JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
Majority of religious voters in U.S. now feel religion is "under attack"
A dangerous trend emerging in the "God Gap" (source: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).
If last week's right-wing ugliness is any indication, Republicans are undergoing a massive revival of faith -- not faith in God, but in the advice of overpaid Republican consultants who are again telling their clients to attack Democrats as "anti-religious."
The reason is likely more than the old canard about church attendance as an "indicator" of voter affiliation (e.g., the more you attend church, the more you vote Republican). Instead, a new statistic has emerged from the 2006 election data that seems to be guiding the smear tactics of the Republicans: a majority of Americans with strong religious beliefs now view themselves as the victims of discrimination.
So even as Democrats made some gains amongst religious voters in the last round of elections, authoritarian conservatives continue to gain ground by convincing huge Americans that religion is under attack.
The "God Gap," in other words, is getting nasty -- and if last week is any indication, things are about to get much, much worse.
"God Gap" Remains the Same, "Anger Gap" Seems Wider
Seeing religion not as a voting issue, but as a victim of "attack" (source: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).
Shortly after the last elections, the widely respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life convened a discussion on "Understanding Religion's Role in the 2006 Election" (Key West, Florida, December 5, 2006). It is a fascinating transcript to read -- particularly for anyone who thinks that last week's cries of "anti-Christian" by right-wing groups was just a one-off event.
In public, Republican pollsters may continue to talk about the "God Gap," as if the strategy to win in 2008 consists of honest appeals to churchgoers. But in private, they are no doubt lining up their money, their lawyers, and their hit squads -- and preparing to launch smear after smear to sell the idea that religious folks in America are under attack.
All of this, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the Republicans feed millions and millions into campaigns that reduce all political issues down to calls for hate and violence against Democrats. But despite the immorality of it, the Republican drumbeat of "Democrats are anti-religious" cannot be ignored.
Without question, this Republican smear campaign puts a great burden on liberal religious organizations. First and foremost, the "anti-religion" campaign must find a vocal and aggressive response from liberal organizations who not only refute these fraudulent claims of liberal "anti-religiousness," but also show liberals to be advocates for and defenders of religion in American life. Moreover, these organizations must be encouraged -- and funded -- to grow their ranks through these campaigns. It will not be enough for a few top candidates to stage photo-ops in church. Liberal organizations active in religious settings and with religious members must be given the necessary funds to increase their membership and their visibility.
But that is just the first step to stopping this disturbing trend.
The larger task at hand will involve the entire progressive establishment and must focus on a bold, far-reaching, and lightning fast reframing of the "anti-religion" debate.
The first key to that task is recognizing that progressives must not repeat the words of the Republican smear campaign itself, but must instead advance a new set of terms that redirects the discussion to the real stakes and the real issue Americans face on this given topic: fair and open elections free from intimidation, threat, and violence.
The goal of progressive reframing in this instance, as always, is not to evade or to hide from a topic, but to stop the Republican smear machine before it hijacks the election campaign, intimidates more Americans from participating in campaigns and shuts down free and open political debate.
The longer progressives wait to reframe this issue, the more havoc the Republican "anti-religion" smear will wreak.
Stop Repeating "Anti-Christian," Start Saying "Protect the Debate"
The real threat posed by the Republican "anti-religion" attack reared its ugly head during the smear of the Edwards campaign by Bill Donohue.
What begins with false accusations of prejudice and bigotry quickly descends into shrill cries for violence against Democrats. Set against the constant cries of "treason" and "hate" from the likes of FOX News and right-wing radio, the "anti-Catholic" campaign draws out an ugly side of American culture where fringe groups use the threat of violence -- and then ultimately violence itself -- to silence political debate itself.
To reframe the debate, Democrats must speak to the larger issue of protecting the American political system itself from this kind of violent intervention.
Unfortunately, it is not enough as some have done to simply call for an end to "ugly" or "mean spirited" politics. A full reframing of the "anti-religion" issue requires that Democrats take proactive steps to speak out collectively whenever the right-wing smear machine lashes out at Democrats with false charges of bigotry against people of faith.
Progressive, liberal, and conservative Democrats alike must all see that a true majority party recognizes that every attempt to brand an individual candidate as "anti-religious" is an attack against the political system itself. And so we must all work in unison to respond.
This time, John Edwards was attacked and John Edwards was left alone to respond.
Next time, the attack will likely focus on either Obama, Clinton, Richardson, Vilsack, or Clark. When that attack comes -- when the next Democratic candidate is attacked as "anti-religious" -- every single candidate must respond together with this message:
* We will not allow political debate to be silenced with threats and intimidation.
* The last time we were accused of "anti-religion" it ended with threats of violence issued by Republicans to Democratic campaign staffers.
* These campaigns must stop.
* We stand together in the face of these attacks.
It is a simple, straightforward message.
The alternative is to leave candidate after candidate to their own devices -- leave each alone to dangle in the wind against the take-no-prisoners, massively funded Republican smear machine. But that would be a shame.
Remember: Religion is a complicated topic that will remain so far into the future. Democrats do best to engage it not be giving into Republican smear -- either by using their words or their tactics -- but by leading the debate in a new direction, and by working together to hold that line.
JEFFREY FELDMAN'S FRAMESHOP
Jeffrey Feldman's new book on framing and progressive politics is available for pre-order: Framing the Debate (in stores April 1, 2007). Support progressive publishing: reserve your copy right now online.
© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop.