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My Party Is Leaving the Faithful Behind

April 10, 2005|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, state librarian emeritus, is professor of history at USC. His latest book is "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003," from Alfred A. Knopf.

Perhaps the outpouring of admiration for Pope John Paul II last week will at long last alert those at the helm of my political party -- the Democratic Party -- to a truth that has yet to sink in despite the whack to the head administered by last year's election: Cultural values count.

Those of us who label ourselves Democrats have stood for economic fairness since the New Deal, but in the last three decades our once-majority party has embraced a take-no-prisoners cultural agenda that now threatens to relegate Democrats to permanent minority status. The hostile takeover driving this drift to irrelevance is especially painful to cultural moderates, who remember that social democracy was born of traditional values.

Politics, Aristotle tells us, is the art of the possible. Politics is about the shaping and control of government toward practical ends.

Government serves society, a much larger entity. And society, in turn, is structured and animated by a complex interaction of beliefs, values, symbols and socio-economic forces which, taken cumulatively, we describe as culture.

The chicken-and-egg relationship between society and culture is intricate enough to have kept three millenniums of philosophers and social scientists busy. Now even economists are beginning to acknowledge that culture is a more powerful social force than politics -- Harvard's Amartya Sen, for instance, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics because he demonstrated how social values and structures born of culture affect the ability of a society to take care of its impoverished, even in times of economic boom.

Today's Democratic Party leaders have apparently forgotten, however, that the social programs that came of age during the New Deal had their origins in Judeo-Christian tradition, even more than in secular humanism. Indeed, it might be argued that popes were as influential as politicians in shaping policy.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII (an Italian count, for goodness sake) helped usher in the modern era of social democratic thinking with his encyclical Rerum Novarum, defending the rights of working people to organize themselves into unions and to achieve a living wage.

In 1906, a Catholic priest, John Augustine Ryan, took on the modern American industrial system in his pioneering "A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects," followed by "Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth" (1916).

In 1931, Pope Pius XI (a librarian, as well as a champion Alpine mountaineer, for goodness sake) extended Ryan's teachings to the entire church in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.

In 1933, the pope named Ryan a monsignor, and a newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt (a scion of the Anglo-Dutch Hudson River aristocracy, for goodness sake) turned increasingly to the social philosophy Ryan represented as he fashioned the policies and programs of the New Deal. Indeed, Ryan became popularly known as the Right Reverend New Dealer.

Flowing into New Deal policy and practice as well were the social values of the Jewish tradition, with its emphasis on tikkun olam -- repairing the world through social action. Protestant America's evangelical fervor, as represented by the advocates of the Social Gospel movement, also contributed. And when Dust Bowlers and African Americans clamored for redemption in this world as well as the next, Roosevelt and his fellow Democrats heeded their faith-based yearnings too.

Three of the Democrats who reached the White House after FDR -- Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton -- were Bible-reading Protestants who spoke with a twang, and the fourth, John F. Kennedy, was a Roman Catholic, the first and still the only Catholic to reach the White House.

The Democratic Party, in short, made a powerful alliance with the culture of Ordinary America, including its religious values. True, the party's links to segregationist Dixiecrats caused problems -- big problems. But it was two Southerners -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson -- who struck the most significant hammer blows against the injustice of that dependency.

But now the Democratic Party elite -- the activists, the pundits, the big-bucks donors -- have succeeded in pitting social democracy against the very values (one is tempted to say the very people) that gave rise to social democracy in the first place.

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