MEETING THEM WHERE THEY'RE AT
By: Scott Isebrand
Democrats will continue to lose political power unless we start framing our core convictions in the language of morality in general and evangelical Christianity in particular.
With the mantra of, "Meet them where they're at," Americans of faith - mainly conservative evangelicals - have for more than 20 years been perfecting the use of the language and modes of popular culture to frame conservatism in palpable and ultimately compelling terms. It has worked well. Conservative evangelical culture - its worldview, its songs, its nomenclature, its literature - inform popular culture like never before, and shape the milieu in which even "non-believers" happily live...and increasingly vote Republican.
In today's America, the conservative evangelical Left Behind novels have sold 62,000,000 copies. Beginning this year, the publishing industry's annual BookExpo America will have a Religion Day. The theme song of Star Trek: Enterprise - a sci-fi show born of the buoyant humanist vision of secularist Gene Roddenbery - is "Faith of the Heart." From Mel Gibson's The Passion to pretty much any movie Keanu Reeves appears in, explicit or vaguely-Christian supernaturalism, however naturalistically or grittily rendered, comprises the very fabric of reality. It is no surprise then that a 2000 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 70 percent of Americans want their President to be a person of faith.
For Democrats to ignore this reality and not enter into an understanding of and use of the language of morals, values, religion - and even evangelical Christianity - would be as patently self-destructive as rejecting the use of Internet-based fundraising or voter registration drives. It would be to forego the use of a practical, effective messaging strategy.
When complaints come from within the Party - and they will - about using such language at all, our queasy comrades need to be patiently called on their fallacious reasoning, which is akin to bypassing television advertising on a premise that since Republicans dreamed up the brutally effective Fox News behemoth, we Democrats oughtn't have anything to do with such a form of media. Yes, by all means: since Fox is a television company, let's avoid TV and use smoke signals instead.
On the contrary: As periodically occurs in American history, religious language has become the bedrock of the current national language. Simply to cede that language to the Republicans is ludicrous. Or to put it another way: as conservative evangelicals have used popular culture's language to make their religion and values more acceptable in a secular nation, progressives and the Democratic Party need to use the language of religion and values to make progressive ideals more acceptable in an increasingly religious climate.
The DNC's new Chair, Gov. Howard Dean, M.D., seems to understand this. He recognizes the problem Democrats have communicating to huge sections of the electorate, including the religious, and in response has called on Democrats to articulate our issues as the moral issues they are. In a recent MoveOn.org question-and-answer forum, Gov. Dean proclaimed:
"A livable wage is a moral value. Affordable health care is a moral value. A decent education is a moral value. A common sense foreign policy is a moral value. A healthy environment is a moral value. The feeling of community that comes from full participation in our democracy is a moral value. It is a moral value to make sure that we do not saddle our children and grandchildren with our debt."
With convictions like this inspiring our Democratic message, I have hope that Democrats can reconnect with America, especially those who agree with us on many issues, but consistently vote Republican because Democrats literally haven't been speaking their language.
Nonetheless, successful outreach will call for more strident liberals within the Democratic Party to support the new moral framing of our issues - and not to mistake moral and religious language with moralistic or religious agendas, something they're prone to do. It will also call for Democratic centrists to support a reassertion of core progressive values - and to not equate progressive values with moral relativism, something they're prone to do. In recent years more arch liberals rightly cried against compromising centrists, "We mustn't be 'Republican-lite!'" and the centrists have been right to cry against the arch liberals, "We mustn't be religion-and-values-illiterates." The arch liberals sometimes miss the need for moral and religious framing to connect with voters; the centrists sometimes fail to see that moral and religious framing attracts voters to Republican candidates as much or more than the candidate's conservatism itself.
Howard Dean would probably never attempt to frame a key Democratic issue within a biblical allusion, because he's too smart and intellectually honest to even try. He realizes he would come across as authentically as Pat Robertson demonstrating yoga - or John Kerry pheasant hunting. After all, this is the man who said in a November 2003 Democratic debate, "[I] don't go to church very often. My religion doesn't inform my public policy." But he is giving the Party a chance to rediscover its populist roots and embrace popular values-laden language, to move forward secure in the knowledge that it is not necessarily core Democratic values that voters are rejecting, but our wonkish and sterile messaging that puts policy in place of vision.
When I attended a DNC forum in Manhattan recently, I heard a favorite story of Dean's that illustrates my point. The story, to the best of my memory, is this: At a fundraiser for Dean for America, hosted by a couple in their Virginia home, Dean and his supporters regaled each other about civil and reproductive rights, the separation of Church and State, and other core progressive values. But the room fell silent when a female supporter professed that, as an evangelical Christian, she opposed the "homosexual lifestyle" and was "pro-life." Dean asked her how she could support him - a candidate who supports civil unions for gay Americans and has strong convictions about women's reproductive rights. "Because Evangelical Christians are people of deep convictions," she explained, and Dean demonstrated the courage of his convictions, even if she disagreed with some of them. She said that as an evangelical, she would support for President only someone who, if crisis befell the nation, "will stand up and do what they think is right."
Conviction. Moral values. Such things are not popularly associated with Democrats. In part it is because rightwing vandals of radio, TV, and print misrepresent our Party and disfigure our candidates' records. But, it is also because we let them get away with it! As Gore Vidal once said, "It takes two to make an accident," and Democrats have themselves to blame as much as rightwing fat cats or conservative evangelicals for the GOP coming as close as it has to political hegemony. It didn't happen overnight, but only after years of sweat and tears on the part of conservatives, only after hundreds of millions of dollars and many years of investment in conservatism itself - think tanks, campus leadership training, communications research, and grassroots programs.
Dean is reminding us that Democrats can do the same. We can invest in progressivism itself and meet Americans at their point of need, at points of resonance, to take progressivism to their dinner tables and reintroduce them to the Democratic Party, to speak their language, to "meet them where they're at" for the sake of improving our shared destinies as Americans.