Even after Ross Douthat’s post and mine , there may be more to unravel from the new Pew poll on the political parties and religion.

I wrote, as though it were perfectly self-evident, "We cannot¯we should not¯have a party so strongly identified with opposition to religious believers." And a Europeanized friend emailed to call me on my over-easy assumption: " Why shouldn’t we have one party that is friendly to religion and one unfriendly? That is the pattern in most developed countries, and surely, as the Republican party increasingly takes on the attributes of a European-style Christian Democratic party, it is logical that their opponents take the other position."

The attribution of cause here is a little one-sided, as though the poor liberals were forced into their un- and anti-religious positions entirely by the conservatives’ donning of the religious mantle. Even the good Democrat Amy Sullivan blames some of this on the way the Democratic party has behaved. Still, my friend’s general point is a good one: The First World pattern has been a Social Democratic party versus a Christian Democratic party, an anti-religious party versus a religious party, and if politics in the United States is starting to match that pattern, why is this surprising or undesirable?

My first answer was that the idea makes my skin crawl¯which is just another way of saying I had been assuming that American exceptionalism lets us sidestep this whole wars-of-religion, Westphalia, philosophes , French Revolution, last-king-strangled-with-the-guts-of-the-last-priest European thing.

In a way, I still think that my original assumption is the answer. A developed argument about American exceptionalism and the nature of the American Founding would take us a long way toward understanding why we don’t want religion to be pushed from the shared mainstream over to one side’s shore.

Both parties are contributing to this change; the very drift of contemporary politics is toward it. But I think we ought to resist it strongly. Amy Sullivan writes, "It’s past time to hire a national party staffer to focus on Catholic outreach and strategy. Alas, the Democratic National Committee has been looking for a year to fill such a position, with no results." To which Ross Douthat rightly adds, "Ouch." It’s so important, I’d leave First Things to take that job¯except for one little problem: abortion.

This is hardly a new analysis. Ramesh Ponnuru , in particular, has been consistently good with his analysis of the ways in which support for Roe v. Wade traps the Democrats. Abortion is the motor, and since 1973 it has driven us toward this European result.

Can it be resisted? There are, of course, pro-abort Republicans and pro-life Democrats, but they don’t really look like a solution. I mean, a presidential race between Rudy Giuliani and Bob Casey Jr. might be interesting, but it would hardly transform the shape of American politics¯precisely because they both seem like outliers. Somehow, we have to break the identification of the sides on abortion with the sides on religion, and I’m not sure how to do that without one side or the other surrendering on abortion.

The missing piece in all this kind of discussion is the collapse of the Protestant mainline, which opened up a hole in our public life. Catholics and evangelicals were sucked in to fill the vacuum, but it’s not yet clear that they can do the work the old Protestants did in securing American exceptionalism. Certainly, they can’t do it until we return to the assumption that religion is the American mainstream.

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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