This is a somewhat rambling post, but there have been a few things lately that I wanted to discuss, and I have crammed them into a single post even if they are only vaguely related.
The link in the title of this post will take you to a nice article by Bill Berkowitz at Working For Change about the conservative Christians seeking to dominate the Ohio Republican party. And today Ohio, tomorrow who knows where the Patriot Pastors will next focus? At the center of the movement (with its own Center for Moral Clarity) is a 10-12 thousand-member non-denominational church. I have to admit that I've never really understood the appeal of these mega-churches. Though I don't count myself as a terribly religious person, I have been in the past, and I can certainly understand the appeal of religion, and of a traditional church. But being part of a congregation numbering in the thousands seems more like being a groupie or a fan at a rock concert than being at church. Anyway--I wonder if the Ohio church's push for theocracy (a term they themselves use to characterize what they advocate) is typical of the mega-church movement. If so, that's scary. Though on the one hand I think that mass movements like this tend to burn themselves out--see the long list of fallen charismatic leaders from Billy Sunday to Jim Baker--I'd bet that these more infamous cases are just the most visible (and most volatile) points of a larger, more sustained movement in the suburbs and ex-urbs of America.
Somewhat related is a paper by Larry M. Bartels, "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?" (You can download a 600K PDF of the paper here.) Bartels takes a look at statistics on White voters' behavior over the last 30 years or so to test Thomas Frank's thesis that the Democratic party has lost the allegiance of the White working class. That thesis is not supported by the statistics, he says, showing that "[W]hile it is generally true that Democratic presidential candidates have lost support among white voters over the past half-century, those losses have been entirely (and roughly equally) concentrated in the middle- and upper-income groups, and have been partially offset by *increasing* support for Democratic candidates among low-income white voters" (14).
I'm not sure if the White middle- and upper-classes that Bartels shows becoming more conservative are the same people flocking to ex-urban mega-churches (indeed, the Ohio church featured in the Berkowitz article seems to focus on African-Americans), but certainly in Ohio in 2004 it was the suburban and ex-urban Republican vote that provided critical support for Bush.
Although I find Bartels's paper pretty convincing, I don't necessarily agree with his advice to the Democratic party. He pretends, as any scholar giving a conference paper will, to not be giving advice at all. But he concludes by saying that the statistics "suggest that 'recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues' may not be such a 'criminally stupid strategy' on the part of the Democratic leaders (Frank 2004, 243). Indeed, it may be a testament to the success of that strategy that affluent white voters have not become even more markedly Republican..." (33). As Bartels admitted in a Summer 2004 article, the strategy he envisions is essentially a short-term one, summed up in the pragmatic, if amoral, advice "here is my game plan. First, win. Second, govern. Third, win again. Fourth, keep at it." A significant problem with this advice, however, is that with the exception of the two (Perot-influenced) Clinton wins, is that it hasn't worked, and Dems have lost ground in congressional and state elections as well as presidential.
A different version much the same flawed advice is given in a new paper by William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck of the Third Way Project. (You can dowload a PDF of that paper from the Third Way web site.) Their 1989 paper, "The Politics of Evasion," was widely seen as a manifesto for Clinton's triangulation strategy, and the "Politics of Polarization" is meant to inspire more Clintonesque candidates in the next election cycle, and to warn the Democratic party against tilting too far to the left. The Galston and Kamarck paper, however, offers at best contradictory advice to Dems: they want candidates who "stand for something," aren't afraid to talk about cultural issues, and who can sound tough and credible on national security. But the paper is devoid of specific policy recommendations or governing principles other than to say that Dems should move to closer to those views already held by most Americans. In short, they want a candidate who stands for whatever polling data tells him or her to stand for. Reaction to the paper from leading political web logs has been fairly mixed, but most readers seem unimpressed (see, for example, this from Paul Waldman, and this from Mark Schmitt).
Getting back to mega-churches, I would like to know how the growth of the mega-church movement fits with Bartels's finding that the middle- and upper-class White voters who have been moving to the Republican party still remain fairly liberal on social issues. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that many mega-church goers are middle- and upper-class Whites, or perhaps the mega-churches are more diverse on social issues than those in Ohio profiled by the Berkowitz article, or perhaps White middle- and upper-class mega-church goers can feel personally more liberal on social issues yet still attend very conservative churches.