In his ill-chosen remarks to an April 6, 2008 San Francisco fundraiser, Barack Obama showed the danger bad social science poses to progressive politics. Commenting on jobless communities in rural America, Obama argued that “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
As an Obama supporter and a sociologist, I was disappointed to see my candidate draw on an outdated and reductionist approach to religion and culture. Earlier this week, historian Leo Ribuffo noted the parallels between Obama’s comments and the mid-century analysis of the radical right by such figures as Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, and Richard Hofstadter. Though an important part of American intellectual history, their social psychological explanations have not stood the test of time. A more serious concern than sociological fashion is the tendency of such arguments to trivialize complex moral and religious worlds. By reducing the religion of rural Pennsylvanians to mere economic frustration, Obama failed to take seriously the complicated ways people think and talk about their deepest commitments. According to Ribuffo, this was also a flaw of the political sociology of the early 1960s, which dismissed “Church attendance, ethnic solidarity, and other allegedly atavistic behavior . . . as social-psychological symptoms devoid of any sensible rationale.”
It is likely that Obama got his reductionist sociology from Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?. Arguing that the rural Midwest has been seduced by the GOP’s culture war rhetoric, Frank highlights the irony of blue collar Kansans voting against their economic self-interest. Though Frank’s book contains some valuable insights, it has done little to increase our understanding of the religious commitments of Kansas voters. That requires less irony and more empathy. It also requires a commitment to listening that is seldom present in political polemic. Seeing Thomas Frank ridicule the cultural backwardness of his fellow Kansans may elicit cheap laughs, but it will not win elections or help social scientists make sense of the realities of religion on the ground. It is certainly not a good way to attract small town and rural Americans to progressive politics.
When the American Sociological Association featured Frank in a 2005 panel on the “Rightward Turn in U.S. Politics,” the room was packed with sociologists eager to hear his caricature of rural voters. By failing to include an expert on American religion (which would require taking seriously the content of religious beliefs), the ASA missed an opportunity to present a more nuanced picture of conservative politics.
Had Obama been aware of recent developments in the sociology of religion, things might have turned out differently in San Francisco. Oddly enough, some of the best work on American religion has been produced in the very department that granted Michelle Obama her sociology degree in 1985. A member of the Princeton University faculty since 1976, sociologist Robert Wuthnow has been a longstanding critic of the kind of sociological reductionism expressed by Obama in San Francisco. In a 1994 piece on the “Sources of Christian Fundamentalism in the United States” (co-authored with Matthew Lawson), Wuthnow argued, “Fundamentalism has not been a direct psychological response to changing environmental conditions.” Instead of focusing on dark emotions and class resentment, Wuthnow and Lawson looked at the ways that political and economic changes contributed to uncertainty in the moral order of American society, while providing resources for the emergence of new social movements.
Obama could also have benefited from reading Spirit and Flesh, sociologist James Ault’s penetrating ethnography of a fundamentalist church in post-industrial Massachusetts. Rather than portraying conservative religion as a reactionary response to emotional strain, Ault argues that fundamentalist churches provide their members with rich social networks that function as an extended family.
Senator Obama is not alone in his use of outdated social science. According to Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol, the Clintons privately disparaged working class voters in the 1990s, criticizing their “proclivity to vote on life-style rather than economic issues.”
Likewise, conservative Republicans have long reduced American culture to a binary struggle between working class populists and latte-sipping Ivy Leaguers. This kind of reductionist analysis goes back at least as far as Kevin Phillips’ 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, a blueprint for the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. In the 1970s, neo-conservatives such as Irving Kristol continued this line of reasoning, contrasting the “adversary culture” of college-educated professionals (whom they dubbed the “new class”), with the bourgeois virtues of working class Americans. Such language came naturally to former Trotskyites.
In light of neo-conservatism’s history of “country and western Marxism” (which substitutes culture for economics), it is ironic to see Kristol’s son William criticize Obama’s class-based analysis. In a column in Monday’s New York Times, the younger Kristol wrote that he searched for his lost copy of The Marx-Engels Reader after learning of Obama’s comments. He could just as easily have consulted his father’s writings. By continuing to use the trope of liberal “elites” versus “the people,” conservatives are being just as reductionist. Such binary logic does not allow for the possibility of cosmopolitan evangelicals or blue-collar atheists (or neo-conservative Washington elites).
How can the Obama campaign counter the charge that he is an elitist? How can progressives better relate to religious voters? One solution is to pay more attention to the nuances of American religion. There are signs that this is beginning to happen.
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama participated in the Compassion Forum at Messiah College. As Omri Elisha and Penny Edgell have already noted, the Forum allowed the Democratic candidates to reflect on the relationship between faith and politics (though sometimes in very problematic ways). I appreciate the criticisms Elisha and Edgell made of the Forum’s presuppositions about religion and morality. At the same time, I worry that if progressives wait for a perfect conversation, the discourse surrounding religion and politics will be dominated by one side of the political spectrum. I know of plenty of social justice believers (both past and present) who have used the language of compassion to criticize social structural inequalities. Dorothy Day, for example, was capable of combining Catholic personalism with a radical critique of the social order.
While the Compassion Forum was not perfect, it was certainly innovative. Sponsored by the non-partisan Faith in Public Life, it showed that political progressives are finally doing their homework on American religion. An unprecedented event in American politics, the Forum’s audience included representatives of such diverse groups as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Islamic Society of North America, Sojourners, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The Forum is part of a broader shift in progressive political tactics. In recent years, organizations such as Faith in Public Life, the Center for American Values in Public Life, and Third Way have commissioned more nuanced investigations of religion in American politics. One such study found that a third of evangelicals in Missouri and Tennessee cast their ballots in the Democratic primaries. Another project used survey data and face-to-face discussions to develop a “framework for bridging the cultural divide that has existed between many progressives and Evangelicals.” Noting that “Evangelical views on cultural issues are far more nuanced than most believe,” the report looked for common ground. This is the kind of political analysis that Barack Obama needs to be reading on the road to the White House. For all I know, he already has. Either way he should ditch the reductionist language of mid-century social science. To speak about common ground should not be difficult for Obama. This is, after all, the candidate who once said: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?”