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11.13.08

Sarah Palin, Beware: The Evangelical Intrusion Is Over

The religious forces that helped elect Bush have lost their grip on American politics.

Looking forward, on foreign policy I fear that Afghanistan is a quagmire in waiting. We are not going to end the drug trade and create a government there, no matter how much men and money we pour in.

It made sense for Obama to say that Bush took his eye off the ball when he shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. We had a good chance of catching Osama bin Laden in the first thrust into Afghanistan. Now it would be a mistake to stay obsessed with bin Laden. Qualified people doubt that he is either alive or still relevant.

Terrorism is still a problem, of course. But terrorism is a crime, not a country. It has metastasized. The criminals should be sought with the help of all the intelligence and police and armed services of our allies.

The best thing for the Democrats will be for the Sarah Palin cultists to keep her hopes alive, beating a dead moose.

Our mistake after September 11 was not using the proffered cooperation of the nations that flocked to us in sympathy. We dismissed them and waged unilateral pre-emptive warfare. Obama should not let Afghanistan become what Iraq was for Bush. On domestic policy, the claim that we cannot build infrastructure and address health care because of the current crash of the economy ignores the model of the New Deal. In the depths of the Depression, FDR launched the works projects and created Social Security. Revisionists now say that did not end the Depression, but it built the projects and secured old people’s retirement. If it was done without a prior model, we can do the same thing with the help of it as a precedent.

On health care, Obama should enlist the help of business. The medical reformer Quentin Young always said universal health care would arrive when businessmen realize that its lack is what is costing them so much in insuring their workers.

The government can help the car industry, but only as part of an environmental program, with research and development of clean and alternative models. The list of problems is long, but the resources are there.

Looking back, who would have predicted, as the campaign began, that the deciding factors would be competence and steadiness? The Obama campaign ran sleek and silent as a Rolls-Royce. The McCain people called such competence elitist as they tried to make ignorance a credential for Sarah Palin.

The McCain campaign ran in fits and starts like a sputtering jalopy, with lunge after lunge toward apparent targets of opportunity, now Tony Rezko, now lipsticked pig, then real America, then Joe the Plumber, and so on. The McCain operation was a tour de force of self-trivialization.

John McCain not only lost but lost his greatest selling point, his honor. He turned to the same thugs who had savaged him in 2000, with their Karl Rove tricks and distractions. He proved his loss of honor even after the election, campaigning for Saxby Chambliss, the shameless man who calumniated Max Cleland.

It is rightly said that the nation deserves congratulation for not letting race determine the outcome. But I think a less noticed thing deserves mention—that the religious forces used in George W. Bush’s time were finally downgraded.

Admittedly, the ban on gay marriage passed in some states, but the presidential race was not thrown off track by things like sex education in kindergarten. The Republican appeal to evangelicals, Latinos, and Catholics was greatly weakened. Catholics by 52 percent, and young Catholics at a higher rate, ignored the bishops who ordered them not to vote for the pro-choice Barack Obama—only 45 percent had voted for their fellow Catholic John Kerry. Latinos by 67 percent, and young Latinos at a higher rate, voted for Obama. Thirty-two percent of evangelicals themselves voted Democratic, as opposed to 16 percent in 2004.

I argued in a recent book that evangelical intrusion into politics has had a shrinking hold on the electorate over the long term. The Second Great Awakening had a strong run for about 30 years at the beginning of the 19th century. Fundamentalism had a strong but shorter run of 20 years at the beginning of the 20th century. The religious right has had a shorter run of 10 years or so at the turn of the 21st century.

The best thing for the Democrats will be for the Palin cultists to keep her hopes alive, beating a dead moose. Her stands—anti-evolution, anti-stem cell research, no abortion for rape or incest, humans palling around with dinosaurs—will drive the religious extremists back to the margins they came from.

Garry Wills is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University. His books include Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which won him a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, and Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, which won him a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. His book Nixon Agonistes earned him a coveted place on Nixon’s list of political opponents.