Thursday, June 16, 2005

The retired journalist James P. Gannon -- not to be confused with the "reporter" Jeff Gannon, whom Karl Rove planted last year in the White House Press Room -- has a great column in today's USA Today.

Responding to Howard Dean's recent comment that Republicans are a bunch of "white Christians," Gannon makes the important point that Dean's rhetoric is simply the latest instance in which Democrats have needlessly alienated Christians in general and pro-life Christians in particular.

"Let's get the facts out here," Gannon writes, and then lists the following points:

• I have been white all my life. I was born white in Minneapolis, one of the whitest cities in America. When I was growing up — in the white-bread 1950s, when "multicultural" meant that both Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics lived in the same parish — I knew only white people. There were only two kinds of people in the world, as far as I knew — Catholics and "non-Catholics." You couldn't marry non-Catholics, and you couldn't go to funerals or weddings in non-Catholic churches.

• Fact No. 2: We were Christians, though we never thought of ourselves that way. "Christian" had a vague, slightly non-Catholic feel to it, and it wasn't until after Pope John XXIII and Vatican II that Catholics began to feel comfortable being called "Christians."

• Fact No. 3, and here's where Dean has overlooked something important — we were white Christians, but we were not Republicans. Republicans were mostly Protestant, wealthy and members of country clubs. We were Catholic, middle-class and Democrats.

For most of my adult life, I considered myself a Democrat and voted for Democrats for president — from John F. Kennedy in 1960 to Bill Clinton in 1992. I began voting for Republican presidential candidates, and thinking of myself as Republican, only after it became abundantly clear that people with my views on abortion, prayer in school and other moral issues were no longer considered welcome in the Democratic Party.

A whole lot of us crossed over, taking our whiteness and our Christian beliefs into the party of the country-club set. We didn't feel so much that we had abandoned the Democratic Party as it had abandoned us. Borrowing the spirit of the "No Irish Need Apply" mentality of my grandparents' time, the Democrats posted a "no pro-lifers need apply" sign on their party doors. (emphasis added)

Although I ultimately disagree with Gannon -- yes, the Democrats are regrettably intractable when it comes to abortion, but I think the Republicans are equally intransigent on a host of other lamentable positions -- his perspective is one which Democrats need to begin heeding in earnest.

As Gannon illustrates, the Democratic Party has banished from its midst one block of conscientious voters in order to galvanize another -- its "base" -- even though that group has yet to demonstrate that it can effect meaningful results. Even worse, the moral pretext they've used to do so is exceedingly thin. What, after all, is so objectionable to favoring life? The pro-choice argument may be founded on legitimate ethical principles, but castigating the pro-life platform is not. The fact that Democratic leaders have repeatedly engaged in such rhetoric is merely acceding toa vocabulary in which they can be seen as abhorrent at worst and morally neutral at best.

Yet to return to the larger issue here, the Dems need to do a better job of accepting Christianity in its terms rather than theirs. Many liberals like to think of themselves as "enlightened" individuals as compared to "ignorant" believers, and as a result go after religion per se rather than religion as practiced in the public sphere. The line may become blurred at points, but in general the two are distinctly different. One is a faith; the other a politics. Until the Democrats can learn to react only to the latter and not the former, they're going to continue losing theJames P. Gannon's of the world.

Which is a shame, because the sincerety they practice within their belief is precisely the kind of exacting virtue American liberalism could currently use.


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