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The Ten Commandments

I did a Tapped post the other day on some Pew data that I think is worth discussing further. It confirmed the bit of conventional wisdom that the Democrats could reap some major gains by taking a more conciliatory stance toward traditionalist sentiment in America. The "Christian right," for example, polls as broadly popular and is even popular among one non-trivial segment of the Democratic coalition. At the same time, it indicates potentially broad-based support for a progressive economic agenda. Minimum wage hikes, more spending on health care (even if it means higher taxes), government regulation of business in the public interest, and repealing large portions of the Bush tax cuts all garner fairly wide support. Nevertheless, the same data undermines the oft-heard suggestion that a softer line on abortion is crucial -- or even useful -- in trying to implement the strategy under consideration. None of the Democratic base groups and neither of the swing groups think it would be a good idea to make it harder for women to get abortions. Generally speaking, not making it harder to get abortions has solid, though non-overwhelming majority support.

Now the poll doesn't directly state what about the Christian right is well regarded if its stance on abortion isn't. It does, however, provide at least two examples of Christian right caucus that, unlike abortion restrictions, really are popular. One is letting public schools teach creationism along with evolution. Another -- and this one, unlike the evolution thing, is really wildly popular -- is putting the ten commandments up in public buildings. You should look at the data yourself and see exactly how popular this is, because I think a lot of readers will have trouble believing it. Public support is totally overwhelming, opposition is very much a marginal view. But opposition is highly concentrated in a single politico-demographic group that Pew rather unhelpfully labels "liberals." These liberals don't exhaust what we normally think of as the category of liberals. Rather, it's people like me -- white, reasonably prosperous, highly educated, secular folks. That describes me, the vast majority of people I know, and probably describes the vast majority of my readers and the vast majority of the people we know. Our views on lots of stuff are perfectly mainstream and, even where not always held by most people are at least broadly present in America. But not about the ten commandments. It's just us. Other sorts of Democrats are against us. Swing people are against us. Republicans are against us. Overwhelmingly.

If you ask me this and related issues would be fruitful areas for compromise. I wouldn't say posting ten commandments on public buildings is a good idea. It strikes me as slightly silly, mildly wasteful, and vaguely offensive. But it's honestly not a big deal. Abortion and reproductive rights matter. A lot. So does trying to maintain forward motion on the gay rights front. So do the basic economic issues, so does foreign policy. Ten commandments? "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance? Taxpayer dollars financing Christmas displays in the town square? That stuff doesn't really matter. I'd be happier were it otherwise, but if that kind of token gesture toward the concept that this is a Christian (or, as they say, "Judeo-Christian," whatever that means) country is what it takes to get support for a progressive political agenda, then sign me up. And I think most liberals will agree with me on that. The location of stone slabs is, like the precise number of bullets you can put in your ammo clip, not something that's worth losing elections over. Now where I'll probably lose your support is when I say that I don't even really care about the school prayer question, but speaking from experience I was forced to engage in sectarian Christian prayer in my (non-public) school and it was fine.

May 13, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I agree that Democrats should support teaching "creationism" in science courses, and should also, of course, teach "flat earthism", "magnetism as a cure for everything", and, of course, "flying saucerism". And, we might as well teach that Murika is the center of the flat earth. After all, who cares that Murikan "scientists" are way behind the rest of the world's scientists?

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | May 13, 2005 12:13:24 AM

How about a nudie statue of a beefy, pumped-up Moses instead? And a porny Adam and Eve for the schools?

Posted by: Robin the Hood | May 13, 2005 12:13:26 AM

You should look at the data yourself and see exactly how popular this is, because I think a lot of readers will have trouble believing it. Public support is totally overwhelming, opposition is very much a marginal view.

Lots of policies that polling data consistently finds to be very popular fail to become law. Gun control is a good example. It's not just the number of people who support it, but the strength of their committment and the degree to which it influences their political behavior. I doubt that most of that 72% who think it "proper" to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings really care very much one way or the other, and are not likely to change the way they vote over the issue.

Posted by: Don P | May 13, 2005 12:23:44 AM

I agree. If we have to sell out anything, something trivial and symbolic like this is the way to go. (And I remained amazed how desperate many "progressives" are to sell out on abortion depite the utter lack of evidence that the issue is a net loser for Democrats.)

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | May 13, 2005 12:24:43 AM

"The "Christian right," for example, polls as broadly popular and is even popular among one non-trivial segment of the Democratic coalition."

No. The question was not about the "Christian right", it was about "Christian conservatives". That's an important distinction.

The Democratic coalition includes a non-trivial number of "conservatives" who are not necessarily rightists. Marshall Wittman talks about these folks as Progressive Traditionalists, people who like traditional social values, but are progressive on economic issues.

Figuring out how conservatives can be part of a majority coalition of the center/left is the single crucial element to getting the Democrats back to a governing position. So it was during the 1932 - 1968 golden period, and so it must be in the future.

Posted by: Petey | May 13, 2005 12:30:57 AM

Yeah, lots of interesting stuff in the Pew report. The "what category do you fit in" test is

http://typology.people-press.org/typology/

not surprisingly, my results came up liberal. In response to the point about Democrats and cultural values, my sense is this that a tactical retreat on issues like public placement of the 10 commandments would not be as difficult as one might imagine, but success would rest on the specific politicians who folded such a reformulation into their campaigns and actions in government. Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman are, I suppose, the twin examples of this; one is liked and has done well by his party, the other is rightly derided as a sell-out who simply does not understand the current partisan environment. There's a fundamental difference between the two, but that doesn't rest solely on the votes they cast.

The trick will be to make it clearly understood to the activists and people who read blogs like this that a Democratic shift isn't being done out of appeasement or any sort of mushy belief in compromise, but out of a realistic desire to make substantial progress on other fronts (both policy wise and in marginal elections). I'm fine with action that places courthouse tablets below issues like reproductive rights in hierarchy of things worth fighting for, but doing so will only work if there's no delusion as to the eliminationism and totalitarianism that are the right these days.

Posted by: SamAm | May 13, 2005 12:35:10 AM

"If we give up on the religion thing then we'll get the rest of our agenda" is wishful thinking.

As Don P. points out, there's a difference between popular and strongly-felt. The people who like putting up the Ten Commandments enough to hate anyone who says otherwise will not suddenly become progressive-friendly if we cave. And the vast mushy middle won't care more or less about abortion, or fair wages, if we shrug and tell them it's cool to put "I am the LORD your GOD" on the courthouses.

Posted by: mythago | May 13, 2005 12:39:12 AM

If you ask me this and related issues would be fruitful areas for compromise.

I hope no one asks you.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov | May 13, 2005 12:41:35 AM

as they say, "Judeo-Christian," whatever that means

It means "Christ-killing Jews are going to burn in hell if they don't convert, but we have to acknowledge our theological ancestry so we won't be accused of anti-Semitism." I'm a half again your age, of course, but I distinctly remember the screeds against Jews & Catholics that fundamentalists enjoyed before they decided to make common cause with both groups (wrt Israel & sexual issues, respectively) for political expediency.

Having said that-- and acknowledging that you have the experience of being in a religious minority, although from a rather secure & privileged position for all that-- I don't think this will work. For one thing, not enough Dems will sacrifice their principles as a political tactic. For another, the people who are so willing to believe that a callow fool like GWB experienced a miraculous change that apparently makes him God's representative on earth would never, ever buy a Democratic reversal on these issues. Hell, we've basically given up on gun control, and in the fall I still passed an NRA billboard on the way to work every day that depicted Kerry as a poodle. They despise us-- it's not about policies and it's not even really about these silly little turf wars. If we give ground on the isses you suggest, we'll gain nothing and they'll no longer be issues, because the rightwing machine will simply make some sort of shit up to throw at us.

Posted by: latts | May 13, 2005 12:42:22 AM

what latts said (digby said it well a long while ago)

In the abstract, not too awful. However the tablets in a courthouse in Boston light possibly have a different meaning, purpose and use than the tablets in a courthouse in Tuscaloosa or Colorado Springs. I suggest you live a year in a place like that to umm, get a feel for the practical consequences.

We write off the Red States to our peril, The Deep South in the fifties has a significantly higher Jewish population than today. We cannot continue to polarize and separate without dire consequences. Nor can we abandon our ideological allies because they are minorities in inconvenient locations.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 13, 2005 12:53:13 AM

Rather, it's people like me -- white, reasonably prosperous, highly educated, secular folks. . . . It's just us. Other sorts of Democrats are against us.

Well if, by "us" you mean White, then no, you're wrong. I am certainly not part of "us" in that definition. (Thanks for reminding me.) And to me that is a very big deal. I don't mind acknowledging the Judeo-Christian roots of the modern beginnings of this nation in any manner of less official ways. You're lumping together a lot of stuff for one thing. Christmas displays might not such a big deal. But being told when I'm going to court--the one place I am most likely to feel the weight of the state's force--that statements which explicitly negate my religious beliefs and practices are now officially enshrined by the state is a very big deal. It's sort of a slap in the face about the promise of what America is.

This country could have been organized one in which "Idol-worshipping", for instance, was illegal. It could have been organized as one where people who beieve in the Buddha or kami or the White Buffalo or nothing at all necessarily enjoyed a lesser place before the law. It was not.

Amazingly, against all probability, against all tradition, against all precedent, it was explicitly organized as a country where such things explicitly should not happen. Sometimes they do, but the essential promise is a good faith attempt to make sure they don't. That made a big difference to some people. People whose relgious beliefs have little or nothing to do with the Abrahamic worldview. Drip by drip, trickle by trickle, such people came over, cautiously hopeful that that promise is real. It's an amazingly unlikely, unbelievable promise. It doesn't exist as such in most places. People for whom it's a necessity, not a luxury, are often secretly terrified that it will be reneged on, especially these days. And all these years their kids, their friends, their welcoming neighbors have reassured them--"No, don't worry, no one will hold your religion against you here, even though you are the minority." Putting up those tablets in a court will silence all that welcome reassurement.

So maybe it's not a big deal to you. Maybe there aren't enough of us heathen freaks to swing any votes. Maybe it won't actually, mechanically affect us. Maybe this will be one little thing, and nothing will follow it. Maybe it's good for us to be a little more afraid when we go to court. I don't know. But it is a big deal to me.

Posted by: Saheli | May 13, 2005 1:27:21 AM

I'm a little unclear exactly how strongly Democrats are pushing on the religion in the public sphere thing. Isn't most of the hoopla created by Republican fundraising strawman screeds, "Democrats want to ban your Bible!"?

It's been a while (never?) since I saw a major Democratic politican get worked up over small potatoes church-and-state stuff. Everyone knows there's no votes to be gained by kicking down the creche.

And wasn't Michael Newdow pretty much a lone gunman? I don't remember him taking photo ops with any Democratic Congressmen, or even Democratic dog catchers.

I think the point is not "Democrats need to stop trying to take 'God' out of the pledge," because no Democrats are actually trying to do that. The point is, "Democrats need to learn how to deflect or negate Republican attacks on this range of issues."

I'm afraid the answer probably isn't increased levels of nuance.

Posted by: t e whalen | May 13, 2005 1:28:23 AM

Not caring about ten commandment postings might require dems to actually think about what they mean when they shreek "theocracy" though. it might hurt their heads.

Posted by: yoyo | May 13, 2005 1:30:51 AM

I'm with Matt here. This seems like a really trivial issue to dig your feet in on, and makes Democrats seem like the militant secularists the GOP makes them out to be. We have 'In God We Trust' on our currency; 'under god' is still in the pledge and the sun hasn't crashed into the ocean. If some Judge wants to put a replica of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse - as sort of a hammurabic nod to foundations of Western law, who really cares?

If you ask me, we should be lobbying for inscriptions like 'Blessed are the peacemakers' at the Pentagon, 'blessed are the meek' in the Oval Office, 'blessed are the poor' at the Office of Family Assistance.

When they actually start trying to make things in the 10 commandments illegal (like Adultury) then we can worry. Otherwise this is not a big deal.

Posted by: Dustin Ryan Ridgeway | May 13, 2005 1:41:26 AM

And wasn't Michael Newdow pretty much a lone gunman? I don't remember him taking photo ops with any Democratic Congressmen, or even Democratic dog catchers.

Well, I do recall that John Kerry's campaign advisor for "religious outreach" supported Newdow. But maybe that's the kind of thing that Matthew is complaining about, since that type of person isn't going to be able to "outreach" effectively to the type of religious persons Matthew says would like to attract...

Posted by: Al | May 13, 2005 1:51:44 AM

What latts, Bob McManus, and Saheli said.

If such should happen though I am ambivalent, should I fight for Hindu displays of lingams and yonis in courthouses and townsquares? (Hmmm, that would almost be worth it). Or is it time for some old time religion-type iconoclasm, with sledgehammer? Or maybe I'll become a Green party Naderite activist and get all up in your DLC shit?

Time for a time-out here. Let's get real. What the fuck is with this life-boat ethics type shit I hear from wonky Dems? Isn't that better left to the Republicans? If you must turn Biblical/Judeo-Christian/Abrahamic here, wouldn't we do better with Noah's Ark? I'm so tired of this shit. I will not stand for throwing any human beings rights overboard, not in NY, place of my birth and upbringing, nor in the deepest of the Deep South, whatever color, religion or lack thereof, gender, sexual orientation, etc,

If the Dems fuck this up I will troll them like a thousand Al's for Nader. You have been warned.

Posted by: Barry Freed | May 13, 2005 2:23:00 AM

It is very hard to see that 'giving the inch' on some symbolic things won't be quickly followed by the right 'taking a mile'.

Some Jews thought they could 'live with' the early laws in 1930's Germany.

Perhaps many Dems would gladly trade majority status for some 'symbolic' give-aways. I would not.

Any assumption that the relgious right will rationally accept some symbolic offerings without pushing ahead for even more is self-delusion.

Today the House was considering taking any female's ability to serve the military services in a combat zone (not just combat infantry).

Birth control, abortion, personal sexual privacy, non-Christian freedom of worship, repeal of civil rights laws, no-fault divorse, spousal abuse laws, etc. will surely be on the shopping lists. There really are slippery slopes when dealing with people who ideologically cannot compromise issues because God commands the outcome.

When the buses and trucks come for the gays and whatever other groups are also found 'guilty' of deforming our society, which of these symbolic offerings will be deemed reasonable.

The rebutal that these bad things can't happen because the Dems will control the government is nothing but another wish.

First they came for.....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 13, 2005 2:32:58 AM

"What the fuck is with this life-boat ethics type shit I hear from wonky Dems? Isn't that better left to the Republicans?"

Some Dems are unhappy about Republicans being the permanent governing party.

Some Dems think forming a coalition of more than 50% of the electorate is more important than ideological purity.

Some Dems think economics is more important than all the social hot-button bullshit that flips the blogospheric base into conniption fits.

Social attitudes in this country are pretty conservative, and are not congenial to certain liberal positions. Political parties are about winning elections. What part of this do you find confusing?

Posted by: Petey | May 13, 2005 2:38:04 AM

"Perhaps many Dems would gladly trade majority status for some 'symbolic' give-aways. I would not."

And so, if you were in charge of Democratic strategy, we would all live in a one-party nation where all of your Nazi fantasies could conceivably come true. But at least you'd be secure in your purity...

Posted by: Petey | May 13, 2005 2:46:16 AM

Political parties are about winning elections. What part of this do you find confusing?


No shit, and if you can't figure out how to get there, 51%, from here, 49%, other than by throwing overboard those you regard as inconveniently expediently other then you're going to have much bigger problems than you can imagine keeping any kind of coalition together at all.

And I'm very pro-gun rights (including anti-"assault-weapons" ban) and adamantly pro-reproductive rights for women, etc, And I have no problem whatsoever with pro-life people being part of such a coalition. But not at the expense of women's reproductive rights. Let's have more Harry Reids, by all means, but no Joe Liebermans, please.


I'm also not a liberal, but I'll let that slide.

Posted by: Barry Freed | May 13, 2005 2:50:13 AM

Petey, I'm not seeking purity of the Dem position. But I have argued above that these symbolic yieldings are futile. They just feed the hunger of the religious right, and they have a much bigger hunger that just the 10 commandments in court houses and schools.

Each additional issue will become another symbolic give-away, piece by piece. That is exactly how, in fact, it was done in the 1930's. Each step seemed minor: "it won't matter if Jews can't teach in schools".

If you think these are Nazi fantasies, fine. "It can't happen here" may be comforting, but it isn't true.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 13, 2005 2:52:54 AM

The problem with liberals is they take these polls too seriously. The Ten Commandments issue is one in particular. To take a simple example the ten commandments prescribes the day of sabbath (for Christians - Sundays) as the day of rest. Yet when Virginia accidently reinstated its blue law that allows employees to demand Sunday as a "day of rest" last year, the so-called conservative Republicans immediately repealed the blue laws. What the liberals should've done is to attack the so-called conservative Republicans as not respecting the rights of people of faith and denegrating the Ten Commandments when they repealed it. Similarly, every time conservatives try to display the Ten Commandements, liberals should demand reinstatement of blue laws and say if conservatives aren't willing to reinstate them, it shows conservatives don't really believe in the Ten Commandments at all and therefore conservatives have rejected the word of God.

Posted by: Dan the Man | May 13, 2005 3:01:56 AM

"I'm not seeking purity of the Dem position. But I have argued above that these symbolic yieldings are futile. They just feed the hunger of the religious right..."

The game is not about appeasing the religious right. The game is about winning over voters in the middle who tend to be relatively conservative about social issues.

Let's take an issue that I think is more relevant than Matthew's examples.

I think gay folks ought to be allowed to marry. I also think that pretty massive majorities of the electorate are opposed to gay marriage, many with strong intensity.

So what is to be done? Stand proudly with the 30% of the country that is in favor of gay marriage and let the right govern for a generation in a manner that would make the current administration seem centrist? Or give up a "symbolic yielding" on gay marriage, push for civil unions with full marriage rights (which neutralizes opposition), and try to build a governing coalition of the left/center?

I find deciding which side of the divide to come down on to be pretty damn easy. If one takes your words literally, so do you.

It matters who wins elections. Holding to massively unpopular positions because you see making "symbolic yieldings" on them as a slippery slope to fascism strikes me as rather bad strategy.

Posted by: Petey | May 13, 2005 3:13:38 AM

Goddamnit, I love our young friend Matt, but I seem to recall him making a similar argument before -- in that case about how teaching Creationism in school might be a bone we could throw to the right wing, for some kind of inconclusive gain. I find this line of argument horrible, esp. coming from a guy who studied philosophy (does truth really matter to a philosopher, Matt?).

When can we please change the foundations of the arguments? America founded on secularism was a fantastic and FUNDAMENTAL idea for the USA. The Ten Commandments have nothing to do with American justice, period, full stop. Please specify which commandments you want to include in your secular law, and very few of them fit. "Thou shalt not kill"? Fine. "Other gods before me"? Bullshit.

Posted by: David | May 13, 2005 3:39:41 AM

Ooh, ooh, Matt wants to compromise. Gosh, I sure do read that a lot lately. Gee, sure these people are just unreasonable lunatics that will maybe compromise when dining on your fucking liver, but we're so cleverly reasonable in our acceptance of their fanaticism that we'll accept their eight inches (cut) up our ass, just to get the votes. Some of us will even enjoy it, and/or make a buck in the process.

Posted by: Dick Durata | May 13, 2005 3:46:19 AM

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