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Urgent memo to Republicans: go secular or die

Urgent memo to Republicans: go secular or die

The US presidential election was not so much an endorsement of Obama as a verdict on the Republican Party. Given the dire economic circumstances, any challenger would have strolled into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They even outspent the Democrats on their presidential campaign by a factor of 3.5 to one. The recriminations and post mortems are in full swing. At least Newt Gingrich has the honesty to admit being ‘far off’ wrong.

He says in Politico: ‘For the conservative movement and the Republican Party to succeed in the future (and while they are not identical the two are inextricably bound together) we will have to learn the lessons of 2012. An intellectually honest and courageous Republican Party has nothing to fear from the current situation.’

Very well; but why has it taken so long to realize They, the People were not, in fact looking for a party that in philosophy and practice, resembled the Westboro Baptist Church in a cheap tuxedo? What was this same Newt Gingrich thinking of during his campaign when he eagerly sought an audience with American Family Radio show host Bryan Fischer to talk about America’s ‘Christian foundations’?

There has been gleeful musing about the extent to which the LGBT community helped re-elect Obama. Homophobia, racism, anti-Muslim bigotry and misogyny do not exist in vacuums. These elements of bigotry are symptoms of a culture of anti-reason and the values of a monocultural demographic base. If you believe that, say, the fact of evolution and the Big Bang theory are lies from the pit of hell, and that God’s law has prevailed since the universe was created 6,000 years ago, there is no point exploring the possibility of a thaw on Defense of Marriage Act or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, for instance. Three-quarters of LGBT people rejected Romney but as the election demographics show – Obama won 71% of the Hispanic vote, 55% of women, 93% of blacks – there are millions of offended parties.

In his new book ‘Why Romney Lost’, David Frum argues the GOP’s problems are due to the influence of the small-government, low-tax Tea Party movement. While it’s almost certainly true the party has become the base for protecting the privileges of the southern, rural, mainly white voters, the infusion of extremist evangelical Christianity into the Republican Party dates back decades.

Fundamentalists infiltrated the GOP to defend the Protestant moral order against the 60s counterculture. Mobilized by fundamentalist movements in the 1970s like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Christians became politically active, propelling fundamentalists into government office. The Christian Right built their own parallel state of universities, media empires – never mind Fox News; there are thousands of religious ‘talk radio’ stations, home school networks, political lobby groups, legal alliances, and think tanks. The fact Liberty University’s biology courses are run by young earth creationists shows how it is possible to go from cradle to grave completely insulated from critical thought.

Scheming cynical politicians who saw fundamentalists as vote-winners made their causes central platform issues, elevating their influence beyond true representation. Karl Rove swung the elections for the born-again, reformed alcoholic George W Bush by talking up ‘traditional family’ values. As payback, reactionary faith wormed its way into Capitol Hill.

The emergence of the Tea Party movement owes much to Sarah Palin, who, as running mate to John McCain in the 2008 presidential elections, pulled crowds of thousands. Calling for a curb on government power and low taxes, it was a natural refuge for the Christian right for whom a strong state was an attack on religious liberty.

The Daily Beast’s David Sessions argued last year that the movement provided cover for religious extremists as the public grew tired of church-state interference. The Tea Party candidates ousted numerous experienced moderate Republicans in 2010. But those victories sowed the seeds of the Party’s 2012 defeat. Extremists were taking center stage and calling the shots from the word go – and the true theocratic ambitions of party representatives were exposed for all to see.

While overturning Roe v Wade may sound appealing to the GOP base, the rest of America looked on aghast as the party leadership lurched to the right, like panicking passengers scrambling for starboard on a capsizing ship. Standing on the Values Voter Summit podiums where they were explaining themselves to Dominionist SPLC-certified hate groups each September, presidential candidates showed they would say and do anything to get through the primaries.

Thus the stage was set for 15 months of crashing election campaign scenery: the jeering of a gay soldier serving in Iraq at a televised presidential candidacy contest, the call for immigrants to self-deport, the birther movement, Romney’s proposals for a 20% tax cut without any supporting data, opposing abortion when a woman has been raped, the pretense of legitimate rape, the calls for constitutional amendments saying life begins at conception, pledges to end public school education and warnings same-sex marriage would destroy civilization. If the actions and words of the spokespeople of the Republican party have taught us anything, it is that Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, anything is permitted, can be turned on its head.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With 23 million unemployed, 45 million on food stamps and the debt at $16 trillion (€12.5 trillion), America needs competent rational opposition that will hold the current administration to account. We hear a thoughtful Keynesian case for borrowing from the likes of economist Paul Krugman; the Republican alternative thus far has been nothing but fantasy and incoherent absurdity. It needs political leaders who will stand by their principles and be prepared to speak truth to power and sideline the conspiracy-mongering religious bullies and talk-show demagogues (judging by the Petraeus scandal, conspiracies show no sign of abating).

The demographics of ethnic diversity and declining religiosity will force the GOP to either change or die. Pandering to a white evangelical base won’t work because the USA is becoming ethnically diverse at a fast pace: over 80% of over 65s are white, but whites make up less than half of under 18s.

The disastrous performance at the polls – particularly of the Tea Party candidates – shows that the party has grossly overestimated the importance of religion and the beliefs of religious leaders. As religious commentator John Shook noted, Church attendance has been falling. In March 2012, a Gallup poll found 32% non-religious; less than 25% go to a religious service more than twice a month. Fox News’ exit-poll of religious voters sends a warning: weekly churchgoers favored Romney 59-39, while occasional congregants went 55-43 for Obama. But the latter outnumbers the former, and that gap is set to widen.

Surveys repeatedly show religious allegiance is increasingly detached from behavior and attitudes. Lay Christians do not share the reactionary views on social issues espoused by their religious leaders. While Catholic priests and bishops broke the law by telling their followers how to vote from the pulpit, more than four out of five Catholic voters feel no obligation to heed their instruction at the ballot box. The same Fox survey shows only 16% of Catholic voters think gay marriage is an important issue. And even among evangelicals, the one voting category to whom the Republicans have focused their efforts, Obama’s share of the vote has actually risen, from 27 to 30% since 2008.

Some Republicans think a winning strategy is to be more inclusive of ethnic minorities, while remaining opposed to LGBT equality – after all, opponents of marriage equality went 74-25 for Romney. Frank Schubert, the public affairs mastermind who devised several successful anti-marriage referenda, including Proposition 8, sees the failure of the marriage amendment propositions as a mere setback in blue states. Other strategists only look at the number of gay voters, or worry they will lose traditionalists.

But a cursory glance at the statistics for acceptance of gay, bi and trans equality over the last decade, by social group and by region, should tell them that the tide is turning. The younger generation find it repugnant when politicians effectively say there is no place for gay people in America. This year, polls show that there are more supporters than opponents of marriage equality among black and Hispanic, as well as among white voters. Moreover, acceptance is growing in all regions of the USA by 15% per decade. In the least accepting region of America – including the South Eastern states like Mississippi and Oklahoma – 35% of the population supports equal marriage. That’s where the US national average was in 2004.

It’s no surprise acceptance is growing at similar rates all across the States. Studies show support for equality is higher when people know someone personally who is LGBT. By simply coming out to friends, family and colleagues, prejudices are blown away. The testimony of real people outweighs the multi-million dollar anti-marriage campaigns waged on fear, as the marriage votes of Maine, Washington, Maryland and Minnesota have shown.

Demographic realities should force the Republican Party towards inclusion, and divorce ‘conservatism’ from ‘religion’. Besides, what could be more conservative than encouraging same-sex couples to get married?

Another elephant in the room: both parties should stop relying on funds from a tiny minority of wealthy donors. Money cannot not buy love: Karl Rove wasted $300 million (€234 million) trying and failing to unseat any Democratic targets. Capping this wasteful, undemocratic practice stops frittering of funds, and lessens the risk of party platforms being hijacked by the eccentric or nefarious whims of the few.

Perhaps if Gingrich and co opened their history books, they would be less likely to court religious radio-hosts to talk about America being a ‘Christian nation’, because it is simply not true. The American Constitution clearly limits religion’s role in the public sphere. Citizens are guaranteed free exercise of religion, but that does not mean the right to inflict it on others who want nothing to do with. This was made clear by the Virginia Statute of 1786 and again by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, when he intervened to protect the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut who were being persecuted by the Congregationalists. A wall of separation between personal faith and a government neutral on matters of god ensured everyone could take shelter under the constitution. Secular law guarantees against sectarianism.

Today, it seems the role of Danbury’s Baptists is being played out by the LGBT community and their allies. The supposed sinfulness of homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage is entirely motivated by specific interpretations of a few texts from the Bible. To enshrine it into law is both an attack on pursuit of happiness as on religion.

The support for the Republican party with the social positions it now holds is literally dying off. If the party stays on this course, it will be a conscious decision to stay on the side of the intellectually ‘Left Behind’, the rapture-ready fanatical and the sociopathic.

America is tired of tiny groups of well-funded extremists imposing their faith on the rest of the population. They don’t want to be told what to do in bed. Women want control over their own bodies. Parents do not want their child’s life chances destroyed with creationist nonsense.

Now the euphoria has died down, the debt, inequality and poverty all remain unsolved. Rational, inclusive, compassionate, pragmatic leaders need to step forward, for the world’s sake, not just the USA’s, and rebuild Jefferson’s Wall.