Conceding to the religious right

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Matthew Yglesias argues on tactical grounds that liberals should concede some minor issues to the religious right:
Now the poll doesn't directly state what about the Christian right is well regarded if its stance on abortion isn't. It does, however, provide at least two examples of Christian right caucus that, unlike abortion restrictions, really are popular. One is letting public schools teach creationism along with evolution. Another -- and this one, unlike the evolution thing, is really wildly popular -- is putting the ten commandments up in public buildings. You should look at the data yourself and see exactly how popular this is, because I think a lot of readers will have trouble believing it. Public support is totally overwhelming, opposition is very much a marginal view. But opposition is highly concentrated in a single politico-demographic group that Pew rather unhelpfully labels "liberals." These liberals don't exhaust what we normally think of as the category of liberals. Rather, it's people like me -- white, reasonably prosperous, highly educated, secular folks. That describes me, the vast majority of people I know, and probably describes the vast majority of my readers and the vast majority of the people we know. Our views on lots of stuff are perfectly mainstream and, even where not always held by most people are at least broadly present in America. But not about the ten commandments. It's just us. Other sorts of Democrats are against us. Swing people are against us. Republicans are against us. Overwhelmingly.

If you ask me this and related issues would be fruitful areas for compromise. I wouldn't say posting ten commandments on public buildings is a good idea. It strikes me as slightly silly, mildly wasteful, and vaguely offensive. But it's honestly not a big deal. Abortion and reproductive rights matter. A lot. So does trying to maintain forward motion on the gay rights front. So do the basic economic issues, so does foreign policy. Ten commandments? "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance? Taxpayer dollars financing Christmas displays in the town square? That stuff doesn't really matter. I'd be happier were it otherwise, but if that kind of token gesture toward the concept that this is a Christian (or, as they say, "Judeo-Christian," whatever that means) country is what it takes to get support for a progressive political agenda, then sign me up. And I think most liberals will agree with me on that. The location of stone slabs is, like the precise number of bullets you can put in your ammo clip, not something that's worth losing elections over. Now where I'll probably lose your support is when I say that I don't even really care about the school prayer question, but speaking from experience I was forced to engage in sectarian Christian prayer in my (non-public) school and it was fine.

Now, it's perfectly clear from the Pew data that Matt cites that there's a lot of support (75%) for posting the 10 commandments and I'm willing to concede that whether the 10 commandments are posted in school is relatively small beer (though I don't think I agree about creationism), but the argument that this is a good idea depends on the assumption that moving a little bit towards the religious right will pick up that much support for Matt's progressive agenda. This seems to me to sort of implicitly assumes that there's a vaguely bell-shaped curve with the median centered somewhere around the question of whether the 10 commandments should be displayed, so that changing one's position would let you pick up a substantial number of votes.

But if it's for instance, bimodal, with 75% of the population wanting to have mandatory prayer in schools and the other 25% being against any religious displays. In that case, budging a little bit on the 10 commandments isn't going to gain liberals any significant amount of support at all. With this distribution, unless you're willing to concede on mandatory school prayer, which I doubt most liberals are, there's no set of moves along this axis that buy you much. Now, I'm not saying that I know which distribution this country has. Unfortunately, the Pew data doesn't really let us distinguish them. But wouldn't you want to know before making this kind of tactical compromise?

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11 Comments

Also, its F@#)$(* UNCONSTITUTIONAL! Do people not get what the establishment clause means? Do people not get that a public endorsement of the 10 commandments means? That many of the 10 commandments monuments are F@#)$*( movie promo items?

Nick, people "get" that the establishment clause means whatever nine people in black bathrobes say it means. That may be one reason why this issue gets so many people's backs up.

Where I grew up, prayer in public schools was a common phenomenon. As a small child, I attended a school where I was one of maybe three or four Jews, and mornings started with a Christian prayer (and in kindergarten, hymns). It was awful. I hated it. I deeply oppose prayer in public schools.

But it would never occur to me to convince pro-prayer people by pretending that a two-hundred-year-old document that was never taken to mean anything of the kind until a few decades ago actually requires that the overwhelming majority of the population bow meekly to my interpretation of it.

Then there are the game theoretic implications of letting your opponent know that you can be moved by inches. It's hard to see how signalling that you're prepared to give in on small issues makes it likely that you'll win the game. I'd like to see some better strategic justiication than simply that it will relieve some pressure.

I don't understand the basis of Mr. Yglesias' reasoning.

"Ten commandments? "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance? Taxpayer dollars financing Christmas displays in the town square? That stuff doesn't really matter."

Is he out of his mind? That stuff really does matter, just as much as anything else. I don't think that the 1st Amendment is open to deliberation; by men in black bathrobes or anyone else. The wording is quite clear, what gets my back up is how people refuse to see it. The separation of church and state has been broken many times and we are fighting what seems to be a losing battle back towards the line. Giving up on one front to advance another is a genuinely bad idea.

I think I'm with Dan on this one. Prayer in public schools is really bad policy, but it sure does seem funny that it magically became unconstitutional only when a majority of the supremes thought it should.

Of course, now that the right is choosing so many judges, we'll soon hear people from the right explaining that the constitution is a living document to be interpreted in light of current values and sensibilities, while people from the left demand adherence to precedent and original meaning.

--John

I thought it was interesting to see the way abortion splits most groups. You'd never guess this from the rhetoric.

--John

Actually, John, I believe "original meaning", interpreted with sufficient artistry and selectivity, more than suffices to allow conservatives to push their political preferences through the courts, while maintaining the fiction of strict fealty to the Constitution and allowing them to continue to lambaste liberal politicization of the judiciary. If you follow Randy Barnett's blog postings, for example, you'll discover that there's a lively debate among "originalists" about the "original meaning" of various clauses of the constitution. And to an outside observer, this debate reads a lot like a public policy debate between various flavors of conservative/libertarian.

There is a growing movement to encourage Democratic candidates and causes -- especially gay causes -- to back religious conservative movements which support marriage. These include religious/conservative proposals to make divorce more difficult, abortions rarer, criminalization of contraceptives, and making adultery illegal.

I think its a fascinating strategy. And it makes me smile.

The issue is not that some percentage of people in the "middle" will find the Democrats becoming slightly more hospitable than the Republicans if the Democrats make concessions on public displays of religiosity. That's the fallacy of a one-dimensional political spectrum. The real issues is that there are plenty of people who are in general agreement with the Democrats on lots of issues - mostly economic, though sometimes on war and peace issues, who are repelled by the militant secularism of the national Democratic Party, and thus vote Republican, because the Democrats' attitudes to public displays of religion show a profound disrespect for that segment of the population.

If the Democrats are willing to compromise a little, and show that aren't such fanatic anti-Christians that they can't abide an occasional display of the ten commandments, they may be able to regain the votes of some significant number of people who believe similarly to them on other issues.

Hmm... I understand this point in principle, but I'm old enough to remember when the wedge issue that demonstrated the Democrat's unwavering hostility to Christianity was that they were against school prayer. I remain unconvinced that any set of concessions the Dems would be willing to make would stop the Republicans from moving slightly more towards a state religion and using that to lambaste the Dems.

See, I don't think its "the Democrats' unwavering hostility to Christianity," I think its the christians' unwavering hostility to democracy. But that's just wacko leftist liberal talk.

Anthony,

You have a very valid point. However, you paint the democratic party as fanatic anti-christians, but the reality is that religion has no place in politics; the reason that they are always fighting the christian influence is that the christians are always the largest and most heard group that are trying to force their religion into this country's political workings and onto it's citizens. The problem lies not with the democrats (not saying the party doesn't have more than it's share of problems), but with the christians.

Our forefathers sailed from England due in no small part to the immense and irrational power the church had over the government. We fought off the British armies, yet welcomed the church with open arms. Not long after the formation of government here, religious corruption was already snaking it's way in. So, the constitution was amended, the first amendment denoting the separation of church and state. Despite those efforts, it wasn't long after Jefferson's death that some jackass managed to get "in god we trust" put on the money. Just like back in England.

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