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James Carville, Bill Clinton’s consigliere of 1992, kept the words “It’s the economy, stupid!” pinned to his office wall. Substitute “culture” for “economy,” and the basis of US President George W. Bush’s reelection victory becomes obvious. Evangelical Christians compose 40% of the American population, and three-quarters of them probably voted for the incumbent. Voter participation for traditional Democratic constituencies changed little, but the number of evangelical voters surged, just as Bush political adviser Karl Rove predicted. From available data it appears plausible that the increase in evangelical voter participation accounted for all of the president’s 3.5-million-vote victory margin.
What brought 4 million more evangelical voters to the polling stations than in the previous presidential election? The US evangelical movement is not by nature political. Families join evangelical churches as a refuge against the septic tide of popular culture that threatens to carry away their children. Evangelical concerns center on family issues, child-rearing and personal values rather than national or global politics.
Liberal commentators blame the evangelical turnout on bigotry, noting that 11 states carried ballot referenda against same-sex marriage. The truth in that observation is misleading.
It is true that the Republicans have made evangelical issues into politics, but it is just as true, and far more important, that the evangelicals have made political issues into religious issues. That is especially true of the Bush administration’s response to terrorism. It was the feminists of the 1960s who first stated that the personal was political, although they could not have imagined how this idea would evolve.
The world mis-estimated how Americans would respond to September 11, 2001. In the past, the United States came under attack for what it did; Japan’s Pearl Harbor raid responded to a US trade boycott that cut off access to energy and raw materials. On September 11, the US came under attack for what it was. Osama bin Laden’s dispute with the US was cultural rather than material. In last week’s videotape he cast the airplane attacks as a retaliation for America’s support of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon 20 years ago. In a lampoon published on November 2 (What Osama might have told America), I attempted to portray his underlying motives. The US barely can live with the freedom of the modern world without destroying itself; the same forces would utterly devastate the Arab world, which lacks the resistance the US has developed over the centuries.
Although Americans have difficulty articulating their response, few are so dim as to misunderstand the message. America’s culture is in the judgment seat. Do they deserve the contempt, and even the violence, that the Islamists inflict on them? As they seethe with self-righteous anger against their attackers, do Americans take stock of themselves? The answer evident on November 2 is that many of them did. After September 11, a number of evangelical leaders, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell, claimed that the attacks constituted a divine punishment for America’s sins. Silly as it sounded, Falwell’s statement concealed an underlying truth. The US provokes the hatred of the Islamic world because the “freedoms” associated with the nether reaches of its entertainment industry are its most visible face to the rest of the world. The US, to most of the world, represents global mobility, but also the breakdown of the family, the collapse of hoary conventions of respect, the trampling of tradition.
First of all, America’s tragic encounter with Islam is a confrontation between a modern and a traditional society, in which the traditional society only can lose. That it also is a confrontation between Christianity and Islam, two religions that respond in radically different ways to the fragility of traditional society, makes the confrontation all the more ferocious. Islam looks outward to defend the community, the ummah, against its enemies by conquering and transforming them in its own image. By its nature it is militant rather than self-critical. Christianity demands that the believer look inward to his own sin. Soul-searching after September 11 is what made the personal so political in the US.
The US is in danger of social decay – not as much danger as my Halloween apparition of bin Laden portrayed, but in danger nonetheless. When two-fifths of female university students suffer from anorexia or bulimia, and one-sixth suffer from depression, it is clear that the Witches’ Sabbath of sexual experimentation that began during the 1960s has led to widespread misery. Parents cannot raise their children in isolation from violent pornography; young people cannot build their lives in a fraternity party.
It is the hard, grinding reality of American life in the liberal dystopia that makes the “moral issues” so important to voters. Partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage became critical issues not because evangelical voters are bigots. On the contrary, parents become evangelicals precisely in order to draw a line between their families and the adversary culture. This far, and no more, a majority of Americans said on November 2 on the subject of social experimentation.
Unlike the Europeans, whose demoralization has led to depopulation, Americans still are fighting against the forces of decay that threaten – but do not yet ensure – the ultimate fall of American power. That is the message of November 2.