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:
- the Times tells us this morning that “McCain Extends His Outreach, but Evangelicals Are Still Wary“;
- in the Post, Count Novakula examines “McCain’s Evangelical Problem“;
- UPI notes that “McCain [is] wooing conservatives in low-key way“; but
- a new conservative freakbat group isn’t having any, encouraging its people to write in Mickey Mouse instead.
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?