John Stoehr, who has been one of my favorite political commentators for a while now, went ding-an-sich in yesterday's column, discussing the difference between politics itself and the way we talk about politics. "It’s good to step back and talk about how we talk about politics," Stoehr says, "especially given that how we talk about politics is often as real as Santa Claus and unicorns."
Indeed it is.
Stoehr's target in this column are the pat phrases that start out as journalistic shorthand for how a race is going but end up defining reality itself:
“Momentum,” like “lanes,” can be helpful to understanding the influence of state-level victories on voter behavior. (Consider the adage, “Iowa picks corn, but New Hampshire picks presidents.”) But treating momentum as if it were political nonfiction actually warps political reality.
I don't want to give away too much of his column, but you can probably dope it out for yourself. Read the whole thing to understand his full take on horserace reporting. It's worth it.
John didn't focus on faith in this column, but he could have very easily, because there's a whole economy of buzzwords that has grown up around it in presidential politics. In fact, there are two economies, one for the right and one for the left as a recent analysis from the Associated Press put it:
When Pete Buttigieg launched his first statewide television ad in South Carolina two months ago, its opening lines may have sounded familiar to a churchgoer.
The ad opens with footage from a speech by the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor in which Buttigieg says that if he’s elected president, Americans wouldn’t have to ask themselves, “Whatever happened to, ‘I was hungry and you fed me? I was a stranger and you welcomed me?’”
Matthew 25! Tikkun olam! Walk humbly with God! Jim Wallis! Jimmy Carter! It's like a game sometimes to see how many touchstones can be shoe-horned into one article on religious liberals. I swear some journalists think we lay down at night listening to Jim Wallis' latest audiobook after setting our Mao caps down carefully next to our Jimmy Carter icons and reciting Matthew 25 a few times.
There's nothing particularly wrong with this bit of scripture, of course. As Eric Sapp says in the article, it's a compact way of expressing a particular perspective. Many religious liberals believe that their faith leads them to be more compassionate, and this is a convenient way to say that.
But we should note that it is a way of talking about faith, not faith itself, and a fairly stylized way of talking as well. (So stylized, in fact, that Sapp's former consulting partner Mara Vanderslice founded the Matthew 25 Network in 2008 essentially to speak to hard-shell Christians in the language of scripture.)
To a certain extent, substituting talk about faith for faith itself makes some sense on the campaign trail. It's hard to see faith being lived out, even for the most devout candidate. Short of reciting the Kiddush with followers, or dragging camera crews into repeated prayer meetings or church services, it's difficult to dramatize something built steadily, over many years. So candidates talk about their faith, and talk about it, and talk about it.
The problem with this approach is that not many people actually live their faith by talking about it, preachers notwithstanding. I can guarantee that if the average Christian were asked about Matthew 25, the initial response would be a sheepish, puzzled look. Calling yourself a "Matthew 25 Christian" identifies you as a particular kind of believer... to the kind of people who would use scripture as a shorthand to describe themselves. Again, I can guarantee that's not many. Even fewer have read a book by Jim Wallis, or understand what tikkun olam means. More people get Jimmy Carter, though.
It's not that people who understand such taglines don't exist, or that they're not important. It's that they're not representative of the community of faith at large, and playing to their perspective becomes—if you will excuse the phrase—a self-fulfilling prophecy. Democrats talk about faith in this way, because people expect them to talk about faith in this way, because they talk about faith in this way. More to the point, Democrats talk about faith in this way because they think they have to talk about faith in this way, because the description has now become reality, and if you're a liberal Christian who's not a Matthew 25 believer, what kind of faith do you have, anyway?
Even worse, it creates the expectation that candidates talk about faith in order to win the Important Faith Vote:
Darren Dochuk, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, connected the Democratic engagement with Matthew 25’s message to a broader effort “to carry the mantle of a potentially, if not large but animated, progressive Christian left.”
“There’s also a certain sense of urgency to answer back and to win over as broad a constituency as possible, even cut into what is a pretty solid bloc of Christians -- certainly evangelical Christians, that’s going to stick with Trump,” Dochuk said.
Did Jesus ever talk about hogwash? Because this is hogwash. Donald Trump will almost certainly receive between 75-80% of the white evangelical vote, the same as every Republican presidential candidate since 2004. Talking about Matthew 25 to "cut into what is a pretty solid bloc of Christians" isn't going to work. Primarily because that solid bloc is pretty happy right where it's at. But also because scripture simply isn't persuasive in this way. There might be some voters out there who would change their vote from Republican to Democrat based on hearing Jesus' command to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but you'd better hope all three of them live in the same state.
The way Democrats talk about faith demands that they talk about it to reach out beyond their coalition. Which is to say, the closed hermeneutical circle they inhabit. America is becoming an increasingly balkanized society. Some academics and political consultants want to believe that scripture can provide a shared language to overcome those divisions. Their expectations about how to talk about faith then become reality for liberal religious candidates. Donald Trump knows better.