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We are pleased to present KLICE Comment.

This month Timothy Sherratt writes on 'The US 2012 elections: lots of implications for religion, little Christian political insight'

Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College, Wenham, MA.


As research from the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found, the more religiously observant an American citizen is, the more likely is that person to lean in a conservative direction politically and to vote Republican. Denominational differences explain much less of the variation in religious voting behaviour.

Countering this tendency in 2008, younger white evangelicals favoured President Obama, not because they abandoned conservative positions on abortion, gay marriage and similar issues but because they extended moral concern to issues like climate change, environmental stewardship, and human trafficking. The result was that the President won 30% of the white evangelical vote that year.

In 2012, however, these issues attained very little visibility in the campaigns of either candidate, and so dropped off evangelicals' radar. Perhaps for that reason, evangelicals returned to the Republican fold, giving Governor Romney 78% of the vote, up 10% from the percentage won by Sen. John McCain in 2008, based on figures from the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

The loyalty of observant religionists to the Republican Party in a losing cause provides some insight into the 2012 election zeitgeist. Ballot initiatives in three states made gay marriage legal. In several others, initiatives either approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes or legalized it for recreational ones. Shockingly, an initiative petition to permit physician-assisted suicide was allowed onto the ballot in Massachusetts and was only narrowly defeated.

In a culture that has always accorded individual self-determination a near-religious affirmation, the 2012 spirit of the age might be summed up as 'Don't say "no" to me'.

Over the next four years, conservative Christians will find it harder to argue that the Republican Party should say 'no' to gay marriage, abortion, or recreational drug use. They will undoubtedly find it harder still to persuade the party to say 'no' to Hispanic Americans seeking a path to legal residency for the eleven million persons estimated to be in the country illegally. In 2004, George W. Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote; Mitt Romney could only garner 27% of this growing and maturing electorate, whose previously low turnout rates are beginning to rise. To cede the votes of Hispanics to the Democrats by continuing to oppose a path to residency could severely compromise Republican electoral prospects. Their own supporters, largely white, male and aging, will prove less and less able to muster the majorities necessary to win the White House.

The view from Congress is quite different. Two years ago, at the height of the small-government 'Tea Party' movement, Republicans picked up sixty seats in the House of Representatives. Once acquired, House seats are very easy to defend, and defend them Republicans did, retaining control and with it considerable bargaining power as President Obama begins his second term.

Now that he cannot run for re-election (Presidents have been limited to two terms since the 1950s) President Obama's goal will be to leave a legacy - economic recovery, immigration reform, education reform, and progress on renewable energy, to go with the universal health insurance law that was the hallmark of his first term, and is now secure against repeal. But House Republicans stand between him and all these goals. If the President wants to secure such a policy legacy, he has every bit as much incentive as his Republican opponents in Congress to enter meaningful negotiations.

The first test of this second-term logic is already upon us. Before his swearing-in ceremony early next year, President Obama will try to negotiate a move away from the 'Fiscal Cliff'. This refers to a combination of tax increases from a set of expiring tax cuts instituted by President Bush, along with automatic spending cuts that have been imposed because President and Congress could not reach agreement on deficit reduction a year ago. Economists warn that the United States may well return to recession if no resolution is reached.

Will the two sides strike a bargain? Perhaps. If they do, both President and Congress will have to swallow some unpleasant medicine. I predict that President Obama will offer a series of cuts in America's social safety net in return for extending tax cuts for the 'middle class' (a curiously catch-all term in its American usage), but requiring those earning in excess of $250,000 annually to return to higher income tax rates. To this point, Democrats have resisted the former, Republicans the latter. The President and the Republican Congressional leadership will both face strong resistance from core supporters not to trade away these strongly held positions.

2012 was a status quo election. The philosophical fault-lines between the parties remain much as they were. Democrats look to the Federal government as the principal representative of society and as its principal change agency. Republicans look to the marketplace instead and seek to contain government's reach.

Both positions reflect the country's liberal tradition in that both belittle the role of civil society. From the perspectives articulated by Catholic social teaching and the Reformed tradition associated with Abraham Kuyper, non-governmental institutions - families, religious organizations, friendship groups, charities and the like - are in effect primary social agencies. Human beings fulfill important responsibilities in them, as parents, educators, generators of wealth, caregivers, or environmental stewards. Both government and markets should make room for these unique responsibilities. A balanced perspective like this, according civil society, state and market their proper, mutually limiting places, offers the prospect of a coherent vision of public policy so evidently lacking in the campaign.

But language like this is largely absent from the American political tradition. American Christianity does not deploy it to recommend policy, despite the strong Catholic presence, which might be expected to do so. This election is another reminder of the pressing need for Christian citizens and office-holders to recover their own traditions of Christian political wisdom and allow these to guide their political practice.


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