Strange Bedfellows

by on June 4th, 2005

Can the fight against poverty bring Evangelicals and Democrats together?

I am a secular, heathen, Pagan Democrat with no family values. Or at least that is how I imagine Pat Robertson and his followers would describe me. While I am not a fan of abortion (who is?), I am fervently pro choice and believe strongly that the government should stay out of my bedroom, at least until I get my underwear picked up. Personally, I believe that efforts to break down the wall separating church and state are more of a threat to the United States than foreign terrorism. I don’t exactly fit the profile of a “born again” Christian.

But now that my bonafides have been established, I must admit to having an odd moment last week, an epiphany if you will. No, I didn’t see God or have any visions, (although I did have a really hot dream involving two blondes, a slip and slide and a tub of orange Jell-O the other night). The moment was actually a little stranger than that – for the first time ever, I agreed with something written by David Brooks, the conservative columnist at the New York Times.

In his column last week, Brooks argues evangelical Christians and liberals have “a natural alliance” in the war against poverty. He writes that “they are the only two groups really hyped up about these problems,” and outlines examples of where religious conservatives and social liberals are coming together to battle poverty here and abroad. While I never thought these words would leave my lips, Brooks is absolutely right. Moreover, while he may be a bit chagrined to hear this, he may have shown Democrats how to make gains with Evangelical voters in the red state south, an effort many believe is essential for Democrats to win the presidency and regain power in Congress.

Politics is the art of putting strange bedfellows together, and I don’t mean that couple in a bar in West Hollywood. As leader of the Senate, Lyndon Johnson made his career by helping those Senators with apparently nothing in common, to find their one shared interest, no matter how small, and get them to work together to pass legislation no one else gave a prayer. Liberal Democrats and religious conservatives probably aren’t going to agree on gay marriage. Personally, I think we should force gays to marry, buy houses in the suburbs, slap them with high property taxes and make them adopt some of those popsicles in a Petri dish that President Bush insists are children. Jerry Falwell probably isn’t going to agree with that. But both evangelicals and liberals are increasingly concerned about what is happening to the poor in this country and across the globe. Maybe we could agree to disagree about some of the wedge issues that Karl Rove and some of the Demagogues on both the right and left say are so important, and actually work together to do something about poverty.

There is certainly nothing moral, or for that matter particularly Christian about the economic policies of the Bush Administration. Under President Bush, real wages have fallen, the lives of the working poor have been made more difficult, and today more Americans live in poverty. That’s not exactly a path to sainthood. The tens of thousands of men and women who have lost good manufacturing jobs in Ohio and elsewhere, and the millions of other American barely eking out a living, have absolutely no business supporting the economic policies of the Bush administration. Democrats should not continue to let Republicans use the franchise of moral values to convince those voters to support policies that are not in their interest.

One way for Democrats to do that is to forge a new coalition uniting liberals and religious conservatives in the battle against poverty. Catholics and Evangelicals have a long-standing commitment to helping the poor and unfortunate and there is some evidence that they intend to use their political clout to do so. A recent report by the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization with more than 30 million members, calls on conservative Christians to move beyond their usual issues, such as abortion and homosexual rights, and involve themselves in such matters as poverty, justice and human rights. And Democrats, building on the ideas established by Franklin Roosevelt, have long stood for efforts to reduce poverty and to help the workingman. Theirs is an emerging common interest. Maybe they can find a way to put aside the battles over the “culture of life” and come together to do battle to improve the lives of Americans.

One Democrat thought to be a contender for his party’s presidential nomination is already making the fight against poverty a campaign theme. In a early start to the 2008 presidential election, speaking in New Hampshire earlier this year, former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards called poverty “one of the great moral issues of our time” and pledged to fight it saying, “If we can put a man on the moon, conquer polio, and put libraries of information on a chip, then we can end poverty for those who want to work for a better life.” As the newly hired director of the recently established Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, Edwards is positioned to lead a national conversation about poverty and what to do about it.

My guess is that other Democrats will soon follow. They should write a thank you note to David Brooks.

John McDonald