Listening to Ralph Reed

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When Ralph Reed talks, I listen. On the religious right, truer words were never spoken than when he told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot 20 years ago, “You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night”–and if you don’t believe that, unzip the body bags of the 2002 leaders of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

The other day Ralph published a piece over on Patheos that pretty much nails the current contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

So it is that a presidential campaign that is largely about the economy
is nevertheless deeply shaped by issues of faith and morality. The
evangelical vote, which comprised
an astonishing 44 percent of GOP presidential primary voters in 2008,
is poised to play a larger role than ever. The media, which has been
publishing the obituary of religious conservatives prematurely for a
quarter century, will discover once again that social conservatives are
here to stay. Their return from a long exile from civic engagement in
the late 1970s was not a fad. Nor was their deep conviction that America needs moral and spiritual renewal to return it to its founding principles.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Of course, journalists hate la même chose, and the religious right has been such old news. In the midst of the Great Recession, the Tea Party looked like une chose





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différente, so it’s taken until recently for the punditocracy to acknowledge what we in the religion-and-politics biz have seen for a long time: that the Tea Party is all about white evangelicals, aka the base of the Republican Party.

This time around, the new twist is the dominionist-Christian reconstruction meme, which has sparked a debate that will serve–as debates sometimes do–to promote a more realistic appraisal of the issue at hand. Between Religion Dispatches’ Julie Ingersoll on the left and the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat on the right, we’re beginning to make some progress towards a realistic assessment of the significance of Rushdoony & Co.

But even as Douthat (and Lisa Miller, at WaPo) push the same-old, same-old line, let’s not forget Reed’s hint that while evangelicals remain the thing, real change has taken place in America’s religious order since the religious right became a national force three decades ago. For example:

* The Supreme Court has significantly weakened the Establishment Clause by permitting the use of public funds to underwrite religious primary and secondary education (via vouchers) and and by allowing individuals decrease their taxable income by contributing to funds that support such education.
* Pro-choice Republicans have become pariahs in the national party.
* “The separation of church and state” has been abandoned by most white evangelicals as a guiding principle.

These are not indications of what Douthat calls the “persistent disappointments and defeats” of religious conservatism. They are the opposite. And they point in the direction of the kind of faith-based moral order that, pace Reed, has little to do with the American republic’s founding principles but lots to do with what theocrats–those who want God’s law to rule–everywhere desire.

Update: For a useful discussion of the subject, check out this colloquy between Anthea Butler and Sarah Posner at RD.