Friday, September 16, 2011

Making a moral pitch on the economy

It does not take a lot of insight for a political scientist to say that the economy will be the most salient issue in the 2012 presidential election. But exactly how that plays out – and how religious factors affect the equation – provided good material for John Green and Laura Olson.

One important variable may be how the candidates cast the debate over the economy in moral terms.

Green is one of the nation’s pre-eminent students of the connections between religion and politics. A professor at the University of Akron, he is also a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Olson is a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. They spoke at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association on Friday in Durham, N.C.

Olson argued that the real task for both President Obama and whoever his Republican challenger is will be to mobilize the religious middle in this country – a group that constitutes about a third of the electorate.

Will the budget debate be framed around the morality of not leaving the next generation to pay the bills of this generation? Or will it be framed around protecting the least of those in society?

There are moral values underlying both of those appeals, but they have their touchstones in different religious groups.

Catholics, for instance, while identified most often with issues around abortion, may well resonate with talk about social justice, a concept deeply imbedded in the teachings they grew up with, a concept that is often framed as part of a consistent ethic of life.

Many Protestant denominations, too, have emphasized Jesus’ message of caring for others as central to their faith. And yet there are also strains of not passing on one’s burdens to others, of not forcing charity but seeing it as a voluntary good that underscores some of the conservative approaches to the economy.

Olson was one the one who articulated the moral dimensions of the budget debate most thoroughly in this discussion. Olson cautioned that part of the needle that candidates have to thread on these issues is that Americans are quite ambivalent on expressions of faith by public leaders. They want leaders to be “moral” but not too “sectarian.”

So a lot of the language around issues like the economy will be framed broadly, but with an appeal to moral values that candidates hope will make sense to the voters they are targeting.

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