Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Doesn't the United States Have a Stable, Viable Social Democratic Party?

An unlikely source provides the answer

If there is one great unanswered question about American politics, it's probably "who really killed JFK?"

At least, if you're a nutbar.

If, like the rest of us, you aren't a conspiracy-peddling, Manitoba-cigarettes-smoking weirdo, that question is probably "why doesn't the United States have a viable, stable social democratic party?

A passage from Al Franken's The Truth (With Jokes) ironically provides an answer -- and it's an answer that "progressives" like Franken probably won't like.

Starting on page 119, and continuing onto page 120:

"It is actually illegal for tax-exempt religious organizations to engage in partisan political activity. But that didn't stop the Bush-Cheney campaign from encouraging clergy in battleground states to do their civic duty. In Pennsylvania, for example, recieved this e-mail from a Bush-Cheney staffer:

"Subject: Lead your congregation for President Bush

The Bush-Cheney '04 national headquarters in Virginia has asked us to identify 1600 "Friendly Congregations" in Pennsylvania where voters friendly to President Bush may gather on a regular basis. In each of these friendly congregations, we would like to identify a volunteer coordinator who can help distribute general informatinon to other supporters. If you are interested, please email Luke Bernstein at your name, address, phone number and place of worship.


Paid for by Bush-Cheney '04, Inc
Jesus Christ! And this from a Bernstein?!

Look. Churches are always going to be involved in social justice issues, on one side or the other. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King (for) or Dr. Jerry Falwell (against). ANd some congregations certainly have a political bent, such as Our Lady of Gun Control in Bayside, Queens. But this was ridiculous. Even the campaign's allies thought the White House had gone too far, considering the state of the law at the time.

There was only one solution. Change the law.
Oooh! Those dastardly Republicans, right?


Hold that phone.

"In early June 2004, Republicans in the House Ways and Means committee added an ammendment to H.R. 4520, the American Job Creation Act of 2004 (which cut corporate taxes, thereby creating jobs for people who gild bathroom fixtures), that would allow churches to commit three (count 'em, three) "unintentional violations" of legal restrictions on political activites each year without losing their tax-exepmpt status. I call that the "four strikes and you're out" law. Even more exciting, clergy would now be allowed to endorse candidates, as long as they made it clear they were acting as individuals and not on behalf of religious organizations.

Thankfully, when even the Southern Baptist Convention said the Republicans were getting a little too cute, the "Safe Harbor for Churches" amendment died a quiet death.
Hooray! A victory for the separation of church and state, right? Right?

Well, that is important. But, at the same time, there are numerous questions. What about the right of Pastors to express their opinions (politically or otherwise), alternately known as free speach? What about the right of religious congregations to organize as they see fit (again, politically or otherwise)?

Of course, these are important questions, but not necessarily pertinent for our purposes here. For that, we have to turn to the development of Canada's social democratic party, the New Democratic Party. (While the Bloc Quebecois often claims to be a social democratic party, they don't count because they are founded almost entirely on an exclusionary racial ideology.)

The NDP was formed in 1961 as a political merger of the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Foundation) and the Canadian Labour Congress. The annointed leader, Tommy Douglas (quite possibly one of the three best Prime Ministers Canada never had) was actually an ordained Baptist minister. (That's right, you read it -- Baptist.)

Both the CCF and the NDP after it were based almost entirely on the Protestant Social Gospel. The Social Gospel advocated that Christian values demanded a more generous and inclusive society (aforementioned by Al Franken as social justice).

It probably helped that in Canada churches were allowed to hold and express political opinion. An obsession with politically marginalizing religion certainly isn't anything that has never manifested itself in Canada (see: modern NDP), but it has yet to establish the stranglehold on religion that exists in the United States.

Comparing the two case studies, one can't help but draw the conclusion that the failure of the United States to produce a relevant social democratic party is at least partially due to its legal muzzling of religious movements.

Of course other factors, such as an obsessive, fearful suspicion of communism (although suspicion certainly was warranted, at least on a limited basis -- read: not McCarthy-esque) certainly played a role, one has to wonder what would exist today.

Maybe -- just maybe -- a stable, viable social democratic party.

(If you're reading this, Ralph Nader, you don't count. And it certainly was a shame that Howard Dean -- whom history may recognize as one the best Presidents the United States never had -- was judged to be too scary by Democrats.)

Naturally, the blending of politics and religion can go too far, and George W Bush is a fairly decent example of that (although most of the Republican party's intractable opponents find Mike Huckabee even more threatening). But one should also keep in mind that a liberal mixing of politics and religion can also have positive results.

Canadian public health care is, without a doubt, history's greatest example of this.

But before the specific values of the Social Gospel can take root, as they have north of the 49th parallel, religious organizations have to be allowed to at least knock at the door. It's ironic that some of those who most decry the lack of social democrats in the United States are the ones most determined to see that this is never allowed.

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