public Life was heavily involved, for example, in creating We Believe Ohio, the progressive clergy coalition that helped spike the guns of a very active religious right in Ohio in 2006–resulting in the election of a Democratic governor and senator. And remember pretty pro-life Bob Casey, Jr.’s victory over Rick Santorum that same year? Like it or not, the RIC approach is very much of a piece with Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy so beloved of progressive Democrats these days.
None of this, so far as I am concerned, is meant to suggest that Clarkson et al. shut the hell up. Prophets are supposed to be without honor in their own country, among their own relatives, and in their own homes. Who needs honor?