Friday, 19 September 2008

Evangelicals haven't been this excited since Reagan

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I just got off the phone with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family (reviewed in the next NH), editor of the excellent Revealer site and a veteran evangelical watcher. I was trying to persuade him to write something about US politics and religion after we know who will be the next Prez, but I also asked about how it feels in the US at the moment in relation to the elections, and what he told me I feel I really should pass on:

As a (albeit Obama-sceptical) Democrat he was worried. Why? Because the evangelicals are excited about Palin and very motivated to deliver a Republican victory – having been completely uninterested before Palin popped on the scene. How motivated? They haven’t been this exited since Reagan, Jeff told me. Then he corrected himself. In fact they haven’t been this excited since William Jennings Bryan ran for president in 1896. (Bryan, you will recall, was the man who attacked Darwinism in the Scopes trial, and was a supporter of Prohibition).

Then Jeff recalled how only six months ago American "experts" were suggesting that the old Moral Majority Religious Right coalition, who provided the ground support for Reagan and Pat Robertson, was dead – about the same time that they were promoting Lehman Brothers as a cast iron investment. They were as accurate on the first as on the second.

With McCain, the presumptive most-powerful-man-in-the-world, as no more than an “avuncular figure”, it's all about Palin, who has unleashed latent evangelical commitment. Dormant networks are coming back to life, and newly fired-up activists are back out in the field.

Put it like this, Jeff said: what Obama activists don’t understand is that youth and enthusiasm isn’t enough. Imagine the scenario: a young Harvard student, an Obama activist, goes down to Ohio to get the vote out. He takes a van down to the local old folks home, tries to persuade them to get aboard and then has to check the whereabouts of the polling station on his iPhone, since he doesn't know the area. Contrast this with the McCain/Palin activist. A local resident, politicised since the days of Robertson and Falwell, from the local area, active in church and welfare, they go every week to the old folks home with doughnuts and comfort. They know the residents and they know where the polling station is. Which one is more likely to win the vote? Multiply this scenario, say, one hundred thousand times and . . . You don’t need to be Robert Peston to figure out the result.

Jeff also had a word of warning for Obama supporters in terms of religion – remember, he cautioned, that rather than overturning Bush’s faith-based social initiatives Obama has pledged to increase them. Either way you look at it these are dark days for American secularism.

No matter who wins, hopefully I can persuade Jeff to write something about the winner, and what they will owe the religious lobby after 4 November. Meanwhile let me refer you to James Crabtree’s (pre-Palin) analysis of the role of religion in the election – he never fell for the line that the Religious Right was a busted flush.


AT said...

I'm not sure Sharlet's analysis is entirely valid - comparing the influence of small-town preachers to universities, especially when many universities have unique access to local sensibilities and when many small towns are split by rival denominations, isn't good math. Besides, American evangelism, while a terrible phenomenon, has also become a bit of a trumped-up bogeyman - especially over here, where Brits are all too happy to buy into negative stereotypes about just about anything.

On the other hand, if there's a supernatural belief that sways more than any other, it's that Palin is a demon sent from some obscure hell. And if anyone can tap into the very worst of America and bring that to the polls, it's her.

Jeff Sharlet said...

"Small town preachers"? There are literally hundreds of megachurches that are bigger on their own than the small town I grew up in. Some are the size of small cities. Evangelicalism has been made a bogeyman, yes; but not because it's not powerful. Rather, it's differently powerful than secular media understands.

And there is not even a shadow of a doubt that evangelical Christians are a massively huger influence on American politics than all the universities combined. Students are, essentially, a non-factor in elections.

AT said...

Fair enough point - reducing the evangelical movement to small-town preachers is simplistic. But reducing universities or their influence to the voting power of students is just as simplistic.

Universities, or even education full stop, isn't overshadowed by the evangelical movement. To take universities alone, we're talking about an educated rhetoric that influences university towns and university cities and has thousands of recognizable and influential academics and teachers constantly writing and speaking. Obama's ability to bring students into the fray is a small part of a larger liberal force indicated by 'all the universities combined'.