GOP cedes ground on faith

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Gerson

— With Thomas Hobbes now firmly in charge of Repub­li­can mes­sag­ing — the world is a dark, Dar­winian bloodbath, un­less we turn over power to a strong ruler who will pro­tect us — Hil­lary Clin­ton has a num­ber of rhetor­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal gaps she could fill in Philadelphia.

She might, for ex­am­ple, use some self-ef­fac­ing humor, in con­trast to Don­ald Trump’s thin-skinned ego­tism. She could tell some sto­ries of im­mi­grant con­tri­bu­tion and suc­cess, rather than sto­ries about im­mi­grants mur­der­ing chil­dren. She might try a lit­tle as­pi­ra­tion, a lit­tle mag­na­nim­ity, a lit­tle con­fi­dence in the Amer­i­can spirit — all on ex­tended va­ca­tion in Trump’s GOP. And she could talk about the way re­li­gious val­ues should in­form our pub­lic life — a task that the Repub­li­can Party has largely aban­doned.

It is, per­haps, to Trump’s credit that in Cleveland he did not pre­tend to be­liefs he does not pos­sess. But his con­ven­tion speech was al­most en­tirely sec­u­lar. Faith-based sup­port­ers were only men­tioned as an­other in­ter­est group at the long trough of his prom­ises. Larger re­li­gious themes that of­ten in­form Amer­i­can pub­lic rhetoric — hu­man dig­nity, so­cial jus­tice, the pos­si­bil­ity of redemp­tion — were ab­sent.

This is one rea­son many of us found the GOP con­ven­tion so dis­ori­ent­ing and dis­turb­ing. Trump has cut the party off from its re­li­gious, eth­i­cal and mo­ral moor­ings. He ap­peals al­most ex­clu­sively to anger at per­ceived wrongs and to feel­ings of eco­nomic dis­tress.

This may be Trump’s best po­lit­i­cal strat­egy. For him to win in Novem­ber, he must turn out mil­lions of sec­u­lar, bluecol­lar, eco­nomic pop­ulists — the type of voters Ross Perot once mo­ti­vated — who have never par­tic­i­pated in pol­i­tics be­fore. Trump’s ap­peal to anger against im­mi­gra­tion, trade, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is well suited to his tar­get au­di­ence. Will this re­sult in an anti-es­tab­lish­ment wave elec­tion that over­whelms the votes of mi­nori­ties and the col­lege ed­u­cated? That is the defin­ing po­lit­i­cal ques­tion of 2016.

But Trump’s ap­proach does leave Democrats with an open­ing on re­li­gion. Clin­ton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her run­ning mate is ef­fec­tive coun­ter­pro­gram­ming. Repub­li­can sen­a­tors I talked with de­scribe Kaine as “very bright,” “gen­uinely nice,” and “un­fail­ingly cour­te­ous and positive.” But he is also known as “faith-ori­ented” and a “deeply spir­i­tual guy.” Kaine is not only flu­ent in Span­ish; he speaks the lan­guage of Catholic so­cial thought, in the di­alect of Pope Fran­cis.

There is rea­son to think that Catholics — who of­ten have a positive view of im­mi­gra­tion and seek a mo­ral con­text for their po­lit­i­cal choices — might be open to Demo­cratic out­reach. In 2012, Pres­i­dent Obama won the Catholic vote nar­rowly, 50 per­cent to 48 per­cent. A re­cent poll had Clin­ton beat­ing Trump among Catholics 56 per­cent to 39 per­cent. And it is not just Latino Catholics who have found Trump’s mes­sage off-putting. “The Repub­li­can Party has left me by em­brac­ing Don­ald Trump,” says Ge­orge Weigel, a lead­ing Catholic con­ser­va­tive, “a man ut­terly un­fit by ex­pe­ri­ence, in­tel­lect, or char­ac­ter to be pres­i­dent of the United States.”

Weigel will not end up sup­port­ing Clin­ton, but other Catholics might, es­pe­cially if she can find some com­fort­able re­li­gious lan­guage, emerg­ing from her United Methodist tra­di­tion. “This does mat­ter to her,” says a long­time as­so­ci­ate. “But it is a root canal for her to talk about it.”

Clin­ton has a num­ber of press­ing prob­lems that her Philadelphia con­ven­tion speech must ad­dress. Her rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty and trust­wor­thi­ness is in tat­ters. Her ap­peal to younger voters is of­ten lame and fee­ble. She is poor at com­mu­ni­cat­ing her pas­sions, her core.

But at least some of these chal­lenges would be ad­dressed if she and her speech­writ­ers find a way to talk about the Chris­tian (and broadly re­li­gious) ideal of the com­mon good. This prin­ci­ple is found at the in­ter­sec­tion of Protes­tant main­line teach­ing on so­cial jus­tice, of Catholic so­cial thought and of the African-Amer­i­can civil rights tra­di­tion.

“We are tied to­gether in the sin­gle gar­ment of des­tiny, caught in an in­escapable net­work of mu­tu­al­ity,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “What­ever af­fects one directly af­fects all in­di­rectly. For some strange rea­son I can never be what I ought to be un­til you are what you ought to be. ... This is the way God’s uni­verse is made.”

It is hard for me to read those words with­out be­ing moved and sad­dened, since the GOP nom­i­nee for pres­i­dent has so in­ten­tion­ally aban­doned the ideals be­hind them. It is one of the great tragedies of 2016 — and per­haps an op­por­tu­nity for Clin­ton — that Repub­li­cans have ceded the ground of faith with­out a fight.

Michael Gerson is a syn­di­cated columnist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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