My Opponent is a Cannibal The ability of the GOP to rally religious voters is a puzzle that consumes Democrats. What is it about the Republicans that leads religious voters to lean towards them rather than the Democrats? Certainly, most...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 05/12/2005


My Opponent is a Cannibal
The ability of the GOP to rally religious voters is a puzzle that consumes Democrats.  What is it about the Republicans that leads religious voters to lean towards them rather than the Democrats?

Certainly, most Democrats would agree that Karl Rove's strategy of sending GOP operatives to "do politics" in Evangelical Churches  has been a huge component of their success with this demographic.  But the anxiety of Democrats on religion doe not end there.  Recently, Democrats have been wondering if Republicans get more religious votes because, well--because Republicans are more religious.   Even worse than not being religious, many Democrats believe that the party has a problem with being anti-religious.  Dems make fun of religious people, they say.  And this has caused woes for the Democrats in elections as the masses of religious people in America swing to the GOP, their feelings having been hurt at one point or another by callous Democrats.

That's the idea, but I don't buy it for a minute. 

The idea that Republicans are "more religious" than Democrats or that Democrats have a problem with hostility towards religious people is just plain wrong.    More than wrong:  the charges are ridiculous.

My entire life I have been surrounded by religious people who are also Democrats, religious people of all shapes and sizes, all different kinds of belief, theology, rituals.  Democrats have just as many religious people in their ranks as any other party. 

So what's really going on with these bogus charges about Democrats being anti-religious?

As in any other pocket of the national debate, Democrats have been sucker-punched in the Claim Game. 

The Claim Game is a key part of politics because it's the moment in debate when one player sets the terms of what "we" stand for, as opposed to what "they" stand for.

On some level, all opening salvos in the claim game take some form of this expression:  "My opponent is a cannibal." 
Under normal circumstances, any self-respecting politician, when confronted with this claim of being a cannibal, would immediately reply:  I am not a cannibal!  But for some reason, when Republicans use this approach on Democrats to control the issue of religion, Democrats just lay down and take it.

That's got to stop.

Claiming Faith
Let's see how this Claim Game works in action.  Take, for example, a recent interview of Pat Robertson by George Stephanopoulos.  In response to a question about God's role in people's lives, Robertson said the following:

The people of faith in this country feel they're on a tyranny and they see their liberties taken away from them and they've been beseeching God, fasting and praying for years, so I think he hears and answers their prayers (This Week with Geroge Stephanopoulos, 1 May 05).

Robertson is great at playing the Claim Game against Democrats.  His variation on "my opponent is a cannibal" is always to lay claim to the idea of "faith."    Democrats are waging a "tyranny" against "people of faith."  Democrats are cannibals.

What do Democrats typically say in response to this?   Do they stand up immediately and say, "Wait a minute!  You don't have the right to speak for all religion in this country.  Religion is a part of my life, I'm a Democrat.   Americans enjoy religion in their lives in many, many ways and Pat Robertson has no right to claim that he speaks for all of them."

Boy, oh boy, I wish Democrats would start saying that on TV, in interviews, in conversation.  What stops us?  I think Democrats are afraid of making a false claim--afraid of suggesting that they are "people of faith," when they are not.

But this fear, too, is a product of the way the GOP plays the Claim Game. 

"On" and "Off" Logic
Republicans aren't more religious than Democrats.  They're just more insistent at telling people that they are.  Moreover, they win this Claim Game by wielding the word "faith" in a very strategic way.

In the Republican way of talking about religion, Americans fall into two categories:  people of faith and people not of faith. During President Bush's last press conference, he used this exact tactic.

But think about this for a second:  Who lives in this simplistic world where one is either religious or not.  I don't know anyone who lives in that world.  In the world I live in, people have a complex relationship with religion.  Religion is something that changes over time in a person's life.  Sometimes we are religious as children, but move on as adults.  Sometimes we lose our interest in religion, then return.  For some of us, we don't really think about religion throughout the year, but then once or twice a year we do and with great interest.  There are so many different ways to think about a person's relationship to religion, but this "on" and "off" approach is just not one of the ways that makes any sense.

What should Democrats do?

They should never let this "on" and "off" logic stand, ever.  "There are so many ways to be religious in America. So many ways."  If Democrats start saying that over and over again, then we can start beating the GOP at the Claim Game.

Claim Terrain
Ultimately, no matter how well we fend off GOP insults about Democrats and religion, none of it will do any good unless Democrats are willing to claim some terrain on religion.  The best way is just for Democrats to start talking about their relationship to religion.

We don't need to talk about God or talk about church or the Bible or any of that.  Just say something about the role of religion in your life.

Here are some phrases that I use:

"I'm from a Jewish family..."
"We keep Kosher..."
"When I go to Christmas Mass with my wife's family..."
"During Passover seder at my mother's house..."
"What I find fascinating about Orthodox Judaism..."
"As a child growing up in an all Jewish area.."

Try it out.  Claim some terrain by simply putting some references to your own religious experience into the debate.  If enough Dems do this--and if we don't let the GOP get away with calling us cannibals--we will go a long way in holding our own in the religion debate.

And we will do a great service to the people in this country whose relationship with religion has been ridiculed and insulted by one small section of the country's voters.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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Jeffrey Feldman's article, "Stop Losing the Claim Game" makes an important point:

"On some level, all opening salvos in the claim game take some fo [Read More]


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