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« Modern Architecture and Sexual Anxiety | Main | A Rising Vote of Thanks »

March 05, 2003

David Frum and Richard Skinner on George W.

Friedrich --

I got fascinated by this thoughtful q&a at The Atlantic's website (here) with David Frum, author of a new book about George W. Bush. I've got my reservations about George W., god knows, but he's clearly an effective leader of some sort, as well as a man who has a few convictions. On the other hand – hey, Republicans – I haven’t exactly seen the size of the government shrinking.

Worth thinking about, in any case. As a precaution – what do I really know about any of this? -- I swapped a few emails with Prof. Richard Skinner, a political-scientist friend of mine who teaches at SUNY Geneseo. Here’s how our conversation went.

Does the substance of the Frum interview ring true to you?

Pretty much. Especially the stuff about Bush’s religiosity -- which is probably his strongest appeal to his political base, although it just confuses Europeans. I think Frum underplays how polarizing Bush is -- he really is intensely unpopular among hard-core Democrats. But, on the other hand, he is incredibly popular with Republicans. He regularly gets 95 percent approval among them. That's even higher than Reagan got.

It’s as though urban-media Democrats can’t get over the idea that there are still people who attend church and have traditional religious convictions.

It's not just that. There's a regional, denominational line, too. My sister (hardly a media type) once told me that she has never met a white Baptist or a white born-again Christian. We just don't have them in the Northeast. By comparison, a friend of mine grew up in a small town in Arkansas where everyone is a Baptist. At his alma mater in Oklahoma, drinking a beer marked you as a liberal, since it meant you weren’t a hardshell, teetotaling Baptist. At my alma mater upstate, not drinking a beer marked you as a lunatic. Our strongest religious group was the Newman Council, which was more of a social club than anything else; the five people who belonged to the Christian Fellowship were considered freaks. When I first heard Bush talking about God, I thought, "no one I know talks this way." Not a negative judgement, just bafflement.

I’ve read pieces arguing that the main political divide in the country is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, or even lefties and righties, but between secular and religious people. Does that argument have any validity?

It certainly is one of the strongest dividing lines in politics, whether in determining voting or party preference, or opinions of leading politicians. (The academic favorites of race, class and gender are still very important, too). Both religiosity (extent of religious observance) and religious denomination matter: the more religious you are, the more Republican you’re like to be (if you’re white). And evangelical Protestants are much more heavily Republican and socially conservative than other Christian groups. And, just to be clear, my comments about Bush weren't meant as a criticism. His faith is genuine and is a political plus (at least inside the USA). More people are turned on by it than are turned off.

Richard was good enough to dig out and recommend a couple of helpful articles on these themes. One’s by Thomas Edsall, and is readable here. The other is be Ronald Brownstein, and can be read here.

Very curious to learn how you react to all this.

And many thanks to Richard Skinner.



posted by Michael at March 5, 2003


Frum and I are in real agreement here:
My criticism of the intellectual class before 9/11 is for their failure of intellectuality. It's remarkable, for example, that the academics who study the Middle East seem to have had no interest in the phenomenon of Islamic extremism or terrorism at all. That's not an excess of intellectuality. That's a failure of intellectuality."

Many of my friends consider themselves, with no modesty at all, "intellectual." What this means beyond a subscription to Harpers and a taste for Thai food, I have no idea. Few of them are better educated, more thoughtful, or better thinkers than the egghead-mocking right-leaning folks I know. Neither group, for instance, shows the basic analytical skills required to discuss Bush's tax plan.

I never saw any evidence that Clinton was intellectual. And when I'm in the New York area - and this has been going on for years - it always, always confuses me when a friend who consistently addressing issues from the Jewish point of view (a point of view which frequently seems forced, to me) seems surprised that Christians do the same thing.

Call it being intellectual, call it having religious conviction, from where I sit it all looks like groups of freaks chanting "one of us, one of us."

At least Jews and Christians are open about the source of their perspective. My environmentalist pals, most of whom don't know the difference between mitochondria and titration, would like to be viewed as clear-eyed and logical.

Posted by: j.c. on March 5, 2003 3:49 PM

I am turned off by President Bush's open religiosity, however, it often seems that the "lefties" are more "religious" about their beliefs than most people who believe in an actual religion and go to church 3 times a week. The environmentalists, the animal rights activists, radical feminists and various other groups on the left all have their own dogmas which they cling to and defend against all logic, in much the same way that religious fundamentalists cling to the belief that the Earth and everything on it was created in 6 days.

Posted by: Lynn S on March 5, 2003 4:00 PM

You asked: "I�ve read pieces arguing that the main political divide in the country is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, or even lefties and righties, but between secular and religious people. Does that argument have any validity?"

I think the mass media has this perception, since most of those with careers in the field are atheist, agnostic, or simply ambivalent when it comes to religion. I don't think society at large has this perception. It's a mass media meme.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 5, 2003 5:24 PM

You may find this post:
of interest, which summarizes and links to a Public Interest on just this subject. Briefly, the gap between religious and secular is very large and the Democratic party has a large group of supporters who are hostile and perhaps even bigoted toward religious people, especially evangelicals.

Posted by: Jim Miller on March 6, 2003 9:15 AM

I prefer a minimum of zealotry and agendas, hidden or otherwise, from leaders, no matter the stripe. I see pragmatism, adaptability and flexibilty as positive traits. Ethical behavior is a reasonable (and preferable) substitute for moral absolutism. You can imagine my difficulties with our current leadership...

Posted by: Jim Eikner on March 6, 2003 10:57 AM

Creationism is not science; it is not even a pseudo-science. It is a tantrum thrown in refusal to confront confusing realities. But the understanding of religion--the notion of what it is and what realities it addresses--possessed by many, maybe most, nonreligious Americans is but the mirror image of creationism. It's not that they don't get it; they refuse to, furiously.

That said, the political battle is not between religious and secular people, altough it is in the perceived interest of extremists on both sides to have it characterized that way. The battle line is between theocrats and nontheocrats. But one of the reasons, I think, the conflict is rarely presented in those terms is that 1) Libertarian-leaning Republicans have made a devil's bargain with the bible-thumping theocrats and--even more importantly--2) the goal of the extreme left--which is most of what's left of the left--is just a theocracy without God. The New Deal welfare state has devolved from a civil necessity (or at least a civil expedient) into a moral necessity, a crusade. So the far left can't articulate the argument against theocracy without articulating the argument against itself.

Posted by: John Hinchey on March 6, 2003 12:26 PM

Jim M.,

I think that article you linked to proves my point.

I also think John H. nails in on the head in the previous post. Especially the willful misunderstanding of religion by some. There's a current fundamentalist atheist evangelism trick where they brand anyone not of their non-faith as "irrational" or "delusional." The labored justifications and warping of logic they use to frame the exploration of reality betrays the true intent behind those words, which John coins pretty well.

Btw, the Republicans have just as many atheists and agnostics. They're just quiet about it right now. Job security, donchaknow.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 6, 2003 1:39 PM

I think all the posters who talk about relious people need to re-read the post from Lynn S. Faith-based dogma is faith-based dogma, whether you attach an ancient myth or not.

Posted by: j.c. on March 6, 2003 2:42 PM


The original post, and most of these responses to it, are about perceptions of the secular vs the religious in American society, not what one's views of what various dogma are and aren't.

Or whether you "attach an ancient myth" to it - that phrase alone speaks volumes on the degradation of some forms of discussion that occur involving religion, anymore. Look at it in the context of another subject: Calling someone's mom a slut whether it's true or not is still thunderously boorish. Gotta trot out Joe Bob Brigg's truism: I surprised I even have to explain that.

Not that we can't drift off-topic, but if your particular slant isn't the center of the discussion, that doesn't mean we aren't understanding the matters at hand.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 6, 2003 5:08 PM

Living in the Bible belt of America, I hear religious-speak almost daily.

Personally, I am a Christian. But I take great pains to qualify myself as a liberal Christian so I am not lumped into the "6 day creationist camp" so prevalent in the south.

Some people are turned off by Bush's religious references...I understand. But in certain parts of America this sort of language is frequent and accepted. For example, the artist that I work for often talks about trying to discern God's will in his life and in his business. This is not unusual.

It's not for everyone. But open talk about religion can be found in most all parts of the south. (Heck, I'm not sure if anyone has noticed the mass quantity of churches here.)

Bush's religious references affect me as genuine and may I add, commonplace. They tell me his spiritual leanings in the same way that hearing of one's favorite restaurant would tell me his or her culinary leanings.

Posted by: laurel on March 6, 2003 9:27 PM

One factual comment and one recommendation. First, religion has been a better predictor of voting in the last few presidential elections than income and almost any other factor than partisanship. The religious vote for the Republicans; the anti-religious vote for the Democrats. It really is that simple.

Second, for the advantages of a religious outlook in dealing with the world, I suggest you look at Timothy Garton Ash's piece in the Guardian. When you are attacked by religious fanatics, you may be able to understand them better if you have a religious faith of your own.

Posted by: Jim MIler on March 7, 2003 11:42 AM

Jim, If you mean this one:,3604,908217,00.html

He got this wrong: "Born-again Christians of the American midwest"

Born-agains are primarily the Southern Baptists and Pentecostals of the South, not the Christians of the midwest. The midwest is predominately Lutheran and Presbyterian and other less fundamentalist denominations. Kansas is more southern than midwestern in temperament.

Other than that, yeah, it's a great article. Makes many good points.

I especially liked this one: "fundamentalist secularists think that all religion is blindness and stupidity, a kind of mental affliction." You can see that the proof of that very sentiment in the comments for this post.

Thanks for the reference.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 7, 2003 3:59 PM

Where do I sign up for the religion-friendly atheists club?

Posted by: Jim on March 8, 2003 2:08 PM

...right beside the atheist-friendly religion club.


Posted by: laurel on March 8, 2003 6:35 PM


Posted by: Jim on March 8, 2003 10:13 PM

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