Elections, Religion and the American People

The discussion over the election has been raging here at Harvard Divinity School. Many of the students supported Kerry and they, like many progressives in this country, are angry and confused about this election. The seeming widespread anger at the Bush Administration did not translate into an electoral victory for Kerry and many are wondering what went wrong. Seeing so many “red states” on the map leads some to the conclusion that the country is irredeemably reactionary. In particular, the role of the “religious right” has been the focus of much attention in the media. It seems clear that this bloc of right-wing, evangelical Christian voters turned out in large numbers, as 22 percent of voters cited “moral values” as the most important issue to them. In addition, weekly church goers overwhelmingly voted for Bush (61 percent to 39 percent). The display of power by the “religious right” has caused some people on the religious left to draw all kinds of off-the-wall conclusions. The solutions I’ve heard range from suggesting that the left be more concerned about “personal morality” to the idea that Americans were too duped by a fanatical religion to vote for their “class interests.”

First, a reality check. While voter turnout was 4 percent higher than in 2000, 45 percent of Americans still did not vote showing that a large segment of the population is still not engaged by the political system. In addition, that Bush mobilized his Christian conservative base is clear, but we should not exaggerate the supposed “right-wing” consciousness of the country. Polls have consistently shown a general progressive consciousness in America. An AP-Ipsis Poll showed that as recent as March 2004, 62 percent of respondents said that they would prefer more spending on health care, education and economic development than balancing the budget. A late October CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of Americans believe that the US made a mistake in sending troops into Iraq.

A May 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most cases and another CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 81 percent of respondents believe that abortion should be either sometimes or always legal [1]. Suggesting, as Vijay Prashad does, that these kinds of polls “might have been weighted for the coasts and not Kansas,” [2] is an outlandish grasping at straws. It reflects an irrational (and elitist) refusal to accept that even people in the Midwest may, indeed, be more progressive than stereotypes of academia and the liberal establishment suggest. It shirks the responsibility that the left has of organizing that sentiment into something concrete and legitimates throwing up our hands at the hopelessness of the “ignorant masses.”

So if Americans do have generally progressive viewpoints, why didn’t this materialize at the polls? The question actually begs another question: Who says that voting is an accurate expression of the political consciousness of the American people? How can anyone claim that people voted against their “class interests” in this election, when both Kerry and Bush stood diametrically opposed to their class interests? Kerry offered not even the semblance of an alternative to the Bush agenda. When the media talked about something other than what Bush and Kerry did during the Vietnam War, right-wing discourse defined the debate. Kerry and Bush quibbled over how to suppress the Iraqi resistance and Kerry was even more bellicose than Bush on Iran and North Korea! Furthermore, Kerry’s obsession with a balanced budget prevented him from making a dynamic case for health care, higher wages, unemployment relief, etc. If the discourse throughout the election season prioritized right-wing issues, why are we surprised that voters prioritized right-wing issues? This campaign was defined by the war on terror, and John “I’m-reporting-for-duty” Kerry did nothing to shift the paradigm–and so terror defined the politics of the electorate. Combine this with the fact that the “religious right,” who (unlike the left) has the chutzpah to build a grassroots movement and demand things of the Republican Party, was mobilized, and you have your explanation for the 2004 election.

The disconnect between Americans’ political consciousness and the election also has to do with the apolitical nature of elections, rooted in Americans’ rightful cynicism at the electoral process and politicians. Since November 3, I have heard a barrage of anecdotes about how someone’s Bush-supporting cousin, brother, sister, mother, father, or uncle cared more about the image of leadership that Bush represented, whether or not he was a “family man” or whether or not they could have a beer with him, than actual policy. Students, professors and others decried the fact that many people vote on their “emotions.” It’s a shame that some of these storytellers were too busy lamenting the “stupidity” of their relatives to ask why someone would have such apolitical reasons for voting in the first place. De-politicization like this is the result of cynicism due to the absence of a real political debate on issues that matter to Americans. Voting on apolitical or “moral” issues is another way of “checking out” of the political system. And Kerry’s campaign was not going to reverse this cynicism. On the contrary, he probably enflamed cynicism with his disingenuous, focus-group based campaign which many people saw right through. In fact, real political debate has been absent from elections for so long, and cynicism about government is so high, that elections themselves cannot politicize people. There is widespread recognition among people that no politician will significantly change things like the economy, health care, or jobs and so voting (especially for a sorry Democrat like Kerry) will not be an effective funnel for people’s anger at the system. Regardless of how many celebrities scream, “Vote or die,” dissatisfied people will continue to either stay at home, as 45 percent did, or vote on apolitical issues (religion, morality, whether a candidate seems like a nice guy, etc.).

It seems as though much of the disappointment of the left stems from the unwarranted expectation that the American people would express their progressive ideas through this election. The left needs to get over that and instead offer an alternative way for people to express progressive consciousness. Katha Pollitt, a writer for The Nation, simply cannot understand what went wrong. After all, the left worked hard to get this pro-war, pro-corporate candidate elected. She could not fathom how Kerry lost when “hundreds of thousands of people–Democrats, leftists, Greens, independents, Deaniacs, even a few stray Republicans–knocked themselves out registering voters, phone-banking, going door to door; for many, like me, this was the first time they’d volunteered for a presidential campaign.”

But I wonder what would have happened if people went door to door and phone-banking with just as much zeal and enthusiasm to talk about the war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, health care, jobs, wages, etc. Many DNC activists prowled the streets of Cambridge asking me whether or not I “wanted to defeat George W. Bush.” They were soliciting donations for Kerry. I’m sure readers in other cities have encountered similar activists on your streets. I wonder what would have happened if after asking this question, they explained to passers-by the need for building a movement, given information about the next local anti-war event and asked for donations to promote anti-war causes. Imagine if just a portion of the millions of dollars raised by MoveOn.org and other 527s for Kerry had gone into an infrastructure to raise awareness of the next big anti-war demonstrations. Indeed, we need to be in the streets asking people to defeat George W. Bush–even now. But we need to propose a real alternative, which is a fighting movement, not Bush-lite. People need to understand how they can fight for change–not through a politician, but for themselves. It is the left’s responsibility to help politicize the people. But instead of strengthening a movement that would truly change the political landscape, we tried to take a short cut and put the movement on hold to solicit votes for Kerry. That strategy has clearly failed.

In sum, the polling data suggested that Americans are not as right-wing as many would like to think. For all of the hysteria about the “religious right” in this election, Americans are by and large not supportive of the religious right’s agenda. The presence of the religious right in this election is the product of their ability to mobilize in large numbers. The problem was that activists were unable to convince Americans to express their progressive sentiments concretely through voting. This is not because the American people were too ignorant to recognize that their progressive sentiments could be expressed through voting. Rather, it is because people understand that their progressive sentiments actually cannot be expressed through voting. Americans have long abandoned the idea that politicians will provide any significant change to their lives, yet the left continues to rally behind politicians (and really bad ones at that). Kerry not only failed to offer a progressive platform, his hypocrisy and flip-flopping spelled “typical politician” to the American people. The people understandably rejected him either by staying at home or by voting on non-progressive issues. The lesson is: If we continue to expect the American people to express progressive consciousness through the ballot box, without building a movement to politicize Americans, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

BRIAN RAINEY is a Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School. He can be reached at brian_rainey@alumni.brown.edu


1. All statistics can be found at http://www.pollingreport.com

2. Vijay Prashad, “An Election of Misogyny and Homophobia: It’s Time to Confront the Theocracy Head On” CounterPunch. 4 November, 2004. URL: https://www.counterpunch.org/prashad11042004.html



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