Jesus, McCain and the GOP: a former Republican ponders the future of the party

Most folks don’t realize it – even people who know me fairly well – but I used to be a Republican. Back when I was younger and, one supposes, more naïve about the relevance of certain kinds of economic theory, I was a pretty mouthy GOPper. I voted for Reagan twice and Bush the Elder once, and while I can defend myself by saying things like “Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis,” I think it’s now clear that history will regard those voting decisions as, at best, insufficiently considered.

As time passed and I grew more … educated … I became more and more conflicted. There were things about Republican philosophy that appealed to me: fiscal responsibility was one, and also a live-and-let-live approach to how people pursued their own lives. Social libertarianism, in other words. And while most now regard me as pretty darned progressive, the fact is that I remain committed to fiscal responsibility and am more socially libertarian than I ever was.

I recall the point where I realized that I couldn’t be a Republican anymore. In 1988 I was in Iowa, getting my MA in English at Iowa State. I went to my neighborhood GOP caucus and supported, quite vocally, a man who wasn’t even running: former Tennessee Senator and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, an old-style moderate who’d made his mark as – dare I even use the word? – a statesman. When it came time to vote, Baker scored three of us: me, this girl I was dating, and another guy I somehow won over through silver-tongued rhetoric.

The majority of the votes, of course, went to Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson. Doubt began to nip at the heels of my consciousness, as I took a good hard look at the drooling pack of evangelical mouthbreathers I was in bed with.

Something remarkable happened next: I got elected to be one of the precinct’s representatives to the county convention. How remains a mystery. Maybe everybody else was busy with animal husbandry chores that day. Not really sure. In any case, I showed up for the convention and within a couple votes had identified and hooked up with the rest of the moderate delegates. All four of them.

Here’s how the day proceeded, pretty much. Drooling evangelicals present a variety of plank proposals, 99% of which are alternately worded approaches to banning abortion. Me and the rest of the moderates debate intelligently and passionately while the social conservatives stared blankly – if you’ve ever watched a herd of cattle as they all watch you back, you have a pretty good idea of the level of the intellectual engagement in the room that day. Motion passes, next item. Oh, look – they moved the comma in this one.

Periodically one of us unwashed moderate types would offer an amendment. I’ll let you see if you can figure out how that went.

Throughout the day we didn’t talk about education. We didn’t talk about the real impact on working people that the Reagan/Bush/voodoo/supply side policies were having. We didn’t talk about … well, hell, we didn’t talk about much other than abortion. Ban abortion. Repeal Roe. Establish a litmus test for judicial appointments that they’ll work to overturn Roe. Ban funding for anybody that doesn’t condemn abortion. Lather, rinse, repeat. And there was precious little attempt to pretend that the rationale for banning it had anything to do with anything besides Jesus.

I voted for Bush I in that election, mainly out of disgust for Dukakis, but also out of some faint, desperate hope that Bush the President would more closely resemble the guy who cracked off “voodoo economics” on Reagan than he did Reagan’s bitch. Maybe he’s just been pandering to get elected, went the thinking, and once he does he’ll revert and be his own man again.

Yes, there are problems with my rationalizations. Lots of them. I didn’t know then what I know now. In any case, I don’t recall being much of a Republican after the 1988 Story County GOP Convention. Whatever I was or had been, whatever the party was or had been, it was now painfully clear that me and them didn’t agree on much, if anything, past “Dukakis looked like an idiot riding in that tank.”

The Jesus Problem

I grew up Southern Baptist. In the rural South. So I knew what I was looking at and dealing with when I started encountering the Robertson crowd. I had long since parted company with any Christian organization, and I was instinctively troubled by the Religious Right’s co-option of the GOP. I knew all I wanted or needed to know about conservative preachers and their whatever-preacher-says followers. Robertson. Swaggart. Bakker. Falwell. A legion of ambitious lesser lights. Something was going powerfully wrong, and while the evangelicals weren’t the whole problem, they were a big part of it.

Conservativism no longer seemed to have any room for live-and-let-live. This virulent new Crusader ethic didn’t trust people to act on their own relationships with God. If you prayed and God told you that having an abortion (or voting for a Democrat) was the right thing to do, then you hadn’t been listening to God at all. It seemed to me that Protestantism, which was built on that individual and personal relationship with the divine, had been hijacked by an institutional, political dynamic that pronounced a collective, organizational Truth that was every bit as Catholic in its thinking as the Inquisition.

If you took that whole separation-of-church-and-state thing literally, as I did, these new developments were even more troubling. The vast majority of people at the Story County Convention weren’t there to help select a president. They were bent on electing a Preacher-in-Chief, and their present-day analogues have only been emboldened by 20+ years of being taken way too damned seriously.

Some people are probably reading this and thinking that I hate Christians, which is pure silliness. My issue isn’t with honest Christians, whether I agree with them theologically or not. It’s with the theocratic agenda. I have no real concern with what a person believes. I’m equally fine with a person living in accordance with those beliefs so long as they lead him or her down a better path.

But when the decision is made to project those beliefs on the larger culture via political means, we’re no longer talking about religion. We’re talking about strongarm, despotic politics of the most arrogant sort imaginable. And there I draw a hard line.

For people like me, the last 25-30 years have been distressing. Which brings us to Election 2008.

John McCain and the Wide Right

The uneasy dance between Sen. McCain and the GOP’s social conservatives over the past few months has been a lot of fun to watch – kinda like seeing Larry Flynt and Phyllis Schlafly being forced at gunpoint into an arranged marriage. Put simply, they really don’t seem to much care for each other, but neither sees a viable alternative. A lot has been written about this tension of late, too. Have a look at the Google:

And so on, and so on, and so on….

The Los Angeles Times takes a good hard look at how all this is playing out in Ohio, a key battleground state, and what they find is bad news for McCain.

As the architect of Ohio’s ballot measure against gay marriage, Phil Burress helped draw thousands of conservative voters to the polls in 2004, most of whom also cast ballots to reelect President Bush. So Burress was not surprised when two high-level staffers from John McCain’s campaign dropped by his office, asking for his help this fall.

What surprised Burress was how badly the meeting went. He says he tried but failed to make the McCain team understand how much work remained to overcome the skepticism of social conservatives. Burress ended up cutting off the campaign officials as they spoke. “He doesn’t want to associate with us,” Burress now says of McCain, “and we don’t want to associate with him.”

That meeting and other run-ins with conservatives, some Republicans say, have revealed the depth of the challenge facing McCain: mollifying Republican constituencies that have distrusted many of his policy positions, in order to build the machinery needed to push voters to the polls in November.

If McCain tried to gather his volunteers in Ohio, “you could meet in a phone booth,” said radio host Bill Cunningham, who attacks the Arizona senator regularly on his talk show. “There’s no sense in this part of Ohio that John McCain is a conservative or that his election would have a material benefit to conservatism.”

In some ways, though, the “Ohio disconnect” pales to another story bubbling up in the press – that McCain has refused to meet with Rev. Billy Graham.

Conservative news outlet Newsmax is reporting that its attempts to facilitate a meeting between John McCain and longtime pastor-to-the-presidents Billy Graham have been rebuffed by the McCain campaign.

Here is Newsmax writer Doug Wead:

In recent weeks I have been involved with Brian Jacobs, a Fort Worth, Texas, minister and consultant to the Billy Graham Association, to broker a meeting between McCain and Graham. In May, we contacted the McCain campaign with an offer to arrange such a meeting, as we had done between candidate George W. Bush and Graham during the 2000 election.

In response to their overtures, McCain’s director of scheduling sent Wead and Jacobs an emailing saying, “Senator McCain appreciates your invitation and the valuable opportunity it represents. Unfortunately, I must pass along our regrets and do not foresee an opportunity to add this event to the calendar.”

The hesitance on the part of the McCain campaign may be because of McCain’s past experiences with pastors this campaign season: he’s had to dump endorsements from John Hagee and Rod Parsley after controversial statements from both men made it politically impossible for McCain to stay associated with them. (Caveat: there may be no hesitance at all; Newsmax may have gotten this story wrong.)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

As the story goes on to note:

Billy Graham isn’t Hagee or Parsley. He has had a relationship with every president since Eisenhower, Republicans and Democrats alike. He has been thoroughly and completely vetted; no one would blame McCain for meeting with him. The campaign’s reported decision to avoid Graham may be part of a novel strategy for a modern Republican presidential candidate, one that jettisons the Religious Right in favor of moderates.

Now, there’s some question about the validity of this story, as a Mother Jones update explains. In this version, McCain didn’t rebuff Graham, he blew off the two men who were trying to broker the meeting, which is a different thing entirely. This is plausible, especially given the statement of Graham’s representative.

But it’s also possible that we’re seeing nothing more in the response than damage control. If you’re inclined to believe this theory, you’d certainly take as evidence the fact that McCain has been the nominee for quite some time now, that during the entirety of his campaign he’s had a serious evangelical problem, and yet despite all this he still hasn’t reached out to the man who’s pretty much been the nonpartisan, noncontroversial gold standard of American evangelical Protestantism for decades.

A sit-down with Graham might not solve all McCain’s Jesus problems, but it damned sure wouldn’t hurt anything.

The Fracturing of the GOP?

All of this is potentially very good news, because anything that separates church from state is in the best interests of the Republic. The Wide Right doesn’t have a candidate they trust and respect (unless you count Mickey Mouse) and the only candidate they have is, at best, pursuing their support with something less than his entire heart and soul. I suppose this gives us a number of scenarios to contemplate, but let’s look at a couple of the more obvious ones.

First, say the evangelicals sit things out in November and McCain loses. Good news, because now they’re in no place to influence to the conduct of government for at least a couple years. These could be very important years as Obama does things like appoint judges who have read the Constitution.

Second – say they sit things out and McCain wins anyway. While McCain winning would be a Very Bad Thing® in most every way, what would be the lasting impact on the American political scene if it became clear that you don’t need the Unwashed Trailer Park Bible Thumping Legion in order to win? Hmmm…

Interesting question, that, and if you could permanently extract from the political process those who do not believe in the Constitution it might almost be worth enduring four years of a faux maverick presidency. Operative words there: “if” and “almost.”

In any case, the unholy bedfellowship of Trailer Park and Country Club has been horrible for the country, and if McCain can be the crowbar that pries them apart, even if only temporarily, we will owe him a debt. This doesn’t mean we should vote for him or love him or believe a word of his hypocritical bullshit, of course, but we’ll take our victories however we can get them.

And a revised Republican Party that’s marginally more focused on our nation’s real problems would hopefully be better for us all in the long run. It would potentially make the Democrats stronger, smarter and more responsive and the new GOP would perhaps be a little less dangerous than it has been.

Some of the country’s better ideas historically have either come from Republicans or been helped along by the party. Getting back to those days wouldn’t be the worst thing imaginable, would it?

20 replies »

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  2. So much of what you say I identify with. One big difference is that I see “drooling evangelicals” on one side hoping to project those beliefs on the larger culture via political means. The problem is I also see the same type crowd on the other side equally as drone-like also hoping to project thier beliefs on the larger culture via political means. The people of our country increasingly are voting to give up liberty and freedom to the federal government in order to impose their beliefs on the others (tyranny coming no matter which side wins). What is a good libertarian to do? I have to agree with you that it would be a great thing for the country if McCain breaks the Republicans from the religious right’s power grip. However, the Democrats are even further along the path to tyranny. The difference is they are selling it as a nice, smiley-faced tyranny that will take care of everybody. All tyrants only care about getting the power at all costs regardless of what they have to do to get it. Unfortunately, we are heading that way faster with the Democrats than with McCain. I can only pray that both parties break from the race to tyranny and move back towards individual life, liberty and the right to pursue happiness. I fear that both parties are more likely to keep moving away from liberty and more towards inflicting beliefs on others.

  3. Bill: While there’s no question that you can find ideologues on “both” sides of the aisle, there is simply no comparison to be made between the religious right and those you’re talking about. None.

    Whatever hard-headedness may be coming at you from the left, it is political, it is secular, and right or wrong makes its argument based on the empirical. We can debate all we want, and we SHOULD debate, but nobody on the left is looking to legislate your morality based on “faith,” a word that has been much over-valorized of late.

    You got faith, that’s fine, but rational people don’t make policy on mythology. Period.

  4. In any case, the unholy bedfellowship of Trailer Park and Country Club has been horrible for the country, and if McCain can be the crowbar that pries them apart, even if only temporarily, we will owe him a debt.
    You had me fooled up until this part. The truth is the liberal do the exact same thing with ther agenda that you say the Christian conservatives do. Basically it’s all about who you agree with. If you agree with liberals you see conservatives has trying to ram their agenda down your throat. If you agree with conservatives, liberals are ramming their secular religion down your throat. Both parties are trying to shape the country. It’s all about who you agree with.

  5. I truly hope that the phony tie between the Republican party and the religious right is finally severed. Then people can see the Republicans for what they really are, a pack of money-grubbing, corporate-worshipping, gun-loving, neo-nazi, environment-hating black-shirts. Religion has obfuscated that (as it was intended to do). Ever since Reagan I have been disgusted with these intolerant truth-hating bigots who dared to claim that they were the repository of all that was virtuous, and the irony of their wedding to a political party that cares nothing for the humble virtues esposed by the man they claim to follow.

  6. Yes Dr. I agree with you regarding the faith crowd. My views look beyond this one issue. I dislike the religious right equally as you do. My problem is much more with the centralized power of the federal government. When it come to the abortion issue I am not as conserned about what the impact of a president’s veiw on abortion is. The real concern we all should be looking at is that we (citizens) are giveing up our liberty in many ways to the federal government. That is not what our country is supposed to stand for. I also disagree with you about the extent of ideologues on the left. However, your point about debate is the real issue. A huge section of our country is not open to any debate. I only wish there was some way we could get both a Republican and a Democrat that did not want to take my liberty away.

  7. Political religion with its Rovian “message discipline” is designed to condition people to obediently do what they are told and to act as one.

    To adequately comprehend American politics and the American right-wing authoritarian cult, it is important to acknowledge their main goal; their animating basic, essential, assumption that all their nonsense is engaged in service to…..the Queen, as it were, of their game of Chess. And THAT is the total concentration of all legitimate authority in Property, rather than in the voters (mob rule to them !).

    All the religion, bigotry, bullshit, fear mongering, lying, cheating, corruption, and assorted evil bullshit is all geared to that one goal.

  8. Wow, where one person sees democrats a monolithic bloc pursuing tyranny, I see democrats as a discordant party, with many vies competing for attention. I like domocrats because they don’t march in lockstep like the republicans have been for years. I want disunity in a party, not soviet style blind obediance that we had for the past 20 or so years.

    The writers of the constitution recognized that governance brings in ambitious and ruthless people. They saw it in the monarchies in Europe, and read about it during their studies of Latin & Greek. So they devised system that separated power, so no one person or cabal could impose their will on the citizens. Worked pretty good until cotporations came along with their billions. Bush, Rove & that criminal gang just used the money to reward & punish to gain compliance from the other republicans.

  9. I fail to see on the left any movement toward Christian sharia law, i.e., execution for non-Christian religious beliefs and/or homosexuality. I have yet to see the secular liberal call for killing people because of what goes on in their minds and hearts, either.

    Many more people are nominal Christians who would disavow Christian Dominionists and Christian Reconstructionists. Much like the more moderate German citizens ignored the Brownshirts and believed they could not possibly gain power or pose a threat to their personal safety.

    Perhaps nominal and semi-secular (OK with gays, no stoning of adulterers, OK with evolution, etc.) Christians see their more dogmatic and fervent brethren as necessary saber-rattlers who can be reined in easily and won’t be of harm to their own more lukewarm Christian beliefs. (Should it ever come to that.)

  10. 80 per cent of americans know that america and real christians do not condone torture, killing innoccents for profit , stealing from others just because you can etc.. What we have in our govt. now are false prophets. We have been warned they were coming and they are here. Thankfully its over for them..

  11. No administration in the history of the United States has centralized power at the Federal level, and more specifically and even more narrowly, at the EXECUTIVE level than the current Bush/Republican administration.

    No congress has spent more recklessly or pushes through more earmarks than the Republican congress that followed the Gingrich revolution of 1994, which by the way, was fomented with promises of fiscal responsibility. This was particularly evident between 2000 and 2006 when the Republicans went HOG wild with pork legislation knowing full well that the Republican President would not veto it no matter how outrageous.

    No political party in history has violated the Constitutional separation of Church and State like the Republican Party has over the last 28 years.

    The Republican Party has been a three issue party (taxes, abortion, anti gay rights) now for almost 30 years and two of the three issues have been 100% based on the belief that States’ and the Federal Government should go into people’s bedrooms and doctor’s offices to heavily regulate the personal lives and choices.

    It seems to me that just about every issue that GOPers claim as their reason for being Republican in no way applies to today’s Republican Party and this is directly and specifically attributable to the hijacking of the party by fundamentalist Christians on the conservative religious right (which ironically are anything BUT fundamentally Christian or conservative).

    I think this is essentially what this commentary is stating.

  12. Great to see the saga of your political and, to some extent, your spiritual evolution, Dr. S.

    Lorne Babcock Sr. speaks for me:

    All religions are fruit of the same poisonous tree.

    I don’t think many women are aware of this. But if a man goes to church, synagogue, or mosque voluntarily, odds are that church has a hidden — or not-so-hidden — political agenda. Whether it’s anti-abortion and gays for Christians or anti-west for Muslims or anti-Muslim for Jews. There has to be that “value-added” to religion for a man to go to a house of worship.

    Great post; deserves to be widely read.

  13. I don’t consider myself an intellectual but I know many people who do consider themselves to be intellectual. It sounds as if you might fit this category. If not you sounds to pride yourself as a thinker. Much of the political left seems to feel this is their lot.

    I see a lot of derision and condemnation toward those who do not agree with you (politically and theologically) but I could not identify where your logical thought process was to drive you away from the GOP. Was it just you did not like the people you were associated with? Do the ideas still have merit? i.e. if you could be conservative and have itellectuals and thinkers join you, would you still be with the GOP? Or are there actual point by point arguements (in an aristotelan definition) as to why you feel conservatism is not a good idea? For instance (on the opposite side), Socialism has failed everywhere else in the world–why are we still trying to get there?

    Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems like it your leanings are more feeling driven versus being thought through.

    BTW, I am only commenting on your comments as to why you left the GOP. You have every right to cheer on and think what you will about Jesus, McCain, and the GOP. But ideas always have consequences.

  14. David said – “Socialism has failed everywhere else in the world”

    Not at all true. Socialized medicine is the norm outside the United States, and while we pride ourselves on our medical facilities, we’re WAY behind industrialized nations with socialized health care systems on infant mortality and deaths from respiratory illness. We’re only average on deaths from diabetes, we’re in the bottom third in life expectancy at birth and at age 65 for both men and women, we’rein the bottom quarter for acute care beds. The only thing we kick butt in is MRI and CT machines – medical technology.

    In nearly every way that matters, Canada’s much maligned socialized healthcare system is better than ours.

    My data, in case you care to inspect it yourself, is from the OECD October 2007 report on health care.

  15. “Socialism has failed everywhere else in the world–why are we still trying to get there?”

    It is failing in the UK. Socialised medicine is being redefined and is increasingly supported by private enterprise (however they disguise it), the benefits culture has led to unemployable Brits who refuse to work – so we have to rely on migrant workers to fill jobs – from the once Red Zone of Eastern Europe and that great experiment in mass comprehensive education for everyone is failing…so the private sector is being looked to, called upon and being ‘blackmailed’ to help out.

    Socialism can work only if we were all created equal and the same in the first place – and this is patently absurd for humans are different and diverse with differing strengths, intelligences, hopes, aspirations and priorities.

    I could not be a Socialist because as soon as I see someone else not doing their bit but managing to con the Socialised system in place (and they do it in their millions here) I think crap what is the bloody point? The rat-like cunning of the human mind will sniff out the goodies every time…

    State as the parental provider is not a good thing, IMO.

  16. David: Whether by design or accident, you’re playing a game that’s either intellectually dishonest or simply inattentive. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    You’re asking me to justify my decision to walk away from conservative ideas as though I didn’t. Reread my post. There’s no ambiguity there. No, I don’t delve deeply into a point-by-point refutation of supply-side economics, for instance, but read more of what I’ve written at S&R and draw your own conclusions. In any case, it doesn’t require a rocket surgeon to look around the economic landscape right now and see what voodoo economics hath wrought.

    No, the crux of my post is pretty straightforward. Whatever ideas the GOP may once have had, by 1988 there were no ideas left. The party had been reduced to three items of dogma: ban abortion, smear the queers and slash taxes. And the Jesus stuff was center stage.

    Even if I grant that the GOP had been a font of many brilliant ideas once upon a time, it doesn’t matter, because it abandoned them all.

    So please, let’s skip the attempts at redirecting the conversation in a direction where I might be more productively mired down. My point is pretty damned clear.

  17. Obama is ahead of Mccain. John must be very clear about the main issues. The main issue is the economy. You cannot pick up one population of people and slam it down on top of another without economical impact. Put up the fence and fine employers who hire illegal people. Secure the borders. If Mccain comes out on this side of this issue he will be the next president. If not he won’t.