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Uncompromising Positions: God, Sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives (Religion and Politics)
Uncompromising Positions: God, Sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives (Religion and Politics)
Elizabeth Anne Oldmixon
Georgetown University Press, 2005
204 pp., 32.95

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Amy E. Black

Moral Issues and Legislative Politics

God, sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

How does any researcher begin to explain the motivations and work of 535 unique individuals (or even just the 435 members of the House of Representatives)? Congressional research is not simple, formulaic, or easy to grasp—and that is why political scientists like me find such work both invigorating and infuriating. Books, articles, and datasets can lead us to important insights, but study alone is not enough to grasp the intricacies of a complex and ever-changing institution like the U.S. Congress.

One source of assistance for congressional scholars hoping to explain aspects of legislative behavior is the American Political Science Association (APSA) Congressional Fellowship program, a fellowship based on the novel premise that those who study politics should get real-world experience to better understand the institutions and people they research. Congressional fellows spend a year working as full-time legislative staff on Capitol Hill, gaining an insider's perspective of life in the office of one or two members of Congress. While conducting much of the research for Compromising Positions: God, Sex, and the U.S. House of Representatives, APSA fellow Elizabeth Anne Oldmixon worked for two members of the House of Representatives, Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.). Her time on Capitol Hill working for members from both political parties gave her a window into the legislative process and access to members of Congress that made this insightful book possible.

Oldmixon began her research with this question: Do legislators approach moral issues differently from other issues they confront during the congressional term? Drawing upon interviews with 35 legislators and key congressional aides, data from a decade of roll call votes and cosponsorship of bills, and census information about congressional districts, she finds that lawmakers—and constituents as well—do indeed approach moral issues distinctively.

Several common factors distinguish the "cultural conflicts" that combine to create potential minefields for both legislators and the legislative process. First and foremost, moral issues are what political scientists call "easy" issues—a misnomer for sure. Such issues appear simple to the voter; that is, constituents think they understand them and know their position instinctively. In addition, "easy" issues are usually perceived in dichotomous terms: one is either for the issue (abortion, for example) or against it. The categories are simple; the focus is sharply and intently on the end goal. The debate over "hard" issues, by contrast, is rarely about ends and almost always about means. Voters rarely disagree with the goals of ending poverty, ensuring peace, or abating terrorism. Conflict arises when seeking agreement on the means for achieving the accepted ends.

Because the locus of debate on "easy" issues is typically over ends, not means, activists often frame the debate in absolutist terms, cueing voters that compromise is not only impossible but may even be immoral. Thus, moral issues are often described in terms of black and white, us versus them. Moral issues seem to offer little space for shades of gray.

But gray is the color of politics. At its heart, lawmaking is the result of compromise; it is a rather messy process of give and take. The framers of the Constitution would be proud; they designed our system of separate institutions sharing power to be slow and resistant to change, and they succeeded. If you think of how long it takes three or four people to choose a DVD at the local video store, try to imagine getting 218 or more members of the House of Representatives to agree on every word of a bill! Add the 100-member Senate and the president who must also concur, and one begins to wonder how any bill ever becomes a law.

As Oldmixon's book warns, the elements described above create a combustible mix: combining deeply held beliefs, passionate activists speaking in black and white terms, and an unwieldy legislative body that does much of its best work through compromises behind the scenes is often a recipe for disaster. And this disastrous combination is exactly why Uncompromising Positions is such an important read for those seeking to integrate their religious values and worldviews with the political process.

Oldmixon enters this minefield by examining three moral issues on the agenda in the House of Representatives: abortion and reproductive policy, gay and lesbian rights, and school prayer. She traces the rival cultural streams that represent powerful currents underlying much of contemporary American politics: the culture of progressive sexuality and the culture of religious traditionalism. Although this section is essential to establish the book's argument, Oldmixon relies too heavily on a small number of sources. Thus, while her account provides a useful timeline, it should not be read as a comprehensive and multi-faceted treatment.

Chapters one and five rely extensively on data collected from Oldmixon's interviews with legislators and their aides; the general reader will likely find these chapters most compelling. Oldmixon's generous use of direct quotations from these interviews adds depth and richness to her arguments. Consider for example this description from a Republican representative:

My decision making process is as follows… . If my district indicates, and I have a pretty good idea that this is a fair representation of my district, if they indicate somewhere between 45 and 55 percent on a certain issue, I vote the way I want to. If it gets between 40 and 45, 55 and 60 percent on an issue I begin to really weigh what they think, if it happens to be different from mine. I factor that in. If it's over 60 percent I factor what they think heavily into my decision-making process, and if it's more than that I generally vote with them… . But on moral issues, this is the thing that I am getting to: I decided before I came up here that I was going to vote exactly the way I thought I should vote, regardless of what everyone thought about it, and let the chips fall where they may.

Oldmixon's interviews with legislators suggest that most lawmakers view moral issues as a distinctive policy domain, deferring to their own values and beliefs when deciding how to vote on cultural issues. These findings highlight an interesting irony: on those issues characterized by such heated and polarized rhetoric along with strong grassroots lobbying, outside pressure on legislators seems least effective.

The fourth chapter presents quantitative models to predict a legislator's support for bills relating to each of the three issues (reproductive policy, gay rights, and school prayer). Oldmixon includes variables to account for the demographics of congressional districts as well as characteristics of individual legislators. The models explain much of the variance in legislator support (at least by the standards of social science), but the district-level variables have more predictive power than those describing individual legislators. In particular, once the models control for a representative's sex, partisanship, ideology, and interest group affinity, religious variables often lose their significance. For example, identification as a white religious conservative is rarely a significant predictor of legislative behavior. The noted exceptions in the analysis are Catholics; at both the individual and district level, Oldmixon finds strong relationships between Catholic religious identity and legislative support for moral issues.

As we approach another federal election, it seems wise to ponder the ramifications of cultural politics in general and the rhetoric of "moral issues" in particular. Political conservatives have found great success in the past few decades rallying the grassroots on abortion and gay rights framed in the language of cultural conflict. Progressives have recently borrowed from this playbook, demonizing the president's nearly $3 trillion budget proposal as immoral in a campaign to assess budgets as "moral documents." The moniker "moral issues" is an odd turn of phrase that has great political power. Is it necessarily immoral to differ on the means for achieving the ends that are at stake in these issues?

Such cultural issues as those described in this book are not the only issues on the congressional agenda; in fact, they represent a tiny fraction of the policies and proposals facing legislators each session. Although it may seem best to focus on the "easy" issues which appear so black and white, Christians need the courage to enter the much more complex political waters of the "hard" issues. By working constructively with others to bring new ideas and possibilities to the table, we can serve legislators wrestling with vexing public policy problems.

Let me be clear: I believe the moral issues Oldmixon describes are important and should be a part of public debate. Some are called in particular to raise awareness of these issues and challenge the church to respond. But if Christians focus almost all of their political attention on a small set of issues, they risk not having a voice on other policy issues that consume the lion's share of the congressional agenda and our federal budget.

As Uncompromising Positions demonstrates with painful clarity, the rhetoric on both sides of the so-called culture war shows few signs of nuance. The polarizing rhetoric from interest groups, broadcasters, and, to some extent, party leaders exacerbates "us" versus "them" thinking and perpetuates the stereotypes of bomb-throwing religious activists. Moreover, such discourse may engender debate that disassociates rhetoric from reality. By creating the illusion that legislation is quick and simple, such issue-framing makes it harder for members of Congress to do their very demanding jobs. When seeking to bring Christian ideas into the public square, we should proceed with great caution.

Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College. She is the author most recently of From Inspiration to Legislation: How an Idea Becomes a Bill (Prentice Hall).

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