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Ministers Move the Parties, Left and Right

June 22, 1986|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — Who says religion and politics don't mix? Not Ronald Reagan. "The truth is," the President told a prayer breakfast at the 1984 Republican National Convention, "politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related."

And so, in 1984, Jesse Jackson, Baptist preacher, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and attempted to define a new liberal agenda. And now it looks like Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, Baptist preacher, will run for the 1988 Republican nomination and mobilize the religious right. Why has American politics suddenly become so churchy?

It all goes back to the 1960s. That's when "social issues" entered U.S. politics--civil rights, women's rights, sexual freedom, peace activism, cultural liberalism. With them, inescapably, came religion. Religious leaders were at the forefront of the civil rights and anti-war movements. And they are now at the forefront of the conservative backlash.

Religion is divisive. Both Jackson and Robertson reject consensus politics as played in Washington, and so they are attacked by professional politicians and commentators.

Jackson and Robertson undeniably add something to American political life. They address issues that have largely been excluded from modern U.S. politics, namely, class and religion. These potent populist themes are at the core of political life in other industrial democracies. The United States is unique in this. We have no major socialist or religious party. As a result, in this century, the United States has been spared the bitter divisiveness experienced by other democracies. However, we have also had the lowest voter turnout rates. Our political parties are obsessively majoritarian and therefore, to many voters, obsessively bland.

What politicians like Jackson and Robertson do is expand the political universe. They bring a moral energy to public life. They demonstrate that there are causes and resentments that lie beyond the boundaries of a carefully managed national consensus. Attention must be paid.

They also appeal to people not ordinarily involved in politics. Most who voted for Jackson in the 1984 Democratic primaries probably would not have voted at all if he had not been a candidate. The same will very likely be true for Robertson in 1988. Jackson's core constituency, blacks, constituted 10% of the voters in the 1984 presidential election. They voted 90% for Mondale. In fact, blacks were one of the only groups whose support for the Democratic ticket went up between 1980 and 1984. Robertson's core constituency, white "born-again" Christians, is slightly larger--15% in 1984. They showed the strongest swing to Reagan of any group, from 63% Republican in 1980 to 80% in 1984. One-fifth of 1984 Democratic primary voters were black. In 1988, "born-agains" are expected to be about one-fifth of the GOP primary vote.

What we have is two politicized minorities, roughly equal in size, moving in opposite directions, each concentrated in one party. Jackson and Robertson are not simply bloc leaders, however. Each has a larger ideological agenda.

In making his case for a black presidential candidacy, Jackson wrote, "A black candidate does not mean an exclusive black agenda, but an inclusive agenda that grows out of the black experience in America." Jackson said his aim was to "excite, maybe even electrify, the black, the young, the rejected and unrepresented masses, increasing their voter registration and political participation."

What Jackson advocates is an agenda of the left. Jackson sees blacks as the vanguard of the U.S. proletariat. Because of their dispossessed status and high political consciousness, blacks are ideally situated to pressure the Democratic Party to become what Jackson calls "a coalition of the rejected--the real silent majority." That, of course, is not majoritarian; most Americans do not feel "rejected." While mainstream party strategists urge Democrats to trim their sails a bit in these conservative times, Jackson reminds Democrats of their fundamental identity. They are the party of economic populism. The Jackson forces are a counterweight to wishy-washy majoritarianism. They bring passion to the party's message.

Religion was critical in enabling Jackson to consolidate his support among black voters, many of whom do not share his leftist ideological views (or his anti-Semitic inclinations). To older, more conservative blacks, Jackson was not a dangerous radical. He spoke the language they heard in church every Sunday. His religious vocation and his conservative, almost Reaganite, views on self-help legitimized him to the black community.

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