Fundamentalism and Culture

I should say up-front that I've learned a lot from reading Ross's and Larison's challenges to my alleged connection between disorienting economic and social change and the rise of religious fundamentalism. I also learned a lot from the latest Teixeira/Abramowitz study on the working poor and the Democrats. I think the evidence does indeed complicate my previous inferences and connections. What have I gotten wrong?

Fundamentalism obviously appeals to the wealthy as well as the poor; it may even, in certain circumstances, appeal more to the wealthy than the poor (I haven't denied that, but my emphasis has obscured it). And it has done very well in prosperous suburbia and among more educated white voters. The question is whether a sense of economic and cultural alienation has fueled fundamentalism as well. I still think it does, but less powerfully than I did before. On abortion, for example, Teixeira notes the GOP has had more success in appealing to upper-middle class whites than to working class ones. That's an important insight. But it remains true nonetheless, as Teixeira also notes, that the working class white vote is still more pro-life than the middle class white vote (43 percent to 33 percent).

What the Rove GOP has done well, I think, is to lump all this together into a generalized cultural grievance, and used this to appeal to white rural voters, whose distrust of government and elites has grown with their relative economic decline. The gay question - which is a prism that obviously colors my own experience of this - makes this more acute.

There surely is a correlation among the working white poor between questions such as immigration, race, gender, gays, God, and guns. And the kind of God that is part of this group of attitudes is rooted in a more certain variety of faith than that in, say, many upper middle class Catholic or Protestant or Jewish homes. It is part of a cultural identity in which many of these questions go together in people's guts as much as their minds. And that's the bundle of feelings that less scrupulous Republicans have exploited or simply appealed to, depending on your point of view. And some of these emotions are indeed somewhat bitter or angry.

Teixeira points out that this group keeps getting smaller. But its geographical distribution increases its clout in the electoral college in ways that help frame political appeals on these grounds; and these appeals in turn help solidify a certain cultural identity (that tends to vote GOP) and that is then reinforced by explicitly religious appeals from the GOP leadership. I think the connection is still there - but, after absorbing these critiques, it is much more complicated than I had previously understood.

(I should add that I don't actually think, from Obama's own writings, that he can be fairly categorized, as Larison does, as a disciple of "liberation theology." But that's another debate.)