With John McCain lagging behind Barack Obama in the polls, pundits are already preparing an autopsy for the McCain-Palin campaign.
As they discuss the future of the Republican Party, 62 percent of evangelicals—nearly a quarter of the electorate—identify themselves with the party. Christianity Today spoke with Ross Douthat, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, about where evangelicals will fit in the future of the party. He is the coauthor of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
What was wrong with the old party, and what do you propose?
We talk a lot about family breakdown and things that government policy can do to make it easier to get married and stay married. We sort of go through issues and say, "Let's take another look at health care, education, immigration." Are there things conservatives can say, that don't sound like the same old song?
Where do you see the Republican Party headed?
There's every reason to think that Obama is going to win. Conservatives are going to have to head into a long series of ideological fights within the party.
There are a lot of theories of where conservatism went wrong over the past six to eight years. One of the more popular theories especially, I think, on the East and West coasts of the United States, is that the problem is that the party is ad hoc to its evangelical base. Our book is arguing that social conservatism, broadly understood, should be the bedrock of conservatism in America.
That doesn't mean that socially conservative politicians shouldn't recognize that some issues are more likely to be winning issues than others. For instance, if you ask me to predict, I would say that abortion will continue to be a central issue for conservatives in America for 10 or 15 years. Gay marriage is likely not to be. The country will have moved to some kind of a compromise on that issue that probably won't make social conservatives all that happy.
Broadly speaking, the challenge for the Republican Party is not to jettison social conservatives but to find a way to deepen the social conservative, pro-family message beyond just the classic culture-war debates. What would it mean to have a pro-family tax policy? What would it mean to have a pro-family health-care policy?
There are issues that people don't necessarily think of as national or political issues that have to do with transportation, infrastructure, zoning, and regulation. What are the factors that place a strain on married couples? Where your job is, how you get to it, and how long it takes you to get to it are small but really important pieces of that puzzle.
The decline of the two-parent family in American life is one of the biggest challenges for the U.S. going forward, and it's at the root of a lot of issues such as growing economic inequality and social immobility.
What about evangelicals in particular? Are they the seen as the core of who's left in the party or as an albatross?
It depends on what group of people you're in. Within the inner circle of the conservative movement, whether it's National Review or talk radio or wherever, I think we've reached a point where evangelicals are regarded as just part of the team. There isn't any suspicion or, "You're a millstone around our neck" or whatever.
If you leave the inner circle of the conservative movement and shift over to the Republican establishment, the party professionals, the people who run elections, fundraisers, have a cultural discomfort with evangelicalism and find it easy to blame when things are not going well.
Who are the most influential evangelicals in the party, and what issues do you think they are pushing for?
There's this narrative that has some truth and some falsehood. There's this rising generation, this Rick Warren to Mike Huckabee generation, that wants to broaden the tent, broaden the issues that evangelicals focus on, to talk about poverty, to talk about the environment. A lot of people who push that narrative are pushing it because they want to believe that the next generation of evangelicals won't care about abortion, for instance. If you look at the polls, that's not really true. Rick Warren, for instance, remains pretty theologically conservative and very conservative on the next-of-life issues, even as he is off in Africa with Bono talking about AIDS, or talking about the environment in a way that Jerry Falwell probably wouldn't have. It's more complicated than some of the stereotypes.
Evangelicalism and American-style conservatism have always made for an uneasy marriage. There's always been this heavy social-justice component to evangelicalism, and that's sort of in tension with some of the more straightforward, pro-free market, pro-business aspects of the contemporary Republican Party. As long as the two-party landscape remains what it is, I don't know where exactly evangelicals go. You can definitely see a pretty big tension between Michael Gerson's conservatism and Dick Cheney's conservatism.
How would you like to see that tension eased?
We think that the evangelical-conservative marriage can be saved. I think it makes more sense for conservatives to be focused on the working class than it does for them to be focused on the poor. There are policies that social conservatives should be championing and things they should be thinking about that aren't just straightforward compassion. Focused less on the moment when somebody is poor and desperately in need of a handout, and more on the moment when a working class family is in danger of beginning the slide down that ladder to poverty.
Huckabee and Palin, two conservative Christians, are being talked about as serious frontrunners for 2012. Does that change how evangelicals and the Republican Party are perceived?
The media are fascinated by Palin, but they think she's kind of ridiculous. She has had the paradoxical effect on Mike Huckabee, because he's just better at doing interviews than she is. She's raising his intellectual credibility. Huckabee probably is rated higher now because Palin is perceived to be unable to do interviews.
It's an interesting moment, because we have simultaneously reached a point where you can be a real evangelical and be a serious contender for the nomination of one of the two major parties, but this is perceived in the media as a sign that the Republican Party is becoming increasingly marginal.
Are evangelicals willing to include the policy positions that you think the Republican Party needs to take on to rebrand itself?
The smartest thing that a Huckabee or a Sarah Palin or anyone else who is in that position could do would be to give a speech on what it means to be pro-family. They could maybe criticize some older evangelical leaders in an effort to get a little distance from them in the public eye and say, "Too often we've focused on a narrow set of issues." They would have a good chance of simultaneously embracing what I think are good policy ideas, but also brand themselves as different kinds of conservatives. That kind of branding is the kind evangelicals need and Republicans need if they are going to have any success in elections going forward. Any attempt to rebrand the party and broaden this agenda is going to be met with profound resistance.
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Ross Douthat writes on his blog at The Atlantic. His most recent book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, can be found at Amazon.com and other book retailers.
David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that Douthat and his coauthor, Reihan Salam, are two of the most promising conservatives.
GetReligion previously interviewed Douthat on religion and the media.