What's Good for GM Is Good for God

10/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question: Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin recently suggested that a gas pipeline is "God's will" and the Iraq war is "a task that is from God." Are you concerned about these or any other candidate's religious views?

Fifty years ago the president of General Motors declared that what's good for GM is good for America. That became the guiding light, if not the Holy Scripture, of modern Republicans, so it's not surprising that Sarah Palin has carried it to Biblical lengths. Leaving aside how her remarks play to the religious far right, who think that McDonald's must be God's will if it makes enough money, the larger question isn't religious. The sudden excitement generated by Gov. Palin brought John McCain's biggest day of contributions, but it also generated a surge of money for Barack Obama. Religion-as-politics has infused the American system, for better or worse, as a familiar way to polarize people.

The split between religious and secular voters hasn't changed since Christian fundamentalists gained power beyond their numbers in the Eighties. The simple fact is that secular voters greatly outnumber religious ones -- by secular, I don't mean people who aren't believers but people who don't base their vote on a candidate's faith. The religious right is a splinter group, and they have been allowed to leverage themselves into power by the apathy of the majority. If Obama can't reverse this apathy, it won't be caused by a dire plot by the right-wing smear machine but lazy inattention from all the rest of us.

At present, John McCain enjoys a 54% lead over Obama among churchgoers -- it would be hard to miss the irony that McCain's devotion to church is notably lax -- which equals George Bush's lead in the past two elections. If nothing else changes, a heavy turnout of the religious right will sweep him into the Presidency. But a lot has changed, of course, and Obama's call that this is a page-turning election may be prophetic. The last page-turner was either Reagan or Nixon, depending on how you chronicle the rise of the reactionary right. Does it date from Nixon's wooing of Southern racists in 1968 or Reagan's wooing of them along with anti-progressives in general in 1980? I doubt that the distinction is worth pursuing.

What's most important if you want to turn the page is confidence and forward vision. Obama knows himself and the times he lives in. His supporters should take their guidance from that. In response to Sarah Palin, the Democrats have exhibited an outpouring of nervousness and panic. They are anxious that the American public might be swayed by a naked appeal to their worst instincts, ignoring Bush's disastrous failures because a spunky Jesse Ventura in a dress proclaims that "I'm just like you." But when Obama declares "This election is about you," he's saying the same thing on a higher plane. The 2008 election has turned into an open referendum, I believe, in which the choice between inertia and progress is clear cut. Religion, for once, isn't the decisive thing. Voter turnout and wanting to make progress are.