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Two conventions, two nominees and a whole new culture war

Delegates bow their heads in prayer during the invocation at the start of the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich. Editors: This photo may only be used with RNS-FAITH-POLITICS published July 29, 2016.

PHILADELPHIA (RNS) Since the late 1970s, the political battle lines in the culture war have been clearly drawn and easily understood.

On one side, Republicans claimed a seemingly unassailable moral high ground built on appeals to faith, patriotism, family values, personal character and biblical standards of sexuality.

Democrats, on the other side, largely avoided engaging the GOP on its home turf, shunning anything that smacked of moralism and sticking to general principles about tolerance and respect for personal choices. Their bully pulpit was reserved for wonky arguments that Democrats were better at economic policies and running the government, and patriotism was often equated with militarism.

But by the time the closing gavel came down near midnight Thursday (July 28) on the Democratic National Convention, the entire battlefield in the culture wars had shifted — dramatically.

A week earlier in Cleveland, the Republican convention had nominated Donald Trump, a brash New York real estate magnate and reality TV personality who has been married three times and has spoken derisively of women, immigrants and Muslims. He once publicly ridiculed a journalist’s physical disability and he routinely delivers personal taunts on Twitter.

In Trump’s speech accepting the nomination, which the political neophyte had wrested from the establishment by riding a wave of economic anxiety and stoking populist resentment, he painted a dark, almost apocalyptic vision of America: “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country,” he warned, adding that “I alone can fix it.”

That sense of doom and gloom pervaded the entire GOP convention, and represented a stark contrast to the “morning-in-America” theme that Ronald Reagan, to name the most famous example, would strike even as he was warning against grave external and internal threats.

God also went unmentioned and virtually unrecognized in Trump’s speech, which made a passing reference to evangelicals who supported him in the primaries. Throughout the campaign Trump has struggled to speak convincingly or with any fluency about faith and his own beliefs and he made no attempt to elevate his God-talk game in Cleveland.

Nor was Trump, or any of the other speakers over the four days in Cleveland, much interested in traditional culture war topics.

Abortion was never cited in Trump’s 75-minute speech, the first time since 1980 that a nominee had passed over the topic — and few others at the convention raised what is a premier issue for Christian conservatives, a fact widely noted by anti-abortion groups.

Religious freedom, also a prominent agenda item for the religious right, was given short shrift and Trump went out of his way to vow to protect “our LGBT citizens.” Silicon Valley tech mogul Peter Thiel even delivered a prime-time speech in which he said he was “proud to be gay” and declared that “fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline.”

“Where are the values at the Republican National Convention?” a Catholic News Agency headline asked. The GOP “barely tried to pretend that its candidate cares about abortion, sexuality, or God,” as the Christian writer Ruth Graham put it in a Slate essay.

Trump’s convention speech “was almost entirely secular,” said Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, an evangelical and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. “Faith-based supporters were only mentioned as another interest group at the long trough of his promises. Larger religious themes that often inform American public rhetoric — human dignity, social justice, the possibility of redemption — were absent.”

Then came the Democratic convention, meeting in the birthplace of the American Revolution to crown Hillary Clinton as the first woman to head a presidential ticket.

Clinton and the DNC were initially concerned with appeasing the unruly fringes of the progressive movement launched by onetime rival Bernie Sanders.

But after the first day of restiveness the convention’s speakers increasingly spoke with the vocabulary of faith and moral righteousness and in the oratorical register of a tent revival.

After President Obama gave a rousing red-white-and-blue oration on Wednesday night declaring that Trump was neither very Republican nor especially conservative — many conservatives cast an envious eye at the Democrats’ approach.

“Take about five paragraphs out of that Obama speech and it could have been a Reagan speech,” tweeted New York Post columnist John Podhoretz. “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc — they’re trying to take all our stuff,” complained National Review editor Rich Lowry.

By the time Thursday rolled around, the Democrats were in full family values, American-as-apple-pie mode, and they were selling it to a liberal crowd — and a huge television audience — as the party’s natural stance.

Promoting the common good, defending the weak, providing good jobs, and working for equal rights for all were recast in biblical terms in a crescendo of faith-speak that scrambled the usual left-right categories and peaked with a fiery address by the Rev. William Barber, an African-American pastor from North Carolina known for a series of “Moral Mondays” protests for social justice.

“I know it may sound strange,” the charismatic Barber intoned to a chorus of cheers, “but I’m a conservative because I worked to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

African-American pastors and speakers often provided much of the convention’s spiritual uplift, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie noted, along with the contributions of other minority religious groups — and that was yet another statement that diversity was a sacred thing, a source of inspiration rather than fear.

After that came a retired four-star general, John Allen, flanked by other military leaders, who gave a full-throated defense of the U.S. military and an endorsement of Clinton as commander-in-chief that sounded like red-meat Republican rhetoric:

“The free peoples of the world look to America as the last best hope for peace and for liberty for all humanity, for we are the greatest country on this planet!” he shouted at one point.

And he was accompanied by regular chants of “USA! USA!” from the raucous crowd.

When Clinton herself took the stage, she hit all those themes and made sure to mention God, her Methodist faith, her love of country and praise for the military and law enforcement.

As many commentators noted, the Democrats were clearly trying to occupy some of the political terrain that was effectively surrendered by Republicans. “The last four days has been a journey from the left-most edge of the Democratic coalition to the right-most edge,” said MSNBC’s Christopher Hayes.

But more than political positioning or taking an advantage the GOP handed them, Democratic leaders were also redefining the terms of the battle — or perhaps recapturing a lost language of faith as a vehicle for progressive causes.

This effort went beyond the old idea of creating a “religious left” to counter the old “religious right.”

In this new-old vision, gay families are to be valued as much as any other family, helping single and working mothers is a holy duty, and defending one’s nation in the armed forces is an honorable calling — and for women, gays and minorities, as much as anyone.

In perhaps the most controversial reworking, abortion got far more play in Philadelphia than in Cleveland, though as a culture war motif of the left in which the right to abortion is almost sacred. Unlike past conventions, abortion opponents were effectively shut out.

“Democrats are learning to present conservative cultural arguments for positions that used to be perceived as subversive,” wrote Slate’s William Saletan. “Liberals aren’t always comfortable with this kind of talk. They’re skittish about religion, lifestyle norms, or anything that smacks of judgment. But judgment, like sex, is something we all do, even if we don’t admit it. We might as well do it right.”

All this could change by the next election cycle, of course. Politics is about winning, and if Trump wins in November the Democrats could well be headed back to the war room to reconfigure their strategy.

“This cannot last. The territory is just too broad, and some of it will have to be abandoned,” wrote The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

But if this new formulation carries Clinton to the White House, the GOP will have to figure out what remains of the culture war terrain to claim as their own.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

39 Comments

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  • Last night, Hillary Clinton said, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

    This morning, Donald Trump replied, “I think I have the best temperament, or certainly one of the best temperaments, of anybody that’s ever run for the office of president. Ever. Because I have a winning temperament. I know how to win.”

    It’s a good thing Trump said it three times, because that makes it really, really, really true.

  • The qualities needed to run for president are not the same qualities need to be president.

  • Trump said that after hearing some of the Democratic speakers, he wanted to punch out a few of them.

    There is the language of faith, morals, serenity, and peace.

  • Sounds like our friend Larry. He expresses such sentiments quite regularly.

    In fact, if I believed Larry was a man I’d imagine him as Trump spewing left-wing hate instead of right-wing hate.

  • You also must “rarely read his posts” like Max’s..:eh, Ben? ?

    Of course, that’s small potatoes compared with your recently expressed wish to watch us all being thrown into hell. Quite a winsome lot, you are.

  • Re “Donald Trump Goes After Grieving Mother Of Killed American Soldier”, an article at huffingtonpost-dot-com:

    It’s unbelievable how animalistically Donald Trump goes after good, caring, kind people who dare to speak out against him — against how he abuses others and disregards the U.S. Constitution.

    To borrow one of Mr. Trump’s recent beastly quotes:

    “I was going to hit one guy in particular, a very little guy. I was going to hit this guy so hard his head would spin. He wouldn’t know what the hell happened.”

    My sentiments exactly, “little guy”.

  • If the President made reference to “American exceptionalism…shining city on a hill… Founding documents…etc.,” I wish he would communicate that to the protesters who were outside the RNC chanting, “America was never great…America was never great.”

  • I too struggle with the temptation to toss a ripping riposte, not always successfully, but like you, am grateful when a someone quietly admonishes me for it.

  • Well you have a Republican candidate who is saying that various parts of the American population aren’t “real Americans” and frequently makes infantile jibes at his critics. This is not making America great. Its making it a laughingstock.

  • http://www.vox.com/2016/7/28/12281222/trump-clinton-conventions

    But in this year’s presidential election, the difference is more fundamental than that: The Democratic Party is a normal political party that has nominated a normal presidential candidate, and the Republican Party has become an abnormal political party that has nominated an abnormal presidential candidate.

    Simply saying that will raise people’s partisan hackles, but it’s not a partisan comment. Republicans know that Donald Trump is not a normal nominee. They know this isn’t what their 2012 convention looked like or how their 2008 convention felt. And while most Republicans fear Democrats keeping the White House enough to unhappily support Trump, it’s worth listening to what they’ve said about him.

    Ted Cruz called Trump a “pathological 1iar,” “utterly amoral,” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.”

    Rick Perry said Trump’s candidacy was “a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.”

    National Review, the flagship journal of American conservatism, said Trump “is a menace to American conservatism.”

    Rand Paul said Trump is “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag. A speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president.”

    A list like this could go on, and on, and on. But here’s the point: These aren’t normal political condemnations. This isn’t normal political language. Republicans know they’ve nominated a dangerous man. They tried to warn their voters in the strongest terms possible that Trump is unqualified, untrustworthy, and amoral.

    Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York City, put it simply in a speech endorsing Clinton. “Together, let’s elect a sane, competent person,” he said. That is what an endorsement sounds like when the choice shifts from left versus right to normal versus abnormal.

    There are some differences in politics that transcend ideology. This is one of them. Clinton, say what you will about her, is a normal political candidate who will operate within the normal boundaries of American democracy. Donald Trump is an abnormal political candidate; we have no idea which democratic boundaries he would respect, which conspiracy theories he would believe, which political enemies he would punish, which treaties he would honor.

  • My comment in this instance was not intended to reflect a ringing endorsement of Trump, your reply is not to the point, which is that extremism is not confined to the Right wing of the Republican Party, there is at least an equal amount of extremism in the Left wing of the Democratic Party. I suppose one could argue that the President should not be held responsible for the failure of those on the Left to reflect upon them.

  • The difference being the extremists on the left wing were just shown the door last week. The extremists on the right wing set GOP policy right now.

  • Shown the door of the convention perhaps, but not into the void, an election season is merely a season, the Democratic Party remains laced inextricably to some degree with extreme Leftists.

  • The fact that this pseudo-intectual secularist political party is temporarily adopting the language of religion and morality ahould surprise no one. Democrats are very adept at the corruption of language whenever it serves them, and they’re now trolling for the votes of disaffected evangelicals. They don’t actually take positions that uphold morality or spirituality as we traditionalists would define them. To the contrary, they further corrupt the language of spirituality to justify government largesse. “Social Justice” is just Marxism flying under radar: it has a religious ring to it for mainstream Christian hangers-on, but at it’s core it means that government is your Source, not God! Government will save you–who needs God when a Clinton administration will provide everything for you for free . . in exchange for your soul!

  • The Clinton/Kaine ticket is clearly preferable to the Trump/Pence ticket on the best ethical and social justice values of both religious and secular voters. — Edd Doerr

  • Yes. but he did not “click his heels,” and say, “I am in Kansas.” He man is in serious need of psychiatric help.

  • Son, I refuse to waste my valuable time arguing with you. To quote Barney Frank, the former congressman from my home state, “Arguing with fools is like arguing with the kitchen table.”

  • I wasn’t particularly inviting argument. It’s implied here that anyone with a counter-position that’s based on better facts, is welcome to contribute. Pa, you’ve admitted that you (and Barney) have none!

  • Good to have a psychiatric analyst here. Especially one who can diagnose via observation through the media, and (I’m guessing) never having personally met with or interviewed Trump in a clinical setting. Good job, Doc. (or should I say, Judge?)

  • Pronounced from on high, by the renowned and undisputed expert, Edd Doerr.

    Too bad those Clinton/Kaine words are all just high sounding rhetoric that are never enacted in the way they are implied. By the time they get to policy, they are draconian and totalitarian measures that destroy our culture. But don’t mind me, I’m just one of the millions being crushed by the “progressive” views of the Left.

  • Former Representative Elliot; meet Judgeforyourself37, another com box psychiatrist/psychologist, who also has the ability to analyze and diagnose people’s mental health from comments made either in the media, or here, in com boxes on the internet. You two ought to go into practice together. You could form an LLC.

  • Barney Frank! You mean the crooked deceiving co-conspirator with Chrisopher Dodd that blocked every attempt to regulate loans and create oversight of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac that ultimately led to the derivatives collapse of financial institutions (on weak and lying mortgage backed securities) in 2008, that we are STILL paying for, by the way (how much do you get in interest on your savings? What is it now, .001 per dollar?) Yeah, quote him. He was your pal.

    He sounds like the kind of guy when you confront him with his wrongdoing, he gets mad and accuses you of lying (and of being a fool?), then huffs out.

    Guilty, guilty, guilty.

  • Oh, and the timing would be just great, as the new Clinton administration will no doubt mandate something like this–both as an effort at full employment of the under employed, and a way of dealing with anyone dissidenting from their sacred “truth!” All you has-beens with too much time on your hands, desperately need something else to do!

  • What specifically are you complaining about? And do you really think that the Trump/Pence ticket is any more than a trip back to the Middle Ages?

  • So the choice is clear a hubris businessman or a megalomaniac sociopath who like her husband is a pathological liar.
    Choice is obvious to me and voting for Hillary is a vote for evil.

  • “And together you and Sabeltodo2 can get a group discount on much needed therapy. Please do take advantage of it.”..said the pseudo psychologist…

  • I am complaining about people such as yourself who make pronouncements about their political viewpoint using words like “clearly” which suggests there can be no other rational opinion but theirs, which is clearly not the case….

  • More and more Americans who can read without moving their lips are realizing that the Trump/Pence ticket is virulently toxic. Trump sounds increasingly unhinged each time he opens his mouth. Pence is a disgraced governor who was sure to lose his reelection bid and made it very clear that he disdains women’s rights of conscience and religious liberty, the public schools that serve 90% of our kids our constitutional principle of church-state separation, and Article i, Sections 4 and 6 of his own state constitution. The Clinton/Kaine ticket, on the other hand, is one of the best in recent history. — Edd Doerr

  • Is that really all that different from the entirety of the Republican convention, where they said that America is a total mess?

  • I meant to compliment the President (faintly, I’ll confess); he can’t be held accountable for those who would not reflect thoughtfully on his words, if they even heard them. Allow me to ask this sincerely; in a broad sense, do you generally find cause for cheer in the present state of the Union? We seem to be at each other’s throats (or I am merely projecting, seeing things that aren’t really there?).

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