One of the most striking features of the Republican Party’s recent self-assessment, the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, is the almost complete absence of religion. The moment of the Religious Right is undoubtedly over. But the largely secular Tea Party moment also seems to be fading. The Growth and Opportunity Project offers a plan to move forward. While its 99 page report offers reflections and recommendations on how Republicans can appeal to various racial and ethnic minority groups, minorities are (oddly) conceived of as secular, and religious groups are not conceived of as distinct constituencies to which Republicans might appeal.
Given the rather unsuccessful attempts at Republicans to appeal to minority voters – witness the bad publicity generated by racist comments made at a meeting supposed to help the Party appeal to black voters – one would think religious communities provide language and infrastructure that would help address the Party’s woes. Indeed, the recent self-assessment calls on the Party to build a “relationship with blacks based on mutual respect and with a spirit of caring” – exactly the ethos that religious communities would seem to foster. Moreover, some of the most visible success of conservative appeals to racial minorities has been through religion, namely, through African American churches, particularly on gay marriage.
So, why is religion missing from the Republican’s self-assessment? I think there are four especially significant reasons.
1) The Tea Party moment coupled with the economic crisis so dramatically shifted political messaging from social issues to economic issues that groups concerned with “values” no longer seem important. Indeed, the self-assessment is framed in terms of re-branding the GOP as the “Growth and Opportunity Party.” Yet one would think the Prosperity Gospel would nicely complement the Republican economic message. Further, emphasis on government partnerships with faith-based non-profits would complement the Republican message of smaller, smarter government.
2) The Republicans’ self-assessment is acutely aware of the perception that the Party does not appeal to young voters in part because of the generational gap concerning “values” issues. The report notes that “issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays [are] for many younger voters … a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.” Instead of a “values” issue, gay rights are framed by the report as a “tolerance” issue. But behind these concerns seems to be a view of “youth” as white, considering that many minority youth share Republican positions on “values” issues. For example, according to Cathy Cohen’s research, 55% of black young consider homosexuality always wrong compared to 35% of white youth; 46% of Latino youth believe abortion is always wrong compared to 34% of white youth.
3) While the self-assessment considers how Republicans might appeal to “Demographic Partners” including “Hispanics,” “Asian and Pacific Islander Americans,” and “African Americans,” notably absent are Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, despite Islam’s status as one of the fastest growing religions in America, with the number set to double over the next two decades. Talking about religion means talking about Islam, and that is something Republicans are notoriously bad at. Yet Republican rhetoric on immigration shifted dramatically over the past few months, and the same could be true concerning Islam.
4) Diversity, which some charge is the way white supremacy now brands itself, can only mean one difference at a time. That is how diversity is managed and muted. A “demographic partner” is either Hispanic, or a woman, or a youth. This framing logic of difference, once advanced by liberals under the banner of (secularist) multiculturalism, seems to have captured Republican strategists. But simplifying difference is precisely why Republicans have a minority problem in the first place. As the report states, minorities are asking the Republican establishment to move from “outreach” to “inclusion.” Doing so means appreciating the complexities of difference, where religion is always part of the mix.