Some of my favorite political insights come from a sex columnist.
Dan Savage, editor of Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, writes a popular sex advice column and records a weekly podcast, “Savage Love.” Both are filthy, filthy, filthy and funny, funny, funny. But no matter the topic — I’d list a few here if this column weren’t rated PG — there’s an underlying morality to Savage’s advice about things that most religions would probably consider immoral. No means no. What goes on between consenting adults is their business. And, straight out of Hillel, do not do to others what is hateful to you.
Not surprisingly, it was Savage who came up with “It Gets Better,” a campaign to reassure closeted or bullied gay teens that, well — the name of the campaign says it all.
As a gay married man raising a child, Savage is obviously no great fan of the Republican Party, which until this month, anyway, has been hostile to what its far-right wing likes to call the “homosexual agenda.” Savage decries the evangelical influence on Republican politics, suggesting that a “faith-based” worldview has leached beyond the social agenda to color the party’s views on science, the economy, and the environment.
Like many others, Savage saw evidence of the triumph of faith over science in Todd Akin’s odious remarks about “legitimate rape.” He sees it in the wholesale rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. He suggests that Paul Ryan’s budget proposals border on the supernatural, and not in a good way.
I think Savage overdoes it when it comes to demonizing religion, but I think his analysis helps explain the stubborn Jewish vote for the Democrat Party. For decades now, as Jews got richer and Israel more embattled, pundits and scholars have predicted that the Jewish vote would shift to the right. And yet this month, seven out of 10 Jews went for Obama — a slight erosion from 2008, but hardly a seismic shift.
If ever the Jews were to begin their “realignment” — or at least match their enthusiasm for Reagan over Carter — this seemed like the year. Obama was vulnerable on Israel, and after four years the economy was still in the doldrums. Romney ran to the right in the primaries, but tacked to the center in the last few weeks of the campaign. Historically, Jews have been willing to vote for “Rockefeller Republicans” like Jacob Javits, Michael Bloomberg, and even Chris Christie.
But Romney’s last push couldn’t erase memories of the Republican primaries, when candidates tried to outdo each other in denying what many — and most Jews — consider reality.
Although Jews are more highly educated than the general population, it’s not a matter of education or “smarts.” If liberalism and intelligence ran hand in hand, you’d have a hard time explaining Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer. And it’s not just about their secularism, even though at least half of the Jewish population doesn’t identify with a synagogue.
I think it’s largely about the place of religion in the life of American Jews. With the exception of the fervently Orthodox movements, American Judaism has represented an encounter between religious faith and secular society that wrestles both to a draw. Jews don’t leave their houses of worship asking how they can get the rest of the world to come around to their God. Instead, they enter their synagogues asking how the empirical world can be reconciled to a spiritual life. Of course, many Jews are convinced it can’t — and they either embrace the mitzvot in their entirety or reject the divine altogether.
But for the big chunk in the middle — which combined with the secular Left gives you a pro-Democratic majority — religion sweetens reality. When religion and reality conflict, they’ll explain that you can’t expect an ancient faith to have been aware of what we know now. Religion can’t tell us what’s inside an atom, but nuclear physics can’t tell us much about human relationships, or love, or responsibility to our family, our people, and the world.
The Jews who give their votes to moderates and liberals recoil when religion presumes to know more than scientific and empirical evidence. They are not anti-religion. Rather, like the late Stephen J. Gould, they believe science and religion are separate “magisteria” which don’t overlap as much as they co-exist, side by side.
If Dan Savage is right, the Republican Party has an opportunity to win more Jewish voters. Since Election Day, party strategists and conservative pundits have begun to reconsider Republican positions on immigration and taxation. Perhaps it’s also time to rethink the role of religion in politics. Since the rise of the Religious Right, the party has built itself on a “base” that wants religion to play a larger role not only in public institutions like schools and health care, but in economics and social policy. The result is a party in stasis, holding on to its traditional voters but unable to make inroads into a rapidly changing and diversifying America.
American Jews are comfortable in this new America. It’s who they were before they became, as trendy sociologists put it, “white people.” And if the GOP can emerge as a fiscally conservative, socially moderate party that confines religion to its proper role, more of them will vote Republican. Believe it or not.