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AFTER THE DELUGE: SHOULD DEMOCRATS PUNCH BELOW THE BIBLE BELT?

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The November 5 cover story of the UK’s Daily Mirror exclaimed in hyperbolic terms what billions of people around the world are probably thinking now: that America has voted for “carnage and isolation and the unreserved contempt of most of the rest of the world.” Polling data shows this to be untrue. The vast majority of Americans, including Bush supporters, embrace the Democrats’ internationalist platform.

The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations finds that 87% of Americans support “working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism,” while the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland reports that 60-80% of Bush supporters not only want the US to participate in the Land Mines and Nuclear Test Ban treaties, International Criminal Court, and Kyoto Protocols, but that – remarkably – they believe Bush shares their views.

The nearly 60 million Americans who voted Republican this month did so not to support “carnage and isolation and the unreserved contempt of most of the rest of the world.” Nor did they do so to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy. Rather, as reported by every exit poll, they did so in the cause of “values:” Christian, conservative, “family” values. America, for a variety of demographic, sociological, and geo-political reasons, has shifted religiously rightward. Among Democrats, this should be seen as cause for hope.

Religious Christians, despite whatever faults one may ascribe to them, are avid readers of the New Testament. As the center-left Christian Democrats of continental Europe have shown over the last two centuries, most of the New Testament is Progressive. Directly engaging society’s ills; caring for the downtrodden, the broken, and the oppressed; neighborly generosity; and living by, rather than merely pronouncing, a clear moral code are Christian standards exemplified by Jesus and His Apostles. Christians should be voting for the Democrats in droves.

But they are not. In fact, they form the base of support for Bush’s radically un-Christian, unilateralist agenda. This is due to Karl Rove’s ingenious Christian messaging, which the Democrats must now learn to copy. Their only other choices are to radically alter their own core policies (a dramatic shift leftward has been proposed), or else languish in opposition.

What would the American version of Christian Democratic messaging sound like? Domestically, Democrats must begin by nominally denouncing “Big Government.” Big Government - the meddling of Northeastern-elite-controlled Federal Government in the affairs of individuals, families, and states – is anathema to Bush’s conservative base.

Public renunciation of “Big Government” should be accompanied by a call to return to “The Golden Rule.” For the purposes of messaging, this can be stated as simply as “love thy neighbor.” In terms of policy, it harkens back to Liberal political theory: the rights of the individual end only where those of another individual’s begin. Similarly, the rights of local government end only where those of neighboring localities begin, and the rights of states end at their own borders.

Loving thy neighbor means being personally generous, and forgiving toward others. It also means agreeing that localities have a collective interest in, for instance, education, the improvement of which benefits all. It means that a state should not pollute a river that flows through its neighbors. Local, state, and federal regulations should and must exist, but “merely” to regulate brotherly love.

Loving thy neighbor can extend beyond national borders, as well. Exploitative trade practices, arrogant foreign policies, and an enormous per-capita polluting record are expressly non-Christian. They are even less Christian when practiced by the world’s only superpower.

If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”
John 13:14-15

American conservatives often recount America’s Christian heritage. Without forgetting the Enlightenment inspiration of the Founding Fathers, Democrats would do well to seize the notion devised by America’s earlier Christian fathers: the Puritan’s goal to be a “City on a Hill” – to shine as a light among the nations and change the world by example. As applied to foreign policy, the City on a Hill model is not only inspirational to Christians, it is arguably an effective policy in a global battle for “Hearts and Minds.”

To digress for a moment: Hearts and Minds is a (poor) slogan for the increasing need to win support not only from the heads of nation states, but from the majority of the globe’s inhabitants. Burgeoning communication and transportation networks, not to mention the globalization of commerce, have empowered individuals and other non-State actors to a degree unrivaled since the spread of printing. Not only have ideas and individuals become portable, so also have conflicts that in earlier centuries would have remained regional. (An attack on New York City by a Saudi dissident with primarily regional grievances is, among other things, novel.)

In such a world, real politik loses appeal, and Jesus’ encouragement to live up to pronounced morality should be re-examined. The US must engage with the world whole-heartedly, encouraging democracy, even Islamic or French democracy, and discouraging tyranny.

Just as the “multitudes” of the gospels harkened to Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, so does world opinion (as reported, for example, by the Pew Global Attitudes Project) recognize the hypocrisy of the United States government. Only by “washing the feet” of the poor and troubled globally while simultaneously distancing ourselves from non-democratic regimes, will we begin to shift the tide of anti-US sentiment sweeping the world and remove much of the human and financial support that now flows to those espousing the ideologies of medievalism and anti-modernism.

This is not to leave open a “weak on terror” argument. It is to more simply state the concept, held though not articulated well by the Kerry campaign, that the “War on Terror” is an ideological conflict – one of Hearts and Minds, if you will – rather than an exclusively military one. Americans, who in recent generations have won ideological struggles against Fascism and Communism, will understand this. Just as they will understand the intrinsic importance to this battle of being a true “City on a Hill.”

Global engagement, care for the underprivileged, neighborly love, progressive activism, and living up to your own moral standards are Christian values – preached and practiced by Jesus himself. They are American values, as well, shared by both the Progressive left and the conservative Christian right. And they are the values that will make America stronger at home and respected in the world.

That they are not the Republican Party’s values exposes a chink in the GOP’s electoral armor, one that the Democrats would do well to make the most of.



Image courtesy of Fredericks Freiser Gallery, New York.

Jed Willard is a native of New Orleans, a resident of Cambridge, MA, and a founding partner of LanguageCorps. A former marketing consultant, he holds a degree in History from Harvard and is a member of NAFSA Association of International Educators.

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