THE GORILLA IN THE PULPIT:

Why the GOP needs to rethink its narrow religious affiliations

 

November 20, 2008

 

By Eric Mader

 

Has the Republican base become a liability for the party?  Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker yesterday published a no-nonsense piece in the Washington Post analyzing this touchy question.  If Parker is right, the Republican formula of tipping the balance by rallying the Christian right may no longer be viable in future.  

 

The "base," of course, refers to just this group: America's culture-warring white evangelicals, mainly "good small town folk" who can be counted upon to nurse a grudge against science, separation of church and state, foreigners, homosexuals, Democrats, and much else besides.  This is the demographic McCain had in mind when he chose Sarah Palin.  The Alaska governor was his attempt to "reach out the base."

 

Parker points out that the Republican Party is now in a bind because, since the 1980s, it has needed this base of voters to win elections, but, in recent years, mainstream voters and independents have become increasingly turned off by the base's religious bullying and anti-intellectual extremism. 

 

To show the kind of talk that strikes many Americans as inappropriate for our leaders, Parker quotes Palin musing about a possible run for president in 2012.  On November 10, Palin said:

 

I'm like, okay, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I'm like, don't let me miss the open door. Show me where the open door is. . . . And if there is an open door in (20)12 or four years later, and if it's something that is going to be good for my family, for my state, for my nation, an opportunity for me, then I'll plow through that door.

 

As Parker puts it: "Let's do pray that God shows Alaska's governor the door."

 

Palin's musing will strike many voters as inappropriate on at least two counts.  First, it shows the Alaska governor speaking about a decision to run for high office as mainly a matter of God "showing" her something, as if running for office were a prophetic calling of sorts.  Most Americans don't think of political office this way.  Americans have had enough of leaders who imply they make policy based on direction communications from the Holy Spirit (cf. our decision to invade Iraq). 

 

Second, Palin's musing is lame because it is not the kind of English educated Americans expect from those who would hold the highest offices.  The sloppiness of Palin's English is directly linked to the sloppiness of her thinking.  Palin's sentences are grammatically mixed up because, before she even opens her mouth, her thinking has already mixed up things that should be clearly separated.  Namely: her own kind of faith in God is not her role in our government and her role in our government is not her family life.  It is clear to many listeners that Palin pays little heed to these fundamental distincitons.  The more one hears her speak, the more one feels sorry for the people of Alaska.

 

We live in dangerous times, and Americans have perhaps finally realized that their own leaders can be a big part of the danger.  Irresponsible military or economic policy can lead us directly to the edge of disaster.  The Republican base, for many voters, is perceived as a tangible threat.

 

Fortunately, GOP insiders are also starting to realize that the fundamentalists have gained too much sway over their party's platform.  Parker's column points to the demographic realities behind this new thinking.  We can be thankful for this shifting center in the electorate.  America is a nation founded on diversity, on freedom of belief or disbelief.  It is not a theocracy, and hopefully we'll never have to face a government that pushes it closer to being one.

 

Which brings me to one final point about the Republican "base" and why I think the term is especially apt, and should give us pause.  First, base as an adjective means "low."  As Parker writes: "[The GOP] has become increasingly beholden to an element that used to be relegated to wooden crates on street corners. . . . [The party] has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows."  The GOP base is indeed low in this way.  If you don't think so, just go ask Sarah Palin about dinosaurs.

 

But also, there's an important designation in the international political arena that might be useful in helping us understand what this American "base" is really all about.  In Arabic the term "al Qaeda" means simply "the Base."  I would say this is more than just a coincidence or a blithe irony.  Comparing the American "base" to the Muslim "Base" is extreme, to be sure, but there's a parallel even so.  Just as the violent Muslim "base" won't rest until it has overthrown all secularism in Muslim countries, so I believe our own fundamentalist Christian "base" won't rest until they have rewritten our Constitution according to their own narrow interpretation of the Bible. 

 

We should keep an eye on the "base," and we should celebrate the fact that its sway in our political life has been lessened by these recent elections.

 

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