Religion and politics for Democrats

Michael Gerson:

The Democratic Party has undertaken an ostentatious outreach to religious voters, creating a Faith Advisory Council and cultivating clergy around the country. But these efforts might be more credible if Democrats were not simultaneously trying to incite conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Louisiana -- and managing to offend both groups in the process.

According to a recent television ad run by the Louisiana Democratic Party, the leading Republican candidate for governor, Bobby Jindal, has "insulted thousands of Louisiana Protestants" by describing their beliefs as "scandalous, depraved, selfish and heretical." Jindal, the attack goes on, "doubts the morals and questions the beliefs of Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals and other Protestant religions."

The ad is theologically ignorant -- Methodism and the others are not "religions," they are denominations. The main problem, however, is that the ad stretches the truth so phyllo-thin it can only be called a smear.

Jindal -- a convert to Christianity from a Hindu background -- has none of the politician's typical reticence on religion. "I'm proud of my faith," he told me in a phone interview. "I believe in God, that Jesus died and rose. I can't divide my public and private conscience. I can't stop being a Christian, and wouldn't want to for a moment of the day."


This Democratic ad is not merely a tin-eared political blunder; it reveals a secular, liberal attitude: that strong religious beliefs are themselves a kind of scandal; that a vigorous defense of Roman Catholicism is somehow a gaffe.

This is a strange, distorted view of pluralism, which once meant civility, respect and common enterprise among people with strongly held and differing convictions. In the liberal view, pluralism means a public square purged of intolerance -- defined as the belief in exclusive truth-claims and absolute right and wrong. And this view of pluralism can easily become oppressive, as the "intolerant" are expected to be silent.

On the receiving end of those expectations, Jindal has given these issues considerable thought. "This would be a poorer society," he told me, "if pluralism meant the least common denominator, if we couldn't hold a passionate, well-articulated belief system. If you enforce a liberalism devoid of content, you end up with the very violations of freedom you were trying to prevent in the first place."

On the evidence of the Louisiana ad, Democrats have learned little about the religious and political trends of the last few decades. For all its faults, the religious right built strong ties between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants on issues such as abortion and family values, after centuries of mutual suspicion. Evangelicals gained a deep affection for Pope John Paul II and respect for Catholic conservatives such as Justice Antonin Scalia. And conservative Protestants recognize that secularist attacks on Catholic convictions are really attacks on all religious convictions and could easily be turned their way.

"The most passionate defenders of my beliefs," says Jindal, "have come from people who don't share my beliefs." In one account in the Times-Picayune, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, David E. Crosby, gave this reaction to Jindal's writings: "Anybody who reads this whole article and ends up angry just needs to grow up." That is a good definition of genuine pluralism -- an adult respect for the strong convictions of others.


Watching the Democrats engage in religious politics is like watching a white lawyer trying to do rap for his jury argument. It is just hard to be convincing. The hit piece on Jindal would have been called "Swift boating" if he were a Democrat or possible a "smear" which is another one of the left's pet phrases. Whatever you call it, right now it looks like a desperate act that is counter productive.


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