Christian Politics, Old & New

Head and Heart
American Christianities
Garry Wills
Penguin, $29.95, 640 pp.

God in Public
Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate
Mark G. Toulouse
Westminster John Knox Press, $19.95, 224 pp.

Souled Out
Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right
E. J. Dionne Jr.
Princeton University Press, $24.95, 256 pp.

 

What’s next for the vexed, much-debated relationship between religion and politics in America? For thirty years, the central subject of that debate has been the Religious Right—conservative Evangelicals and Catholics who, in their campaign against abortion and gay rights, helped deliver five of the past seven presidential elections to the Republicans. The conservative energy drove liberals into reactive mode. Some denied the legitimacy of religious activism in politics; others defined it so narrowly as to make the Religious Right’s methods and goals illegitimate; many just avoided the question.

But the elections of 2006 and 2008 have created a sense that a new kind of interaction between politics and religion might be possible—one in which the Religious Right, while still important, would no longer dominate the debate. As conservative Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell have died or retired, a younger generation of mega-pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Hunter have attacked a broader range of moral and political challenges, including global warming, poverty, and AIDS in Africa. Perhaps a third of white Evangelical voters have chosen to vote in Democratic primaries this year, while only 22 percent supported John Kerry in 2004. The Religious Left is increasingly vocal and organized.

Three recent books about religion and politics—by E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark G. Toulouse, and Garry Wills—agree that we are facing a new situation. All three try to analyze what has already happened before suggesting the best way forward. This requires them to assess several tensions in the relationship between religion and politics in America, a country that is religiously and morally pluralistic but also overwhelmingly Christian.

Pluralism means that no one faith can claim to define the nation’s ethos the way Protestantism did until the 1960s. But objecting to political arguments because they are religious likewise fails to respect moral pluralism: it bars many Americans from bringing their foundational beliefs to bear on our common life, and it confers a false status of neutrality on secular arguments.

There are also perennial tensions within Christianity’s relation to politics. Christians are commanded to love their neighbors, and many of them seek to do this by using government power to protect and benefit others. But Christian thought also shows profound distrust of the coercive power of government—which seems to contrast with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus—and of the tendency of politics to verge on idolatry, to promise sweeping rewards and claim sweeping loyalty.

These and other basic tensions show up in many everyday questions about religion and politics. For the two to interact fruitfully in America, which tensions most need to be addressed and resolved? Which tendencies most need to be avoided or encouraged? And where do we need to strike a balance between competing tendencies? Each of these books offers answers, explicit or implicit, to these questions.

In Head and Heart, Garry Wills’s panoramic history of American Christianity, the essential dichotomy is between the Evangelicalism of revivals and charismatic preachers (a Christianity of the heart) and Enlightenment-influenced movements from deism to transcendentalism to modern liberalism (a Christianity of the head). The Evangelical orientation offers personal fervor and biblical vision, while “enlightened” religion emphasizes “humane conduct” and tries to reconcile Christianity with advances in scientific knowledge. Enlightened religion, Wills says, has “assumed the moral leadership of the nation at certain crucial times,” including at the founding. But Evangelicalism has been the orientation of most Americans at most times.

The two tendencies correct each other, and the greatest American figures, such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, combine them. But at three moments in the nation’s history, Wills argues, Evangelicalism has dominated, or tried to dominate, the national culture; and each time it has been brought low. The antebellum Protestant denominations fractured over slavery; early-twentieth-century fundamentalism was discredited by Prohibition and by the Scopes trial; and today’s Religious Right angered many by trying to impose “faith-based” policy in areas from personal medical decisions (for example, the Terri Schiavo controversy) to government social programs (for example, President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative).

As one might expect, Wills’s book combines wide-ranging knowledge, powerful storytelling, and sharp analysis. He offers a gallery of short, vivid sketches of characters in American religious history, beginning with Quaker preacher Mary Dyer, a mother of six who was hanged by the Puritan establishment on Boston Common in 1660. At key points, Wills slows to give important texts a close read-for example, James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” against tax subsidies for clergy, “the best arguments for the separation of church and state that have ever been written”—and to spar with competing interpreters, especially those who deny that the First Amendment embodied an ideal of strong separation.

But despite these strengths, Head and Heart has problems. Madison’s centrality notwithstanding, Wills is wrong to portray religious disestablishment as simply an “achievement of the Enlightenment.” Fervent Christians, especially Baptists, provided most of the public support for ending clerical subsidies, which persisted in New England for decades after the First Amendment (the point where Wills ends the disestablishment section). Baptist pamphleteers like Isaac Backus and John Leland set forth biblical arguments against government support of religion, but Wills gives each of these men only one mention. While repeatedly emphasizing that church-state separation helps keep religion vital, he puts this argument almost entirely in the mouths of Enlightenment figures. His concern might be that many Evangelical opponents of clergy taxes, including Backus, were willing to have government approve religion in generic, nonfinancial ways. But without paying more attention to the Evangelical strand of disestablishment, one cannot really understand why the combination of separation and civil religion has remained so prevalent in American church-state relations.

This omission is an example of how the book, while insisting on the need for both head and heart, tends to see Evangelicalism as more danger than resource in church-state matters. In the last section, “The Rove Era,” this tendency becomes openly polemical and sometimes unfair. Understandably fed up with the Bush administration, Wills stretches to explain nearly all its failures as a subordination of rationality to faith-based fervor. The Right has indeed disregarded evidence on many issues, from global warming to evolution to Iraq. But Bush’s social-service initiative should not be summarily dismissed. However flawed in implementation, at bottom it was a creditable effort to allow a wider range of religious nonprofits to participate along with nonreligious agencies in public programs to assist the needy. As for the Iraq invasion, the supposedly Evangelical idea that it would succeed because “God is on our side” hardly explains Cheney, Rumsfeld, or other high-level policymakers who seemed to think America’s power was self-vindicating and didn’t much care whether it was righteous in any theological sense.

Wills is most tendentious on the subject of abortion. He says that because Scripture and early creeds do not condemn it (he does not mention sources like the Didache and Tertullian), the matter must be “decided by natural reason”; and since “the majority of experienced and conscientious people” remain unconvinced that abortion should be prohibited, the “religious proscriptionists” are simply trying to impose their theology on others. But the case for fetal personhood continues to be made on rational philosophical grounds, as in recent books by Robert George and Francis Beckwith; and prolifers are perfectly entitled to try to persuade more people in the future (remember, too, that Roe v. Wade has severely hindered the prolife movement’s efforts to pursue regulation through the democratic process). Some of Wills’s other points—for example, that many embryos are naturally “aborted” in miscarriage, or that criminalization of abortion would be very difficult to enforce—may militate against criminalization, or against treating abortion exactly as we treat other kinds of killing, but they hardly show that the prolife case is unreasonable.

Wills is right to insist that a religious-political movement is deficient if it has fervor without rationality (or vice versa). But this dichotomy too easily devolves into name-calling: my opponent’s position becomes not only mistaken or misjudged but unreasoned.

While Wills identifies two poles in American Christianity, church historian Mark G. Toulouse, in God in Public, sets out “four ways in which American Christianity and public life relate.” Two, he says, are misguided. “Iconic faith” takes Christian symbols and employs them in patriotic contexts “to serve the nation, not to serve God.” Such faith is typically confident of America’s goodness and moral purpose. Examples of this include Ten Commandments displays in courthouses and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. “Priestly faith” goes further and imposes explicit, “narrowly defined” Christian values on a pluralistic nation, frequently confusing Christian values with Americanism. Here Toulouse locates the Religious Right, as well as an assortment of other overconfident assertions about what counts as a Christian political position.

By contrast, “public Christians” and “public churches” affirm that God acts in the world, but they “do not demand that the American public conform to biblical revelation,” partly because they respect pluralism and partly because they recognize that their own interpretations may be wrong. Rather, they “translate” their religious arguments into nonreligious, public discourse. “Public Christians” and “public churches” have much in common, but they differ in at least one important way. Public Christians act only as individuals in politics; they base their political beliefs on Christian motives and understandings, but wish to preserve the church for its distinctive role as a converter of souls (Evangelical theologian Carl Henry is an example of this view) or as a model of a nonviolent society (think Stanley Hauerwas). The public church, by contrast, ventures into politics as an institution. Toulouse’s book argues for the public-church model on the grounds that it better embodies the complete Christian mission of bringing justice and grace to all creation. One can quarrel with this argument, but Toulouse presents it well.

On the other hand, Toulouse’s “Priestly faith” category seems problematic, since public churches could also be charged with trying to impose a Christian vision of justice through legislation. Is there a reason why churches can push for policies restricting greenhouse-gas outputs (in order to care for creation) but not for policies restricting same-sex marriage—that is, a reason that does not collapse into an argument about the substantive merits of the two laws? I suspect that disapproving of one initiative as “narrow” or not “publicly translated” may amount—not always but often—to a covert argument about the particular merits of the initiative. In that case, the real argument ought to be made openly. Toulouse recognizes that some public churches, for example the black churches that organize civil-rights activism, do not translate everything into nontheological language: they make explicitly Christian arguments, but argue that their convictions can be “recognized as true, even by those who do not share the theology.” Again, almost all religious-political activists argue that their positions can also be justified in secular terms, so calling an opponent too “narrow” is often simply another way of saying she is wrong.

E. J. Dionne’s critique of the Religious Right is as sharp as those of Wills and Toulouse, but more nuanced and sympathetic. In Souled Out, Dionne recognizes that the Right raises legitimate points about the importance of personal morality, and that Christianity does have a “conservative” streak in its skepticism about efforts to remake society in fundamental ways. But he argues that by confining so-called values issues to only a few matters such as abortion and gay rights, the Right has committed the “sin” of “limit[ing] the reach of faith.” He commends the younger Evangelicals who have broadened their political concerns to include poverty and the environment.

In addressing such issues, Dionne grapples with some important debates that Wills and Toulouse barely touch. One is about what he calls the “overlooked schism”: the split between those who believe the way to attack poverty is to transform the behavior of individuals within a market system and those who want to restructure the system itself. He argues that both approaches are necessary, citing findings by William Bennett and John D’Iulio—“neither of them enthusiasts of the old welfare state”—that private charitable funds, although necessary, would not by themselves make up for any serious reduction in the public safety net. He also emphasizes how unchecked markets place strains on family values, when, for example, “the need to earn enough income forces both parents to spend increasing amounts of time outside the home.”

Another virtue of Dionne’s book is the substantial attention it gives to specifically Catholic dynamics. He speaks both analytically and personally about “the agony of liberal Catholicism.” For all the church’s internal problems, its tradition of social teaching integrates faith and reason in ways that have been difficult for American Protestantism, the tradition on which both Wills and Toulouse focus. Catholicism also has found ways to affirm the market while insisting that it be “circumscribed,” in the words of John Paul II, to make sure it serves human freedom and dignity.

Dionne’s book suggests, implicitly or explicitly, several important points about how the interaction between religion and politics can become more fruitful. First, the moral norms of Christianity and other great religions speak to a wide range of issues, from economics and national security to sexuality. Religious norms apply differently to different issues: in some cases directly, in others as general considerations to be filled in with policy judgments that are also informed by science, economics, or the study of international relations. But for all these issues, moral norms, including religious ones, must be the starting point. On this view, the Religious Right’s main mistake was indeed to limit the relevance of faith to just a few issues.

Second, on most serious issues, from poverty to same-sex marriage, both sides offer arguments that combine interpretations of religious norms with rational and pragmatic judgments. Such arguments may be mistaken, but they should be addressed on their merits, not prematurely dismissed as misplaced piety. Dionne quotes Terry Eastland’s nice formulation: religious arguments have a right “not to prevail, [but] to be heard.” Rather than demand that an explicitly Christian argument be “translated” into nonreligious language, it is often more effective to show how the argument is inconsistent with the Christian principles its proponent professes. Conversely, even if religious activists are not obliged to recast their arguments in nontheological language, they will no doubt be more effective in a pluralistic society if they can appeal to general premises that those of other religions, or no religion, can accept.

Finally, in the next stage of political-religious interaction, the country should borrow from both liberal and conservative religious-moral ideals. In the area of antipoverty efforts, for example, one can affirm the importance of both personal transformation and a social safety net, of both government programs and unabashedly faith-based organizations. Dionne, like Toulouse, is inspired by the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr; he predicts (and hopes) that in the near future “Niebuhr’s theology will be far more influential than Pat Robertson’s.” He especially commends Niebuhr’s gifts “for searching for the truth in his adversary’s error” and for recognizing how even virtuous projects can turn vicious if not corrected by self-criticism. Dionne’s book gives us reason to hope that an emphasis on human dignity across a broad range of issues—an emphasis resonating with Catholic thought, and increasingly embraced by Evangelicals—might be combined with a Niebuhrian understanding of the limits and possibilities of politics.

Published in the 2008-07-18 issue: 
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Thomas C. Berg teaches law and religion at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Minnesota, where he is St. Ives Professor of Law.

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