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Jacques Berlinerblau Jacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...

A collaboration with Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive's On Faith site, The God Vote explores the role of faith in this year's election. It is featured here as well as on Georgetown/On Faith.

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GOP Needs a Broader Christian Coalition

November 1, 2007

Tonight I will be in New York City speaking about religion and politics at the New School for Social Research How I am delighted to return to my ancestral homeland! How I am looking forward to dialoging with my co-presenter, the ever so thoughtful scholar of faith and faithlessness in the public sphere, Professor Wilfred McClay! And, oh, how I dread being subjected to Amtrak’s patented Fall-of-Saigon boarding techniques at Union Station! This surfeit of emotions may, understandably, detract from the quality of the forthcoming post.

One point that I wish to explore later this evening concerns the dissimilarity between the 2004 and the 2008 presidential campaigns. This is not only a conceptual problem for the punditry, but something of an embarrassment. Many of us in the Faith and Values Industry assumed that the lessons learned in the previous election could be effortlessly applied to the present one. The working hypothesis was that in 2008 Evangelicals would again play a decisive role in crowning the president.

One mistake was not considering the possibility that the 2004 presidential campaign was the equivalent of a lunar, nay, a total solar eclipse. That race involved the concurrence of highly unusual electoral events and bodies: The first was that the GOP fielded a candidate with an almost preternatural appeal to Conservative Christians. The party coupled this with extraordinarily efficient outreach and tactics geared to those voters.

The second was that the Democrats fielded a candidate who scared the bejesus out of Evangelicals. They compounded the error by failing to develop any coherent strategies or initiatives that could stanch Kerry’s bleeding among them. Only in hindsight can we understand how the Yin/Yang of Bush/Kerry galvanized these Christians to a degree that will be nearly impossible to replicate in 2008.

This brings to mind another truism which pundits failed to observe back in those heady days of “God Gap” news items and headlines about the Democrats needing to “Get Religion”: Evangelicalism is a dynamic, even volatile, social movement. Although it could have been apparent to anyone familiar with Protestantism’s (rather admirable) proclivity to generate internal dissent, not many envisioned how fractured and tensile this lucrative quarter of the American electorate would become. This quarter of the electorate, after all, was comprised of not one but many distinct denominations. The possibilities for dissensus were immense.

That a generational conflict was brewing was understood by few. That the entrenched leadership--the vanguard of the “values voters”-- was losing its ability to establish movement-wide discipline was not anticipated. That Evangelicals were an ideologically heterogeneous lot was not properly ascertained either--especially by many liberal commentators who viewed them as slightly less independent-minded than, let’s say, a grazing herd of wildebeest.

Which brings me to a final observation: Excessive entanglement with one religious constituency may be hazardous to your party’s health: I wonder if some in the GOP are starting to re-evaluate its nearly three-decade affiliation with the Religious Right (the Religious Right, for its part, is conducting its own internal review).

Don’t get me wrong. Pandering to religious voters is utterly sublime when the constituency in question unites, en masse, behind you (as Evangelicals did for Bush in 2004). But it is the opposite of utterly sublime when the constituency starts to fall apart. James Dobson’s recent threat to decamp from the GOP is, at the very least, a headache for party higher-ups. But if it actually came to fruition it would decimate the GOP’s chances in 2008.

And then there are the brand marketing issues. The heavy lifting for a Republican in the general election will consist of convincing swing voters, especially undecided Democrats, that the GOP is not an appendage of the Conservative Christian movement. Much in the way the Democrats were urged to speak to religious voters in 2004, a reverse scenario may ensue in 2008. Republicans will be suspected of harboring a theocratic will to power. They will be advised to reach out to those I have called the “secularly religious” and the pundits will write articles with titles like “Republicans Need to Speak to Voters about Separation of Church and State.”