Sunday, January 01, 2012

Balmerizing Iowa's progressive tradition

Randall Balmer

There’s nothing like a little word play to get the new year off to a lively start, so I’ve been fussing this morning about the terms progressive, conservative and reactionary. A new piece by Randall Balmer at Religion Dispatches entitled “How Iowa Became a Stronghold of the Religious Right” set me off.

Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, answers the implied question in that title by suggesting that the rise of the religious right has endangered Iowa’s “strong progressive tradition.”

Almost an Iowa boy, Balmer spent part of his youth in Des Moines, where his father was pastor of a large Evangelical Free Church congregation.

He has since progressed to the Episcopal priesthood and written extensively from a progressive standpoint on the political impact of conservative and reactionary religion. He appears now and then on talk shows and has become a go-to person for media types trying to understand old-time new-time religion and its implications.

I’m defining “progressive” here as forward movement, “conservative” as resistance to movement and “reactionary” as backward movement. Conservative is fairly straightforward, but I’m not sure what to do with a reactionary who defines progress as moving backwards.

But there’s no doubt that what we’ve seen in the Iowa Caucus process to date, or at least that part of it highlighted by the media, has been a continued reactionary renaissance, noted four years ago, too, in the ascendancy of the greasy Mike Huckabee.

Neither GOP candidates nor their backers seem to have any idea of what the future might look like or how to get there unless it involves returning to the past, which --- like the rug that’s been pulled --- is no longer there and cannot be reclaimed.

Besides, I’m not that convinced Iowa actually has a “strong progressive tradition.” Like every other state, the Iowa record is a mixed bag. Spared a slave-based cultural tradition and the Reconstruction aftermath, we’ve always appeared more progressive than, say, Mississippi --- the South’s favorite whipping boy.

On the other hand, I’d be willing to bet that had a bunch of Baptists gotten together in the 1950s to propose a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriage, something imposed legislatively in other states but never in Iowa where progressive leadership prevailed, a majority of Iowans would have voted for it.

We have for the most part done a good job of capitalizing on shared assumptions --- like the value of public education. That consensus may be fraying a little, however. And shared assumptions have power only so long as they’re --- shared.

We’ve proved vulnerable to wild cards, like the Iowa Supreme Court decision that held same-sex marriage, although culturally suspect, was not constitutionally prohibited.

The curious thing about the caucus process this year is that it’s been almost entirely about sex --- gay sex --- in large part because of that decision. How peculiar. Equally peculiar --- sex seems to be uppermost on the minds of most churches, at least if you pay attention to media reports.

And sex makes strange bedfellows, if you’ll pardon the expression. Catholics were the LGBT people of the 19th and early 20th century among Iowa Protestants. But now, according to the latest Iowa poll, the state’s religious reactionaries, most of them Protestant, are gathering around Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic.

And what’s going to happen to these poor folks if the GOP standard bearer turns out to be a Mormon (the inevitable Mitt Romney now leads Register polling)? After all those years invested in demonizing that religious tradition.

No doubt Balmer is right about the impact of reactionary religion on the Grand Old Party, but I think he overestimates Iowa’s progressive tradition. And perhaps underestimates the ability, once reactionaries have made themselves irrelevant, of conservatives and progressives to do a little constructive fence-mending in the area of shared assumptions. We’ll see.

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