David Domke Plenary session notes

Current Affairs

(These are my notes from a lecture given to the Episcopal Communicator’s Conference by Prof. David Domke on the question of Politics and Religion in America today.)

Who is Domke?
Professor of Communication and Journalism. Author of the God Strategy.
Religious Politics in America: Reclaiming the Founding Vision.
A former Journalist, covered topics for a number of large newspaper. Head of Journalism dept. at the University of Washington. Married to a presby clergywoman.

Fundamental question: What is the proper relationship between religion and politics? Lately politicians in DC have been using religion to justify their positions. EG: We went into Iraq to give them God’s gift of freedom.

Is GWB’s religious rhetoric unique to him, or is it part of a larger trend.

Domke’s study of that question gave rise to his latest book, “The God Strategy“

Notes from his lecture:

    Religious Faith in America

    1. Alexis de Tocqueville, 1833;
    2. ”The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States.“
    3. We are far more religious than any other industrialized nation
    4. We believe in God (90%)
    5. 60% of Americans say that religion plays a very important role in their lives
    6. Pew research shows that the next closest nation to us is Great Britain at 30%
    7. 70% of people pray every day
    8. 80% believe in ultimate judgement. 90% of people never doubt the existence of God.
    9. As per capita income increases, religiosity decreases except in the case of the USA
    10. ”The longer I stayed in the country, the more conscious I became of the important political consequences resulting from this novel situation.

    Civil Religion

    1. Beliah 1960’s: The social and political mechanisms through which a society ‘interprets its historical experience in light of transcendent reality’ EG: Opening government meetings with prayers.
    2. Civil religion is not distinctly Christian, but it’s never not congruent with Judeo-Christian precepts
    3. Faith is celebrated as part of national imagery and fabric
    4. We can’t understand the USA without recognizing how important faith is to our common life.

    The apex of the civil religion is the JFK speech re: his Catholicism

    1. I believe in an America where the separation of the Church and the State are absolute.
    2. Faith is part of the political story, but it’s kept at a distance when governing.
    3. Of course this absolute separation has never been a reality
    4. When you analyze Kennedy’s statement, and remove the parts that aren’t actually part of our experience, you’re left with “I believe in an America” At least this is the case in the present day. We’re further away from the ideal than we’ve ever been.
    5. How did we get here?

    The Rise of Religious Politics

    1. Beginning in the 1960’s conservative evangelicals reconsidered their decision to focus on their faith and not on the society in which they live. They decided to become involved in the political arena as a reaction to emerging social trends in the 1960’s.
    2. Jerry Falwell; 1979: We need to train men of God in our schools who can go on to congress, who can go on to become directors, become lawyers, etc so that we can turn this country around and do it quickly. IF all the fundamentalists could be taught who to vote for, we could elect anyone we want.“ Get ‘em saved. Get ‘em baptized. Get ‘em registered to vote…
    3. The moral majority (1979). Progressive prize truth and facts. Conservatives prize vision. The moral majority was a vision not a description of reality.
    4. Moral Majority is superseded by the Christian Coalition. (1989 Pat Robertson) Concerned that GHWB as an Episcopalian is not a real Christian.
    5. The Coalition puts in place a 50 state strategy
    6. Focus on the Family (James Dobson) becomes the next big thing. Becomes a political organization in response to the rise of the visibility of same-sex relationships. This organization reaches almost 200 million people weekly. Dobson *is* the new power broker.
    7. Now: ”The Arlington Group“ 2003, a organization of 35 entities. Founded to ban same-sex marriage in every state. Second to get GWB elected. Third to get him to appoint the right people to the Supreme Court. These are the people who took down Harriet Myers. THey are now 70+ organizations. They hold tremendous power and sway today.

    Today’s Religious Politics

    1. ”Invoking God and faith in national addresses“ – Domke has studied this language use in major Presidential addresses from FDR until GWB: (data set of 150 speeches)
    2. Asked: How often do they invoke God?
    3. Asked: How often do they talk about their faith by using their faith language in subtle or direct ways.
    4. In presence of War: trend 20% increase in God language, no increase in faith language
    5. In speaking to party faithful: GOP vs Democrats: GOP 25% move likely to use God language, not much more faith language
    6. Facing election: no difference in god language or faith language
    7. 1981 and after though…: 120% increase in God language and 60% increase in Faith language. Clinton absolutely follows this trend.

    Political Religion not Civil Religion

    1. Religion is used as a political weapon.
    2. faith is used in an unprecedented measure
    3. Democrats are now responding. Obama is the most religious of the candidates running to 2008
    4. Martin Medhurst ”This is not the rhetoric of the founders – civic piety – it is now particular beliefs offered as justification for certain political positions.
    5. We have a political dynamic that is counter to the Founder’s vision for the nation. They fled Europe to escape from the effects that religion has on civic life. (Especially it’s motivation for war and conflict)
    6. The Declaration of Independence was a prophetic document (the implications of the interactions of democracy and faith.) The Constitution is the nitty-gritty – it has no mention of God on purpose. It’s kept at arms length not denied.
    7. Faith tests for public office will rip our nation’s harmonious fabric apart.
    8. The political dynamic that is present in America today steps right into the “War on Terror” trap.
    9. Domke: It is a political dynamic that can be changed. It won’t change because people are thoughtful and concerned. We need to get out in a public fashion and become involved in the public conversation to change the conversation.

    Suskind: Faith based Presidents (Note to self: Read this…) “Faith” lives in the vision community not the reality based community. Language creates our reality. This isn’t just words.

    How much of the conservative right’s rise a response to the rise of the religious left in the 1960’s? Answer: Almost all of it. There is a rising religious left evidenced by Obama, but according to Domke, it’s never going to have the same level of power of influence because the commitment of those on the left is not the same level as those on the right.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Cassandra says

    What’s critical to remember is that the religious right’s movement into electoral politics didn’t *start* in the 1960s–it began with Cold War anti-Communism after World War II, harnessing religion for political (specifically, foreign policy) purposes. Check out Carl F.H. Henry’s “The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism” (1947) and Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s “How Shall We Then Live?” (1955)–both recently reissued. Long before Jerry Falwell changed his mind on politics, Henry was behind Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association–the foundations of modern evangelicalism engaged with culture and politics. Also J. Gresham Machen, if you want to go back that far…but mostly it was the “Christian anti-communism crusade” that kick-started the Moral Majority/Christian Coalition.

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