After the Religious Right
Rethinking religion’s public role
It is already clear that the 2008 presidential campaign will be one of the most notable in our country’s history. But one of the most important transformations in our politics is receiving remarkably little attention: In this election, the religious winds are changing.
The transformation is visible in many ways. The emergence of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee put the fear of God into the Republican establishment. The Huckabee surge eventually abated, but his candidacy marked a break with what has been standard operating procedure within the GOP for more than a generation. Huckabee’s Evangelical Christian army in Iowa ignored the importuning of entrenched leaders of the Religious Right and decided to go with one of their own.
Huckabee himself preaches a gospel of populism that rejects conservative orthodoxy on trade, the value of government, and the beneficence of Wall Street. Huckabee is no William Jennings Bryan—his national sales-tax proposal is decidedly regressive—but Bryan would have appreciated Huckabee’s attack on politics as a mere extension of economics. Huckabee also distinguished himself as an Evangelical conservative who talked a good deal about the poor, about education and health care, about workers falling behind in our economy.
Thus he exposed a fault line within the Republican coalition. The old Religious Right is dying because it subordinated the views of its followers to short-term political calculations. The white Evangelical electorate is tired of taking orders from politicians who care more about protecting the wealthy than ending abortion, more about deregulation than family values. And the new Evangelical electorate cares about issues besides abortion and gay marriage. Poverty, the environment, the scourge of AIDS in Africa—these, too, are moral issues about which millions of Evangelicals care passionately.
The Democratic Party is changing, too. In Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democrats have candidates who are religiously literate believers thoroughly comfortable with discussing their faith and its implications for their views on policy. Obama signaled the change in a powerful 2006 speech in which he criticized liberals “who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant.”
In the same speech, Obama caught the other aspect of the new mood when he added: “No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don’t want faith used to belittle or divide.” For her part, Clinton has been open about the importance of her Methodist faith since her time as first lady, and she risked criticism from her own camp by declaring some years ago that even supporters of legal abortion should be working to make it less common.
This moment might be seen as involving the quest for a new religious balance. If the rank-and-file of the Religious Right rebelled against their sense of exclusion from the larger culture—and against the naked public square that Richard John Neuhaus described in 1984—the new rebellion is directed against the way in which Christianity was turned into an extension of the Republican political machine, particularly in President George W. Bush’s campaigns. Religion becomes less relevant to public life when its role is marginalized to a predetermined list of “values issues,” and when its voice is silenced or softened on many of the central problems facing our country—social justice, war and peace, and the interaction between the workings of the economy and the building of healthy family lives.
Notice what is happening here: the new politics of religion is not about driving religion out of the public square. It is about rethinking, again, religion’s public role. It is the latest corrective in our ongoing national debate over religious liberty, not a repudiation of religion’s social and political role.
The first stage of that debate lasted from the founding of the Republic to well into the twentieth century. It was the era of white Protestant hegemony. I use this phrase not in a pejorative sense, but simply as a description of reality. Protestantism did much to shape our national character, our nation’s identity, and much of our public rhetoric, so much so that American Jews and Catholics and Muslims and Sikhs and atheists are more than a little bit Protestant. Our nation drew upon this shared Protestant spirit to connect people to one another and to the institutions of their common democracy.
If not everyone shared in this Protestant identity in a theological sense, everyone more or less identified with the institutions it upheld. One of the great virtues of American Protestantism is that it underwrote religious toleration and liberty. It is that commitment to religious liberty that allowed Catholics and Jews and then Muslims and many others to settle here and, ultimately, help unsettle Protestant dominance.
White Protestant hegemony in America began to erode with the Scopes trial and the end of Prohibition, arguably the last political project to unite mainline and fundamentalist Protestants. But the formal dominance of Protestantism was not repealed until the 1960s, with, it must be said, the strong support of many moderate and progressive Protestants themselves. Thus began the second stage. It involved a hard push for church-state separation, reflected in decisions by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, notably the ruling that banned prescribed prayer in the public schools.
It was no accident that all this occurred as the country was coming to terms with its historic treatment of minorities. This stage was marked by John F. Kennedy’s election as president, which symbolized the full entry of Roman Catholics into the mainstream of American civic life. At the same time, the civil-rights movement sought to right historic wrongs done to African Americans. Longstanding barriers to Jews, including the effective end of restrictive covenants, were swept away. The civil-rights movement eventually led to new efforts to defend the rights of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean. Their numbers became even larger after the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965. In all their racial diversity, these groups enhanced religious diversity as well.
All this brought the pervasively white and Protestant ethos in government-financed institutions and society into question. The third stage of the debate, in which we still find ourselves, was animated by a concern that the push to reduce Protestant Christianity’s role has had the effect of marginalizing faith’s public role altogether. Had the public square become not simply neutral, not simply more open, but actually hostile to religion? Had our nation, as Stephen Carter asked in The Culture of Disbelief, replaced old prejudices (of race and religion) with a new prejudice against belief itself?
The new activism of stage three, which took root slowly in the 1960s and burst out into the open in the early 1980s, came from a sense that religious voices had been marginalized for far too long in the dominant cultural and political discourse. Many white Evangelical Christians in particular felt they had been treated as ignorant hicks by a variety of elites, including journalists, intellectuals, and the producers of television programs. They reacted against the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion in Roe v. Wade and its earlier ban on prescribed public school prayers—which tended to be Protestant in inspiration, one reason why the Court saw them as discriminatory against religious minorities, such as Catholics and Jews. Central to the polemics of the 1980s, after the rise of the Moral Majority, was the insistence that in a democratic republic, religious citizens had as much of a right to political influence and respectful attention as those who held secular views.
The clearest symbol of the difference between the second and third stages is the sharp contrast between the way John F. Kennedy treated his faith as a public issue in the 1960 presidential campaign and how Joe Lieberman treated his Jewish faith when he ran for vice president in 2000. Both broke barriers as representatives of minority religions. But Kennedy made the case for his own election on the grounds that his religion was not at all important to his role as a politician. His central assertion, politically necessary at the time, was that if ever his faith came into conflict with the Constitution or the public interest, he would resign. Joe Lieberman’s approach could not have been more different. He spoke at length about the importance of his faith and about the legitimacy of a politician bringing his or her faith to the public arena. Notice: To win acceptance from Protestants, especially Evangelical Protestants, it was absolutely essential for Kennedy to play down his faith. But when Lieberman did the exact opposite, by playing up his faith and speaking of God, this was seen as an effort to reassure and win over the very same groups of Evangelical Protestants (or perhaps their children and grandchildren).
In truth, Lieberman was simply more religious than Kennedy was. But their different approaches also reflected different historical moments. In Kennedy’s time, the fear to be addressed among conservative Protestants was that a politician was not a Protestant. In Lieberman’s time, the fear to be addressed among conservative Protestants was that a politician was not religious enough. This is a huge historical shift. The rise of the Religious Right had something to do with this, but there was also a much larger change in our attitudes toward religion and public life.
While those of us who are both religious and liberal are troubled by the ways in which religious faith has been harnessed to conservative ideology, it is important to understand the important affinities between religious tradition and philosophical conservatism. There is, first, the word “tradition” itself. It is an essential word for most conservatives and for most believers. In his 1953 book The Conservative Mind, a work central to the postwar conservative revival, Russell Kirk listed a series of “canons” of conservatism that were quite congenial to people of faith. They included a “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.” He argued that “custom, convention, and old prescription are checks upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovators’ lust for power.” And in a line that might have been written at the Vatican, Kirk warned that “hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration rather than a torch of progress.” Large numbers of religious people instinctively believe many or most of these things.
If religious people believe in tradition, many also believe in authority, either of religious leaders or of Scripture, or of both. My sister, who served for many years in the Navy Reserve, once said that the military may be disproportionately Catholic and Southern because Catholics and Southerners are able to deal instinctively with authority and hierarchy. Conservatives are, on the whole, the party of authority, and liberals are, with equal pride, antiauthoritarian. Liberalism arose in part as a revolt against the authority of the church, of Scripture, of the divine right of kings. Liberals, again instinctively, worry that authority is often the enemy of reason, liberty, and self-direction.
Yet, in the United States there were also affinities between religion and liberalism that defied the patterns of the Old World. Precisely because we Americans did not experience the religious wars as Europe did, American liberalism was always more tempered in its attitude toward faith than the European—and especially the French—variety. By and large, religious Americans returned liberalism’s favor, embracing the regime of liberty and pluralism. The conflict between liberalism and religion over the past three decades is thus a break from most of U.S. history, and in many ways a replay of Europe’s nineteenth-century battles.
Indeed, American liberalism cannot be understood apart from an understanding of its religious sources. No less a rationalist than John Dewey, nurtured in the New England Congregationalism from which he drifted, could call the great fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan “the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education.” Today, Bryan is best known for his passionate opposition to Darwin and evolution. But it was Bryan, says his biographer Michael Kazin, who “transformed his party from a bulwark of conservatism...into a bastion of anticorporate progressivism.” Bryan preached “a simple pragmatic gospel: only mobilized citizens, imbued with Christian morality, could save the nation from ‘predatory’ interests and the individuals who did their bidding.” Bryan, as Garry Wills has noted, could point with pride to the success of the many causes he had championed: women’s suffrage, the federal income tax, railroad regulation, currency reform, state initiative and referendum, a Department of Labor, campaign-fund disclosure, and opposition to capital punishment.
Bryan’s progressivism was not eccentric among believers. The Social Gospel arose in the early twentieth century from the reflections of religious social workers and activists who were confronting the contradiction between the promises of God’s kingdom and the conditions in the slums. Advocates of the Social Gospel were among those who cheered Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 when he declared, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.” And, of course, the Catholic bishops, particularly with their 1919 program of social reconstruction, were at the forefront of the thinking that culminated in the New Deal.
Yet there can be no denying that beginning in the 1960s there was a new rupture between liberalism and those religious traditionalists who had once been allied to progressivism. That decade saw the rise of a new skepticism about social control and a new emphasis on personal autonomy in moral matters. Until then, most religious progressives believed that self-improvement and self-control were intimately linked to the cause of social reform itself. They were prepared to use the state to regulate not only rapacious corporations, but also the behavior of individuals. Their great experiment in this regard was Prohibition, which failed, but the link it embodied between self-improvement and social improvement endured for decades.
Since the 1960s, however, as New York Times columnist and former Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels has written, “American liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice.” This rupture, and not simply shrewd organizing by Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, or Karl Rove, accounted for the rise of the Religious Right.
In 2008, we can see a rejoining of the ideas of personal and social responsibility. Again, the rhetoric of both Obama and Clinton is revealing. In that 2006 speech, Obama argued that when a gang member “shoots indiscriminately into a crowd...there’s a hole in that young man’s soul—a hole government cannot fix.” In a 1993 New York Times Magazine article that was by no means friendly to Hillary Clinton, the late Michael Kelly said that her views reflected “a generally ‘progessive’ social agenda with a strong dose of moralism, the admixture of the two being driven by an abundant faith in the capacity of the human intellect and the redeeming power of love.” It turns out that you do not have to be a neoconservative to believe, with James Q. Wilson, that the public interest depends on private virtue.
If there is a resurgence of publicly potent religion, we need to look for quite unprecedented ways of relating politics to religion. Our question can no longer be the old one of whether religion and politics should be mixed. They inescapably do mix, like it or not. The question is whether we can devise forms for this interaction that can revive rather than undermine the liberal democracy required for a pluralistic and free society.
One example of successful renegotiation was reflected in the 1995 federal guidelines to school administrators. They were designed to make clear that while government cannot impose religion, neither can students be forced to be secular against their will; nor can their personal expressions of faith be silenced. Individual students were no longer to be stopped from praying. Jewish students could not be barred from wearing yarmulkes. Children who wanted to talk about religion on school grounds had the right to do so. A similar respect for individual expressions of faith has been extended to government workers.
This may have seemed like common sense, but it also reflected an awareness that the desire to preserve religious freedom entails keeping the government out of the way and protecting the free expression of believers. And it underscored the difference between an American approach to religious toleration aimed at accommodating religious expression and the French style of toleration (known as laïcité), which sought religious peace by clearing religion out of the public realm as much as possible. The conflicts that face France and other Western nations with large Muslim populations suggest that it is the American form of secularism that may, as the historian Wilfred McClay has written, provide “an essential basis for peaceful coexistence in a religiously pluralistic society.” American-style secularism is rooted in a basic respect for religious traditions and not in hostility to religion. It has certainly eased the integration of new Muslim immigrants into the mainstream of American life. The American story suggests that despite the risks involved, respecting the public role of the many who believe, and who believe in diverse ways, is the more promising way to expand freedom’s writ. The pressure that brought forth the third stage in America’s debate over religious freedom was built into America’s very particular form of secularism from the beginning. The third stage means that religiously inflected arguments have been granted standing in a no-longer-naked public square. “We’re no longer overlooked, persecuted, discriminated against, and misquoted in the mainstream media,” declared an editorial in Christianity Today, the flagship Evangelical magazine, in 2005. “So we’ve been mainstreamed, now what?” Now what?—exactly the right question.
“Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread,” the political philosopher Michael Sandel has written. “A politics that brackets morality and religion too completely soon generates its own disenchantment.”
Liberals should certainly not be complicit in this disenchantment, and the evidence of 2008 is that they have decided on another path. Many in liberalism’s ranks are unapologetically embracing religion’s contributions to a democratic, egalitarian spirit fostered by a belief in the equality of all souls before God. Reflecting on the contributions of the Evangelical thinker Reinhold Niebuhr and historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, Richard Wightman Fox has written that religion can be seen
both as a democratic social power—a capacity to build community—and as a tragic perspective that acknowledges the perennial failing of human beings to make community endure.... Religion allows people to grapple with the human mysteries that neither science nor politics can address. But it also provides a force that science and politics can call on in their effort to understand and transform the social world.
All religious traditions interact with their times. Some reject the spirit of their times. Some are swallowed up. Most traditions survive by finding a balance: preserving their integrity, while adjusting to new conditions and new revelations. To take the most obvious example, the Enlightenment rejected the imposition of religion through force, and many religious traditions, often after some struggle, eventually accepted this lesson.
It is usually forgotten that Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 address at Germany’s Regensburg University, which drew so much fire (including, it should be said, from me) for its comments on Islam, included a powerful acknowledgment of the contributions of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment to the church and the world. Benedict argued that his “critique of modern reason” was a critique “from within” and had nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.
The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvelous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.
If Pope Benedict, that staunch defender of orthodoxy, is able to acknowledge his own tradition’s debt to “the positive aspects of modernity,” it should not be so difficult for other believers to do so. Religion is, necessarily, both conservative and progressive. Religion is rooted in tradition and survives through development and change within tradition. It applies old truths to new circumstances. It also reexamines old truths in light of new circumstances. The conservative insists that the tradition not be distorted merely to accommodate passing fads and fashions. The progressive insists on purifying and clarifying the tradition by freeing it from the cultural encrustations of the past. The conservative keeps the tradition alive by honoring it. The progressive keeps the tradition alive by adapting it, and sometimes by challenging it. The history of American democracy shows that religious conservatives and progressives need each other more than they know. The election of 2008, coming after a long period of profound division in our politics and within our religious communities, will mark the moment when we finally come to understand that truth.
This essay is adapted from Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, copyright 2008 by E. J. Dionne Jr., published by Princeton University Press.
Related: Thomas C. Berg's review of Dionne's Souled Out