Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Muskogee Manifesto and much much more

This American Prospect article was published just after the Dixie Chicks' Grammy sweep two weeks ago. The article traces the political history of the country music business: Nashville was New Deal populist before becoming Republican, and a key turning point was the release of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee." Haggard himself intended the song as a bit of a goof, but its popularity revealed, maybe for the first time, that there is a sizable market for cultural reactionaries out there, who want to stand up for patriotism and tradition against hippies and smart-alecks. I'm tickled by the idea, and even think it has some merit, that the conservative swing of the US in the last generation really started not with William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater, but with Merle Haggard.

"Okie from Muskogee" itself doesn't refer to religion, but country music boosters promoted it as an example of

how homages to the hard-working farmer, love-rich poor folk, patriotic
fighting men, and devoted Christians make the music "the voice
of [Nixon's] 'Silent Majority.'"

In Left Blogistan lately there's been a lot of talk about the privileged rhetorical position of "people of faith." Atrios complains that it begs the questions, Whose faith? Faith in what? My response is that for middle America, faith operates as political shorthand. It fits into a tableau: a candidate standing on a dais festooned with bunting, a flag lapel pin, the spouse smiling and waving, the fresh-faced children. The language of faith helps to signify cultural conservatism. That's the main thing. In fact, it does so in a potent and intimate way. Now you may well be a Democrat and not a cultural conservative, but there are a lot of cultural conservatives in this country, including African-Americans and Latinos who are key Democratic constituencies. You need those people. Democrats need an avenue of appeal to cultural conservatives, and faith is an important part of it.

(I happen to think cultural conservatism can be defined in a more democratic/populist way than we commonly think of it, but that's another post.)

Faith is not equivalent to religious doctrine. Loads of Americans are all hopped up on faith but give hardly a damn for theology or doctrine. Pundits debate whether Mitt Romney's Mormon background fatally harms his presidential ambitions. I say no. I find the LDS church to be doctrinally weird if not incoherent, but look: the Mormons stand for patriarchy, sobriety, the pioneer spirit--heck, the Mormons' long exodus in search of their eventual home in Utah has echoes of the Israelites and the Pilgrims, crossed with a John Wayne movie. Romney's Mormonism is awkward, but not crippling. Some leaders of the Religious Right disdain Mormonism, but the average religious conservative voter will not have a problem with it. (Romney's bigger problem is living down his socially moderate positions as governor of Massachusetts.)

Riffing on Romney in the Boston Globe, Paul Waldman commented:

Listen to candidates talk about religion and they seem to be following two
1) Profess that nothing is more important to you than your
2) Be as vague as possible about your religion.

Waldman's right; for instance, Romney wants credit for being a good church-going Christian but resists discussion of the details of Mormonism. But this is what politicians do on many fronts: aligning themselves with a popular theme (tough on crime, compassionate on health care, etc.), but skimping on the details. Organized religion just has a special power to get under the skin of liberal writers. If Romney had a vision for health care reform but as yet no detailed program, a pundit might cut him some slack for strategic reasons. No such benefit of the doubt with religion; Waldman wants to interrogate Mormon doctrine, right now.

The peerless East Coast smart-aleck HL Mencken once wrote: "We must accept the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." I'm not sure Mencken meant to be giving campaign advice with this quip, but that's a good attitude for Democrats to adopt. A pol declaring himself a "person of faith" is akin to trotting out the spouse and kids to demonstrate strong family values. It's pro forma political theatre.

It's regrettably true that one cannot be bluntly atheist and have presidential ambitions. One cannot speak in opposition to baseball or motherhood or golden retrievers either. There's a whole set of characterological requirements for political candidates that are silly or unfair, but that Americans haven't yet evolved beyond. C'est la vie, as Chuck Berry used to sing.

Well, this is a whole mess of thoughts, but at least let me pile them in this one place. A few more:

I still intend to say something about "Whistling Past Dixie," and here Pastor Dan of Street Prophets says something I agree with, that these are overlapping questions for Democrats, whether to court religious voters and whether to court the South. Southern Democrats are more acclimated to the language of faith, and they (we) tend to assume that "you don't break covenant with someone simply because you don't agree with them."

I should acknowledge the sad news that Amanda and Shakes did not survive with the John Edwards campaign. The infuriating thing is that this Donahue character is treated as a Catholic spokesman; he's nothing but a far-right goon, Frank Nitti with rosary beads. A lot can be said and was said about blogs vs. the Establishment, but at the end of the day it was a power play. Bill Donahue had more of it than Shakes and Amanda did.

That said, while none of Amanda's supposedly objectionable posts pushed MY buttons, they were gratuitous and it's clear they pushed some people buttons. Ed Kilgore is consistently smart about religion and politics, and here he points out that one line you shouldn't cross is questioning the sincerity of someone's beliefs. For anti-woman, anti-gay Christian conservatives, which came first, the bigotry or the "faith"? Which has precedence, which follows from the other? Oftentimes, I believe, the bigotry comes first. (Look how many Episcopalians have switched denominations, to places where anti-gay sentiments are more at home.) But you can't say that in public political discourse; as a practical matter you just can't.

In tracking the Amanda-Shakes discussion, I discovered a blog I really like called Adventus. I'm predisposed to relate to the guy because he's a burned-out Episcopal priest. Anyway, he had an unstinting rebuke of Amanda:

If you want to engage in politics, truly engage in it rather than snipe at it
from the sidelines like the Washington pundits and talking heads and columnists
across the country and political spectrum, you have to take responsibility for
what you say. If you want to engage in public life at all, beyond shouting
opinions and spouting your preference and gathering to you people of like mind
who nod at your "sage" pronouncements, you have to take responsibility for what
you say. It doesn't mean "they" get a free pass for threatening your life or
simply your job; but it does mean they get to swing back, and you can't retreat
behind complaining about their "hurt feelings." If that's the best you've got,
the kitchen's gonna be too hot for you.

Unfogged had a really good comments thread about the Mormons and whether they should be considered Christians or not.

I found that Mencken quote in this Stuart Jeffries piece in the Guardian. Thanks once again, Ophelia!

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