Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

DONíT BLAME THE BIBLE-THUMPERS FOR BUSH VICTORY

A nation divided in two, red versus blue? A president elected by the half that carries a Bible and cares only about God, gays, and guns? NO. NO. NO. The simple story being touted by the mainstream media is not only wrong. Itís dangerously wrong.

Itís wrong because the numbers donít add up. Estimates of evangelical Christians in the U.S. range between 30% and 40%. Letís be generous and use the 40% figure. Jim Wallis of Sojourners claims that less than half are politically conservative. Letís be generous and call it two-thirds. That gives us only a bit more than a quarter of the voters fitting the "God, gays, and guns" stereotype.

The polls tell a similar story. For conservative evangelicals, opposition to abortion is pretty much a litmus test. But polls consistently find upwards of two-thirds or more of all Americans supporting the right of choice. Last Tuesday, when exit polls asked, "What is your most important issue?", less than a quarter chose "moral values." When asked about the most important quality in a president, only 8% chose "religious faith." There simply arenít enough conservative evangelical Christians to elect a president.

Bush certainly did better this year than in 2000. What changed in four years? There has been no significant increase in the number of conservative evangelicals. Karl Rove claims there was a massive increase in the number who voted. But the turnout of young voters was also massive. They went for Kerry, 54-44. Add in newly registered older voters who tend to vote Democratic, and it largely offsets the new pro-Bush Christians.

What really changed between 2000 and 2004 was the fatal day that fell in between: September 11, 2001. The Bible-thumper vote was necessary for Bush to win this year. But it wasnít sufficient. He had to have a war on terrorism, too. It was the convergence of those two factors that gave him victory.

The number of voters who named "terrorism" as their most important issue was almost as high as the number who said "moral values." And the "terrorism" voters went even more massively for Bush (86%). "Is the war in Iraq part of the war on terrorism?" voters were asked. The 43% who said "no" went 9 to 1 for Kerry. The 54% who said "yes" went 4 to 1 for Bush.

Bush did not win by playing on the fear of sin. He did need the pious faithful, the quarter or so of the population who fear God and sin above all. More importantly, though, he had to play on the fear of terrorism. He needed the millions more, professing all sorts of religion and none at all, who fear terrorism above all. It was the combination of the two groups that gave him victory.

The Bush campaign did a fine job of packaging sin, terrorism, and Iraq all together, wrapped in the flag. But if there were no 9/11, no terrorist threat, no lie that Iraq equals terrorism, Kerry would surely be busy choosing his cabinet today.

Mainstream journalists missed this obvious point because they always want a simple story that sounds new and fresh. Thatís what sells newspapers. So now itís "the great moral divide."

Progressives are tempted to tell the same story. Itís the kind of simplistic "good guys versus bad guys" story that the conservative evangelicals love to tell. And we probably like it for the same reasons the right-wingers do. It feels good. Once we find the bad guys, it proves that we are the good guys. It gives us a simple target to blame and attack. Nothing binds us together like a common enemy.

But do we really want to emulate the people we claim to dislike so much? During the campaign, when they accused us of being "complex" and "nuanced," as if it were a heinous crime, we were proud of those labelsóand with good reason. Reality is complex and nuanced. So is the electorate.

People voted for Bush for so many different reasons. Some had to hold their noses. They know that Bushís policies on the economy, health care, social security, and taxes are disastrous. But they are so frightened by the specter of terrorism, and so indoctrinated in the old "tough sheriff of the wild west" myth, they just want a leader who would never waver or "flip-flop." The Bush campaign masterfully made that the great symbolic difference between the candidates. They got millions to vote, knowingly, against their own economic interests.

We have a tough four years ahead, trying to stop the worst of the Bush Ė Cheney horrors. The best way to frustrate a president's plans is to build a massive antiwar movement. Just ask the ghost of Lyndon Johnson.

To build our movement, we must reach out to the 46% of the voters who already say the war was a mistake. And we must get millions more to change their minds and agree it was a mistake. Many of them are devout thoughtful Christians. Many are confused or worried about social issues. They understand what equal justice means, but they worry about "family values." We have to persuade them that the real problem is not moral decay, but the administration's immoral, budget-busting war policies.

It wonít help if we direct all our energies against some mythical majority of reactionary redneck Bible-belters. We will be focusing on the wrong issue and, in the process, alienating the allies we need to build a successful movement. We have to focus our opposition on a real threatóthe Bush war policies. If we build a big enough movement, we can teach people to see how those war policies are linked to the other great threatsóthe Bush policies on the economy, taxes, health care, environment, social security, and all the rest.

To do that, we must offer a genuine model of tolerance, understanding, and concern for people who are really scared, even if they are scared more by shadows than realities. Even if you can muster no tolerance for the "Gods, gays, and guns" crowd, even if you think they will never oppose the war in Iraq, please remember: They are a distinct minority. We need to reach the rest of the Bush voters, the ones who do have nuance and open minds. They are the people who gave Bush his second term. They are the people who may some day admit they made a mistake.


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