Sunday, July 20, 2008

Duffy and the Evangelicals

Michael Duffy is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, and is also offered up on a regular basis as a token alternative to the perceived 'left wing bias' of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

His column on US evangelicals, published in the Herald in the Weekend Edition July 19-20, 2008 is typical of a desire to provide 'counter-clockwise' spin, though for what purpose and ultimate sense of the way the world works frequently remains a mystery.

The heading says it all - 'Strength of US evangelicals is one of the big myths of our time'. To arrive at this position, Duffy recycles the work of Christine Wicker, a Christian, former evangelical, and some time religious reporter for the Dallas Morning News. There seems to be two major payoffs for Duffy in Wicker's work - "The myth of a resurgent and incredibly influential evangelical movement allowed opponents to portray these presidents (Reagan and Bush) as nothing more than the glove puppets of superstition'. This is of course the political left's doing, embracing 'the exaggerated picture fervently' because it fitted their sense that Reagan and Bush had been 'irrational and anti-modern'.

Instead the truth - according to Duffy and Wicker - is that the fastest growing belief category is non-believers 'to which so many on the left belong'. (But why, if you follow Duffy's logic about evangelicals - to which, he claims, social progressives like Jimmy Carter and others belong - to prove that evangelicals are not what they seem, or what the left might conjure up. You might just as well say, if you were in a light hearted, Duffyish mood, that this group of non-believers - 'to which so many on the right belong' with Machiavellian relish, and perhaps throw in a few non believing right wing names to make it sound so much more meaningful and relevant).

Here then is the counter-spin. If you read Duffy right, the converse must be true - Bush and Reagan are not the glove puppets of superstition. Typically Duffy conflates Bush - who is a well known born again - with Reagan, who paid lip service to religion, but left it at that (and left Nancy to believe in all kinds of wild superstitions). But Reagan doesn't save Bush, who has given every sign during his presidency of being a glove puppet, not just to superstition, but to fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Of course it's wildly fashionable to discount evangelicals, now that the Rovian dream of a thousand year empire based on their uneasy support, has begun to fall apart, and we are in the last days of a discredited President's evangelical ministry to the world.

But why go the whole hog and start to revise history to discount evangelicals and their role in the United States? It's not that evangelicals don't have an ongoing capacity to organise and influence. Put it this way - Duffy (and Wicker's) reference to the growing category of non-believers is a blind. The day a publicly out non-believer becomes President of the United States is likely to be the same day an Islamic warrior is sworn in on a cold winter's day in Washington.
Evangelicals - and Christians in general - are an organised and potent force in the United States, whereas it's fair to suggest that non-believers couldn't organise a chook raffle in a speakeasy. The likes of Hitchens and Dawkins are simply too eccentric to constitute a movement, and non believers have nothing like a museum showing humans and dinosaurs roaming the earth together - we simply take it on faith that Raquel Welch wore no clothes when it happened.

When you get down into the depths of Duffy's article - and Wicker's methodology - it gets even more suspect. Wicker gets down to there being only 7 per cent of the American population being evangelicals by conveniently using an exclusionist definition - 'attendance at some sort of prayer group is necessary before a person can be categorised as a fervent conservative of the sort conjured up in the lurid stories of the evangelical dominance of politics'. Well that's handy. By our own hastily conjured up definition, you can't really be a fervent non-believer, of the sort conjured up in the lurid stories by evangelicals of atheists bringing Satan to the fore in politics, unless you happen to be a card carrying member of the Christopher Hitchens drinking support club (membership now open) or perhaps more marginally a geek with a computer who regularly attends Dawkins online.

So where does Duffy get with all this, potentially one of the 'big myths of our time'. Well as usual with Duffy, he doesn't get anywhere near the truth, or interesting ambiguities. But he does manage to generate a touch of fear (can non believers really be growing so fast in such a wonderful week in Sydney when the Papists frolic and dance at the race course instead of the horses and the gamblers) and he does manage to exonerate Bush as a glove puppet and he does make all that Rovian delusion about evangelicals tipping the balance in the last two election campaigns seem like a left wing conspiracy. As a bonus, I guess the tilt of the US Supreme Court to the right under Bush is no more than the kind of tilt you'd apply to a pin ball machine to make the game come out right.

Nowhere does Duffy mention the most obvious point - counting numbers is no sensible indicator of influence. Even seven per cent well organised, especially in an election where voting is optional and the margin might be a few hundred thousand, can be a devastating play. Rove was right to get on side with the evangelicals, and he and his cohorts won two elections pursuing this and like strategies. It makes no sense simply to argue that the evangelicals exaggerated their own importance, and got a lot of publicity and behaved in an entrepreneurial way beyond their real size. Rove certainly thought they were important, but I guess now he's a loser, his views don't count (perhaps one of the biggest myths of our time was that Rove's views had popular support whereas now statistical studies suggest he makes a club with one member).

If this is the best Australia can do - a columnist recycling without insight or understanding - one commentator's work on US religion - then there's little hope for intellectual life in the country. Duffy does counter-spin as a matter of habit, but as usual, his insights are driven by his bete noirs (the hysterical left as opposed to the rational libertarian). It's neurosis as commentary, and slowly we can begin to form a deeper understanding of the Duffy angst. In the meantime, perhaps it's better to read David Brooks in the NY Times and be done with it.

Our rating for Duffy and the evangelicals:

Amount of recycled thoughts: 10
Capacity for spin: 10
Insights into the world, and specifically US politics and the role of religion within it: 2
Insights into Duffy: 7

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