The trouble is abortion, once again. After John Kerry's defeat in 2004, you could hardly shake a stick without whacking some Democratic figure or another who was insisting that their party needed to—or was about to—get back into the religion business. The success of Jim Wallis' book God's Politics was a sign, and now Amy Sullivan has published an article in the Washington Monthly that claims the re-spiritualizing of the Democrats is just around the corner.
That may be the last piece missing for the return of the Left to power. The polls show Republicans in serious trouble, and the moveon.org extremists in the Democratic party are boiling with fury at the Bush administration. An economic downturn, no progress in Iraq, a few more Republican screw-ups, and the Democrats are in.
Or, rather, almost in, for as long as the evangelicals and pro-life Catholics refuse to vote for them, the Democrats can't make the enormous gains they need to overcome the demographic trends that have been against them for decades. If the religious voters get disgusted enough to stay home on Election Day this year, the Democrats will certainly make some gains. But until they get a good chunk of the believers to vote for them, they're going to remain on the fringes of power.
And the trouble is abortion, for the Democrats are pinned by it. Although NARAL may have an ordained Methodist minister to act as its official chaplain, there is, in truth, no serious or large-scale group of religious voters who actively support abortion. The Democrats left it too long. Perhaps too much has been made of the Clintons' banning of Pennsylvania's pro-life governor Bob Casey from the dais of the Democratic party's convention in 1992. Republican candidates have been using the incident to motivate voters across the nation for more than a decade, and it may have gotten a little stale.
Still, there genuinely was something iconic about that moment: An astute political observer in 1973 could have predicted that Roe v. Wade would eventually be translated into America's two-party system¯with one party that, whatever its other commitments, gathered up the anti-abortion voters, and the other party that, whatever its other commitments, gathered up the pro-abortion voters. It took almost twenty years, but by 1992 the work was done. And since Casey's banning in 1992, there has not been a single Democrat with national prominence who stands strongly against abortion. When John Kerry told an interviewer during the 2004 election that he was personally opposed to abortion, the problem wasn't that he was lying. The problem was that no one believed him.
The Democrats will find it useful for writers like Amy Sullivan to point out Republican hypocrisy on religion. (Her set-piece example is southern Republicans who are opposing study of the Bible in public schools because the bill was supported by Democrats.) But it's not enough to break the religious voters from the Republican party. To claim them in any kind of significant numbers, the Democrats have to break them also from the pro-life movement¯from the general identification of religious values and opposition to abortion. And that, I think, is simply not going to happen.
The alternative is for the Democrats to undo all the years since Bob Casey and reposition themselves as a party that can put forward pro-life candidates. The campaign of Bob Casey's son for Rick Santorum's Senate seat in Pennsylvania is supposed to do some of this work. But to succeed it requires three elements: (1) that Casey win, (2) that he is believable as a prominent pro-life Democrat, and (3) that his aura will extend to others in the party.
On the first, short of catastrophe, Casey seems set to beat Santorum handily. The second and the third, however, are less certain. He has loudly proclaimed his opposition to abortion, but he will have to prove it once he's elected¯and since the key battles over abortion are bound to involve the judicial appointments that have become partisan brawls, the likelihood that he will provide a pro-life vote in the Senate is small. Meanwhile, who will believe that Casey's presence in the party makes Mrs. Clinton, for example, open to pro-life arguments?
Last week, I mentioned a lefty friend's warning that the Republicans are heading to such catastrophic defeat that the pro-life movement must find Democratic friends as quickly as it possibly can. He was correct, of course, that the Republicans are suffering right now. But the answer seems to be this: The weakness of the Republicans is not the same thing as the strength of the Democrats. Abortion still rules American politics. The Democrats will make some gains in 2006 and 2008 if the religious voters refuse to vote for Republicans. But the huge rise to power that the Left imagines it's about to achieve¯that's not going to happen until religious believers take the next step and vote for the Democrats.
In addition to which:
The firing of an accomplished and popular faculty member at Wheaton College because he became Catholic has prompted deep and troubling thoughts among evangelicals about Christian higher education. In the April issue of First Things, Wheaton's Alan Jacobs tackles these issues in "To Be a Christian College." At this point in the divided history of Christianity, does fidelity to the Protestant tradition and to the specifically evangelical understanding of that tradition require maintaining a wall of separation from Catholics and Catholicism? Jacobs understands why many evangelicals answer that question in the affirmative, even as he proposes a way for schools such as Wheaton to reconsider what it means to be in the Reformation tradition. Isn't it time for you to become a subscriber to First Things?
Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth is the title of Father Neuhaus' new book. Avery Cardinal Dulles says of Catholic Matters:
"It would be difficult to find a guide so knowledgeable, so theologically astute, and so engaging as a writer. Father Neuhaus presents the 'high adventure' of a Catholic orthodoxy that stands firmly against the winds of adversity and confusion."