The Faith Factor
by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Nation magazine, November
Of all the loathsome spectacles we've
endured since November 2-the vampire-like gloating of CNN commentator
Robert Novak, Bush embracing his "mandate"-none are
more repulsive than that of Democrats conceding the "moral
values" edge to the party that brought us Abu Ghraib.. The
cries for Democrats to overcome their "out-of-touch-ness"
and embrace the predominant faith all dodge the full horror of
the situation: A criminal has been enabled to continue his bloody
work with the help, in no small part, of self-identified Christians.
With their craven, breast-beating response
to Bush's electoral triumph, leading Democrats only demonstrate
how out of touch they really are with the religious transformation
of America. Where secular-type liberals and centrists go wrong
is in categorizing religion as a form of "irrationality,"
akin to spirituality, sports mania and emotion generally. They
fail to see that the current "Christianization" of red-state
America bears no resemblance to the Great Revival of the early
nineteenth century, an ecstatic movement that filled the fields
of Virginia with the rolling, shrieking and jerking bodies of
the revived. In contrast, today's right-leaning Christian churches
represent a coldly Calvinist tradition in which even speaking
in tongues, if it occurs at all, has been increasingly routinized
and restricted to the pastor. What these churches have to offer,
in addition to intangibles like eternal salvation, is concrete,
material assistance. They have become an alternative welfare state,
whose support rests not only on "faith" but also on
the loyalty of the grateful recipients.
Drive out from Washington to the Virginia
suburbs, for example, and you'll find the McLean Bible Church,
spiritual home of Senator James Inhofe and other prominent right-wingers,
still hopping on a weekday night. Dozens of families and teenagers
enjoy a low-priced dinner in the cafeteria; a hundred unemployed
people meet for prayer and job tips at the "Career Ministry";
divorced and abused women gather in support groups. Among its
many services, MBC distributes free clothing to 10,000 poor people
a year, helped start an inner-city ministry for at-risk youth
in DC and operates a "special needs" ministry for disabled
MBC is a mega-church with a parking garage
that could serve a medium-sized airport, but many smaller evangelical
churches offer a similar array of services-childcare, after-school
programs, ESL lessons, help in finding a job, not to mention the
occasional cash handout. A woman I met in Minneapolis gave me
her strategy for surviving bouts of destitution: "First,
you find a church." A trailer-park dweller in Grand Rapids
told me that he often turned to his church for help with the rent.
Got a drinking problem, a vicious spouse, a wayward child, a bill
due? Find a church. The closest analogy to America's bureaucratized
evangelical movement is Hamas, which draws in poverty-stricken
Palestinians through its own miniature welfare state.
Nor is the local business elite neglected
by the evangelicals. Throughout the red states-and increasingly
the blue ones too evangelical churches are vital centers of "networking,"
where the carwash owner can schmooze with the bank's loan officer.
Some churches offer regular Christian businessmen's "fellowship
lunches," where religious testimonies are given and business
cards traded, along with jokes aimed at Democrats and gays.
Mainstream, even liberal, churches also
provide a range of services, from soup kitchens to support groups.
What makes the typical evangelicals' social welfare efforts sinister
is their implicit-and sometimes not so implicit-linkage to a program
for the destruction of public and secular services. This year
the connecting code words were "abortion" and "gay
marriage": To vote for the candidate who opposed these supposed
moral atrocities, as the Christian Coalition and so many churches
strongly advised, was to vote against public housing subsidies,
childcare and expanded public forms of health insurance. While
Hamas operates in a nonexistent welfare state, the Christian right
advances by attacking the existing one.
Of course, Bush's faith-based social welfare
strategy only accelerates the downward spiral toward theocracy.
Not only do the right-leaning evangelical churches offer their
own, shamelessly proselytizing social services; not only do they
attack candidates who favor expanded public services-but they
stand to gain public money by doing so. It is this dangerous positive
feedback loop, and not any new spiritual or moral dimension of
American life, that the Democrats have failed to comprehend: The
evangelical church-based welfare system is being fed by the deliberate
destruction of the secular welfare state.
In the aftermath of election '04, centrist
Democrats should not be flirting with faith but re-examining their
affinity for candidates too mumble-mouthed and compromised to
articulate poverty and war as the urgent moral issues they are.
Jesus is on our side here, and secular liberals should not be
afraid to invoke him. Policies of pre-emptive war and the upward
redistribution of wealth are inversions of the Judeo-Christian
ethic, which is for the most part silent, or mysteriously cryptic,
on gays and abortion. At the very least, we need a firm commitment
to public forms of childcare, healthcare, housing and education-for
people of all faiths and no faith at all. Secondly, progressives
should perhaps rethink their own disdain for service-based outreach
programs. Once it was the left that provided "alternative
services" in the form of free clinics, women's health centers,
food co-ops and inner-city multi-service storefronts. Enterprises
like these are not substitutes for an adequate public welfare
state, but they can become the springboards from which to demand
One last lesson from the Christians-the
ancient, original ones, that is. Theirs is the story of how a
steadfast and heroic moral minority undermined the world's greatest
empire and eventually came to power. Faced with relentless and
spectacular forms of repression, they kept on meeting over their
potluck dinners (the origins of later communion rituals), proselytizing
and bearing witness wherever they could. For the next four years
and well beyond, liberals and progressives will need to emulate
these original Christians, who stood against imperial Rome with
their bodies, their hearts and their souls.
Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel
and Dimed (Owl), is the winner of the 2004 Puffin/Nation Prize.
For more information go to www.nationinstitute.org/awards/puffin.