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The Vagueness Problem


I’m not inclined to intensify my disagreement with Amy Sullivan, but a couple points in her reply demand a clarification. Some of her claims I don’t even understand. If she’s not claiming that it’s not Democratic politicians who need to reach out to evangelical voters, I frankly have no idea what she is arguing. (To paraphrase the old line about Republican moderates, if the plan calls for ensuring that nobody with a blog somewhere or on low-rated cable shows ever says anything that could be negatively construed by evangelicals, we need a new plan.) Most importantly, at no point did I “endorse” the claim that ” evangelical aren’t worth targeting as Democratic voters.” What I did argue is that I don’t think there’s a free ride–I don’t think that some minor shifts in rhetoric will be sufficient. Like Sam Rosenfeld, I definitely take Sullivan’s point about the potential value in seeing that evangelicism is a more complex phenomenon than described by, say, Kevin Phillips. I’m potentially open to arguments about ways in which ways in which Democrats can attract some of these voters, and even open to claims that major Democrats have needlessly alienated religious believers. But not naming names (and, no, I don’t believe second-tier television personalities count as prominent Democrats for the purposes of this argument) and getting into specific policy choices–in addition to being irritating–makes it difficult for this discussion to occur. The data Sullivan points to are a non-sequitur. The fact that some evangelicals are disillusioned with the Republicans doesn’t mean that they’re ripe to be Democratic converts–if their disillusionment stems from the fact that the Republicans aren’t doing enough to criminalize abortion or legally stigmatize gay people, for example, they’re not fertile electoral ground for the Democrats. Anyway, if Sullivan is saying that the Democrats can attract evangelicals with no substantive policy shifts I disagree and don’t think she’s provided any evidence; if she believes that some substantive changes are necessary, I can’t evaluate the tradeoffs until she specifies what they are.

There’s also an additional problem. I’m interested that Sam linked to Noam Scheiber’s post about people seeing Hillary Clinton’s sincere religious belief as a punchline. Sullivan and Scheiber are certainly right that there’s a problem of perception here: churchgoing Dems are assumed to be irreligious, whereas a Ronald Reagan–who had little private commitment to cultural conservatism but wasn’t a churchgoer–can be seen as pious. But it seems to me that broad, vague descriptions of “Democrats” (or even “some Democrats”) being hostile to religion are part of the problem. A lack of focus and specificity on this issue isn’t just bad for debate–it’s bad politics.

…in light of David’s comment, I should make an additional point. In assuming that Sullivan’s talking about Democratic politicans and power brokers and strategists, I’m not trying to distort her argument; I’m trying to be charitable. I can’t believe she’s arguing that every individual secularist who supports the Democrats should be prohibited from criticizing the religious and cultural views of evangelicals. That’s not trying to broaden the Democratic coalition; that’s just wanting a different coalition. If the argument is about how Democrats seeking office can attract evangelical votes, that’s a conversation worth having. If the argument is that “anyone who disagrees with Amy Sullivan’s religious or cultural views has to shut up,” that’s too silly to even be worth engaging with.

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