Sunday, March 27, 2005

Riding the tiger

Dan Gillmor, quoting Frank Rich:
Next to what's happening now, official displays of DeMille's old Ten Commandments monuments seem an innocuous encroachment of religion into public life. It is a full-scale jihad that our government signed onto last weekend, and what's most scary about it is how little was heard from the political opposition. The Harvard Law School constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe pointed out this week that even Joe McCarthy did not go so far as this Congress and president did in conspiring to "try to undo the processes of a state court." But faced with McCarthyism in God's name, most Democratic leaders went into hiding and stayed silent. Prayers are no more likely to revive their spines than poor Terri Schiavo's brain.

True, perhaps, and I've certainly felt that way. But I am also reminded of a lesson learned 12 years ago in little Shelby, N.C.

During my two-year tenure as city editor for The Shelby Star, some Chamber of Commerce Republicans (including my next-door neighbor and friend, Scott) proposed a referendum to allow the sale of beer and wine on Sundays, the idea being that this would help local establishments compete against bars and restaurants across the county line. The local Baptist organization -- generally considered the most powerful political group in the county -- immediately rallied in opposition.

Over the following weeks, the Baptists thundered from the pulpit, threatened boycotts, bought ads, staged rallies and generally kicked ass. In response, the men behind the referendum virtually disappeared from the face of the Earth. Faced with slanderous personal accusations and wildly inflammatory rhetoric attacking their referendum, the pro-alcohol side sometimes even refused to even take phone calls seeking their comment on the latest anti-alcohol broadside.

I was convinced the referendum was DOA, and so were the Baptists. While they gloated, I got mad at Scott and his GOP colleagues. I thought it was shameful the way they had left a few public spokespeople to take the brunt of the backlash and scurried into their hidey holes, abandoning the idea they had worked so long behind the scenes to promote.

On election night, we all went up to the central fire house to watch as the election commission posted the latest precinct returns on the big outdoor chalkboard. The two leaders of the Baptist Association were there, front and center, accepting congratulations from the crowd and telling people where to go for the big party afterward. My friend Scott and a few people from the pro side were there too, but they were much lower key.

The first returns showed heavy support for the referendum, but the Baptists didn't show any particular concern. As the night wore on, though, a new reality became apparent: People wanted Sunday alcohol sales, but they didn't want to be publicly criticized for it. The day before the election you couldn't find anybody who supported it, yet the measure passed by a substantial majority.

The preachers went from glib to glum, snapping at me when I approached them for comment and stalking away from the firehouse in a cold fury. On the other side of the parking lot, the Chamber guys left with polite smiles on their faces, off to celebrate more energetically in private.

Lesson: Scott and his friends understood that the Baptist Association had grown overconfident because of its long string of victories. They understood that a plurality of Baptists would vote for beer once they got behind the curtain, but that everyone would toe the religious party line until that moment. Even after the victory it was hard to find people who would admit to supporting the referendum, although you could find plenty of people who wouldn't say.

Fear of public humiliation is one thing, but true support is another.

The GOP, as a commenter at Dan Gillmor's site put it, has been riding the tiger and now finds itself inside the beast. Its most cynical political operatives have counted on the power of their moralistic arguments to energize their base while silencing the opposition.

But you can only play that card so long before the faithful begin to resent it, and this is particularly true of Southern Baptists, an oft-maligned group. Yes, most are culturally conservative, but they also come from a proud tradition that celebrates the power of the individual to interpret scripture and form a personal relationship with God. Baptists respect authority (too much so for my tastes) but when you try to push them around, by God, they push back.

I don't expect to see many public defections from the neocon/religious fundamentalist coalition that currently rules the nation, but its once-solid base is eroding rapidly. The Schiavo fiasco is just one example. I mean, who actually thought the nation really wanted to see more of Randall Terry? "BACK! BACK TO THE 90S, CLINIC-BOMBING SCUM!"

Will the Democrats have the sense to use this opportunity to put forward a cohesive statement of positive principles? They're still in hiding so far, making this an interesting moment in our political history. The people are leading: Which politicians will be smart enough to follow?