Thursday, May 29, 2003

How the GOP is becoming the Religious Party

Newsweek - Fineman -- Here’s one of the most salient facts of politics today: There is a close and growing correlation between dutiful church attendance and identification with the GOP.

The president’s visit to Krakow—the start of a trip that will include stops in Russia, France and the Middle East—is perfectly timed. He’ll be there on Saturday, so that news of his visit to the hometown of the Polish Pope will be in every Sunday paper. You think they’ll notice that in, say, Pittsburgh or Chicago?

I asked Karl Rove more than a year ago what his goal was for ’04. His straightforward, unblinking answer: to increase evangelical turnout.

Their straightforward goal for ’04 is to boost turnout of “The Base”—defined, in the modern Republican Party, as voters who practice traditional religions in traditional ways. That means evangelical Christians, of course, but also, and increasingly, socially conservative (if economically liberal) Roman Catholics, adherents of various strains of Eastern Orthodoxy and non-Reform Jews.

But to move the Base to the polls you need a record that resonates emotionally and substantively with the target audience, even if (and this is sometimes preferable) no one else is listening. Outsiders don’t have to “get it.” You just have to make sure you don’t offend them so deeply that they turn out to oppose you.

So, with its “faith-based” initiative stuck in Congress and facing an uncertain future in the courts, the administration is pressing a series of faith-friendly measures administratively—the result of an all-points bulletin issued by Rove & Co. to look for ways to play to the Base without new legislation.

The most recent example came this week: a new program by the Department of the Interior to funnel historic preservations grants to places of worship. Just to stick it in Democratic eyes, the first site is none other than the Old North Church in Boston—home of the Kennedys and the ’04 Democratic convention.

You don’t tend to think of the Department of the Interior as a hotbed of religiosity or, for that matter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Sure enough, though, FEMA recently decided to allow religious groups to be paid for taking part in storm and earthquake relief efforts. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development is funneling money into construction of religious centers, as long as the dominant purpose of the structure is “social service.”

I’m not sure I know how, say, the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Homeland Security will get aboard this Train to Jordan, but give the Bushies time.

Though Rove downplays the prospect, GOP strategists are hoping to double the abysmal level of support among Jews in 2000 (18 percent). There’s no real correlation between traditionalism and Zionism, but the White House is hoping that the combination of faith-based initiatives AND support for Israel can win conservative Jewish votes. (No reason why some of those historic preservation grants can’t go to synagogues…)

There’s only one high-profile matter that is truly risky: the choice of a nominee for the Supreme Court. To make this strategy work, the president has to pick a religious traditionalist of some kind, which means one who openly—proudly—opposes abortion and favors a Human Life Amendment to the constitution.

That kind of nominee would generate the kind of fight the White House doesn’t really want to see, for it could mobilize the other side. Better to fly below radar.

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