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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Rise of Uncompassionate Conservatism

It’s axiomatic that the bad economic circumstances facing the country elevated economic over “values” concerns in the 2010 midterm elections. And it’s also reasonably clear that for all the talk about the “libertarian” Tea Party Movement, there is considerable overlap between the Tea Folk and what we think of as the Christian Right.
So there wasn’t a lot of talk about the religious views of Americns in the runup to November 2, or since then, aside from the strange alarms sent up here and there about the completely mythological but terrifying prospect of Sharia Law being imposed on non-Muslims.
Fortunately, TDS Co-Editor William Galston and columnist E.J. Dionne have published a paper for the Brookings Institution looking more deeply at the 2010 elections in a religious context, based in part on exit polling from the Public Religion Research Institute.
Much of the paper documents the relative occlusion of religious divisions in an election dominated by secular concerns:

Overwhelmingly, voters cast their ballots on the basis of economic issues, while the religious alignments that took root well before the economic downturn remained intact. Democrats lost votes among religiously conservative constituencies, but also among religious liberals and secular voters. They did not, however, lose ground among African-Americans of various religious creeds and held their own among Latino voters. To see issues related to religious or cultural issues as central to the 2010 outcome is, we believe, a mistake.

Galston and Dionne go on to document the low status of traditional faith-based “values” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage today amog conservatives, even conservative white evangelicals, as compared to concerns about the size and role of government. They may not, I would observe, sufficiently recognize the extent to which complaints about “big government” or appeals to constitutonal originalism have long been part of the Christian Right’s rhetorical aresenal, reflecting a strong antagonism to “judicial activism” on behalf of abortion or gay rights. But it’s true that non-economic grounds for anti-government sentiments are generally in the background at present.
But Galston and Dionne provide some fascinating new data and analysis of a growing rift within the ranks of Christian conservatives over what has in the past been called “compassionate conservatism”–a faith-grounded tendency to reconcile conservative views with opennness to racial minorities and particularly immigrants, along with selected government activism in areas like urban social services and education.

Perhaps most revealing is the fact that Tea Party supporters were significantly more likely than either white evangelicals or self-described Christian conservatives to see government as playing too large a role vis-à-vis religious or private charities. Among Tea Party members, 82 percent took this view, but only 64 percent of Christian conservatives did – and, as we have seen, only 60 percent of white evangelicals. It is fair to conclude, we think, that while the ideas that fell under the heading “compassionate conservatism” still have some resonance among white evangelicals and Christian conservatives, such ideas are largely rejected by members of the Tea Party movement.

This shouldn’t come as big surprise to anyone aware that the common accusation that George W. Bush and Karl Rove had “betrayed conservative principles” frequently revolved around opposition to urban do-gooding (including minority homeownership initiatives on which many conservatives now blame the housing meltdown), No Child Left Behind, and comprehensive immigration reform.
In some respects, then, the Tea Party Movement is less a revolt of secular-minded libertarians against the Christian Right than a revolt of a segment of the Christian Right against certain “liberal” applications of faith, most notably a welcoming attitude towards immigrants and a feeling of religious solidarity with Muslims.
The potential size of this rift, Galston and Dionne suggest, is illustrated by PRRI exit poll data from the 2010 Colorado governor’s race, in which anti-immigration ultra Tom Tancredo ran on the Constitution Party ticket after the GOP nominee’s campaign fell apart:

White evangelicals gave Tancredo only 54 percent of their ballots, but strong Tea Party supporters gave him 80 percent of theirs. This 80 percent figure was also substantially larger than the 66 percent he received among self-described conservatives. We believe that what might be called the “Tancredo Difference” has important implications for conservative and religious politics. While many accounts have emphasized the possibility of splits in the Republican Party between its “establishment” and the Tea Party, there is the potential for other divisions between religious conservatives with more moderate views on immigration and more compassionate views on poverty and members of a Tea Party movement still rebelling against certain distinctive aspects of the Bush presidency.

Given the considerable overlap between the Tea Party Movement and the Christian Right, another way to put this phenomenon is that the Christian Right itself may be moving away from those irenic tenets associated with “compassionate conservatism,” and towards a hard-core comprehensive conservatism rooted in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant nationalism
In any event, the current dominance of secular issues should not lure progressives into a new decade of happy ignorance about the religious and cultural underpinnings of American politics. They have not gone away.

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