Behind Convention Speak

Sean Dempsey, S.J., is assistant professor of history in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. He specializes in urban, religious and U.S. history. He is particularly interested in the intersection of U.S. religious traditions, particularly Christianity, and political visions. In the midst of the nation’s two main party conventions, we asked him what he has heard as Republican and Democratic leaders have explained themselves and their vision to the American people. Dempsey was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

 

You’ve been paying attention to the use of moral language at the Republican and Democratic conventions. What differences have you noticed in how the two parties are speaking?

I’ve been listening for a particular moral view of the United States: how ought we to live together; what is our country, fundamentally; what should it be going forward.

From a scholarly perspective, what’s more interesting is what has happened on the Republican side. There is a long history of how evangelical Christians, who had been somewhat apolitical earlier in the 20th century, come into full flower by the 1970s and ’80s and adopt the language of conservatism, becoming a political force in the Republican Party. That was not inevitable. Many evangelical Christians had been supporters of Democratic policies especially as pertaining to the South: states’ rights, and if you go way back, slavery and other issues. But by the 1970s, evangelicals took something that is inherent in their own tradition — a strong emphasis on the individual and the individual’s relationship with God, with Jesus Christ — and saw a fitting home for themselves in the political language of Republican Party conservatism, which emphasized individual ambition and entrepreneurship. They found kindred spirits there.

How does Donald Trump, who appears to have no strong religious affiliation, fit into the picture as the nominee of a party with a strong evangelical base?

As we saw at the Republican convention, the relationship between evangelicals and economic conservatism fractured a bit. What Donald Trump is picking up on, from my perspective as a historian, is something older within the Protestant Christian, especially evangelical, tradition: a vision of the United States as fundamentally a white, Protestant Christian nation. That view goes back to the 19th and possibly the 18th centuries — the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and has as its mission in the world, not secular democracy per se, but actually the expansion of Christian identity. So, interestingly enough, Trump seems like a radical break, but some of the strings he is plucking, so to speak, are actually older ones, not brand new ones.

What do you see happening on the Democrats’ side?

The Democrats are interesting, because historically they would have been an odd mix of those evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The Democratic Party still has a sizable group of evangelicals. They’re called African-Americans. We don’t often think of them as evangelicals, but they are; they’re just not white. And Catholics have become more split as they have become more middle class. Many of the Irish, Italians, Poles and others have left immigrant status behind and become part of the mainstream in the United States. Many of them have moved over to the Republican Party. So now we have a Democratic Party that still has a sizable number of Catholics, especially Latino Catholics, African-Americans and a very strong secular wing. Casual observers may think the secular wing is the dominant one, but I think the religious voices still have a lot to say in the Democratic Party as well.

The language of the Democratic Party convention is one that I would associate more with the Catholic Church — apart from issues surrounding abortion rights — and with what used to be called the mainline Protestant churches, and also those in the African-American Christian experience. The Roman Catholic Church, being a global church, has always been somewhat more comfortable with what today we would call issues of diversity. Because so many immigrants were Catholic, the U.S. Catholic Church has always been a strong advocate for immigrants. And mainline Protestant churches have often been much more comfortable with cultural diversity, secularism, pluralism and modernity than their evangelical counterparts. Perhaps most important of all are the African-American Christian churches, which have always emphasized the social dimension of faith and the strong overlap between political action and advocacy and the expression of faith. That is symbolized by people like Martin Luther King Jr., but the tradition predates the Civil War. The African-American church was founded as a place of worship for enslaved people, and in many ways that’s a continuous tradition to the present day. Other religious groups are also represented, of course: Jews, very prominently, and others as well.

Then is it accurate to say the language of the Republican convention evidenced a religious worldview of the ‘Church Triumphant,’ whose mission is to convert the world, while the language of the Democratic convention is that of an Old Testament view of the church in exile whose people together will reach the ‘promised land’?

I think there’s something to that. The model on the Republican side is one of the church triumphant, but it’s also one of the church embattled. Those two ideas go together if your model is the conversion of culture and defense of a certain Christian cultural identity. You can see why in their eyes the Supreme Court has been such a focus. The Supreme Court and Democrats seem to be removing bricks from the wall of Christian America, and they worry about an imminent collapse. What follows from that is a notion of an embattled country under siege, and their job is to restore a triumphant Christianity. On the other side, the language of exile comes from the African-American experience and influence on the Democratic Party. African-American Christianity has always seen itself not only through the lens of Jesus but especially of Moses: being in a wilderness of slavery, Jim Crow, or police brutality in this day and age. The model is of a movement, a pilgrimage from darkness, despair and oppression to something more hopeful. I definitely think the Democratic Party as whole has adopted some of that metaphorical language that I see as having roots in the African-American churches.

Four years ago, the Republican Party nominated Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and there was relatively little conflict within the party between religious belief and political conservatism. This year, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump represented the conflict between faith and politics. What does it do to a party when particular actors embody philosophical conflict that the party as whole prefers to keep in harmony?

Despite the personal animosity between Cruz and Trump, it seems that the supporters of Cruz, if polls are to be trusted and I think they should be, those voters have moved with very little controversy over to Trump. Cruz, the son of a pastor, likely sees no overlap between his vision for America and what I assume he sees as Trump’s vision for America. But it may be less of a tension below the surface. I think, and this is a guess, that many of Cruz’s supporters see in Trump a person who will defend their core vision of the United States, even if he is not a man of deep faith. The average evangelical on the ground is not seeing that much difference between them, and seems to be happy to support Trump.

On the Democratic side, we saw attempts by the party four years ago to reassure groups like Democrats for Life of America that they had a place under the Democratic tent. This year, there seems to be little overt effort to do the same. Are the tensions among Democrats similar to those among Republicans?

I think so. That tension is part of the ongoing story of the migration of many Catholics out of the Democratic Party. There was a time when the Catholic Church in the United States and the Democratic Party were conjoined twins of American society. You can see that in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which basically reflected Catholic social teaching in many concrete ways. And it’s well known that the Democrats’ embrace of abortion rights and reproductive rights, especially after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, began a cleavage of the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church. They’ve been doing a careful dance for more than 40 years now, trying to maintain a place for pro-life Democrats who, in almost all cases, have been Catholics. That dance seems to have ended this year, because the Democratic Party has come out without any hesitation or nuance in favor of abortion rights. Many have said that little place seems to remain for these pro-life, mostly Catholic, Democrats. I think that’s a major sea change. It suggests a new trajectory for the party, and perhaps a new trajectory for the place of Catholics and other pro-life people in American politics. Will we see an even greater migration of Catholics out of the Democratic Party? Will we see a formation of new parties? I think we might be at one of those moments in American history.

Given that opinions about the two main presidential candidates appear set in stone, can the use of moral language evolve between now and November in a way that impacts this election?

I think this is a distinctive if not unique election in that the two candidates are so well known and so unpopular among the people who are not supporting them. However, I hope both will continue to sketch and develop this moral language of the United States. I’ll even say something halfway nice about Donald Trump: one thing that is in short supply in the United States these days is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for a notion of solidarity, of a true national community. Unfortunately, he’s trying to forge a national community especially on principles of anti-immigration, which is deeply troubling to me. However, that doesn’t mean the underlying project is without merit. I think we an increasingly atomized society: labor unions have declined, traditional political parties are not the influencers they once were, neither are churches. Organizations in American life that used to stitch together the social fabric have been weakened, especially in the last 30 or 40 years. The problem of the formation of a political community with real solidarity is a real issue. Is it possible that Trump could actually speak to that issue more inclusively? Yes, it’s possible, but I don’t think he will. On the other side, the story of the Democratic Party right now, it seems me, is the celebration and recognition of all Americans as Americans. There has been a great emphasis on diversity and opportunity and on the vision of people in exile coming into the mainstream of American society. To me, that vision of community is much more compelling than Donald Trump’s. But the challenge to the Democratic Party is the “E Pluribus Unum” challenge: How can we as a party — which rightfully celebrates difference and diversity and the achievement of women, minorities, people with disabilities, gay Americans, and on down the line — identify what unites us? Within the celebration of diversity, what are the principles of unity?

Polls show that Americans are exhibiting a decreasing affiliation with organized religion, but you are identifying a religious overlay to both party conventions. What does it say about our politics if religious language is still useful in a time of declining practice?

It’s fascinating. Another poll suggests that Americans are at an all-time low in what they consider the political influence on American politics of their own churches. An increasing number of people are disaffiliated, and few Americans claim to be listening to what the churches have to say on issues. All of that is true. Yet, the United States remains a God-believing society. It is still roughly 80 percent or more Christian. When pollsters ask Americans about their religious views or those of their institutions, Americans may be thinking strictly about what are the clergy saying, what are the official organs of the church saying. They may be paying less attention to that, for various reasons. But it doesn’t mean that faith is not informing politics still. Sometimes we have to listen for it in these moral visions of the country. I certainly think it’s there, it’s still bubbling under the surface. If I had to bet, I’d say we’re seeing religion and politics intersect in different ways than we’re used to. But I don’t think we’re seeing religion disappear from politics.

Historians are better at looking backward than looking forward, so the question for me is whether this is something like the death of a star. When a star dies, it leaves its light and warmth for a long time, even though it is essentially dead. So, is this a lingering cultural influence of religion? In 50 years, will we look on this time as a last hurrah? Or is it evidence that religious language and notions are entering into our discourse in different ways? I think that’s certainly a possibility.