Is a politics infused with faith “un-American”?
Recent books, including Kevin Phillips’ best-seller “American Theocracy,” have given serious cover to liberals’ argument that religiosity in political life is pushing us ever closer to theocratic rule. Lately, for example, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) HAS warned against the threat posed by religious believers. “There is a group of people of deep faith. I respect that faith,” he allowed. “I’ve been in enough inner-city black churches, working-class Catholic parishes, rural Methodist houses of worship, and small Jewish synagogues to understand that faith is a gift. The trouble with this group, which I call the theocrats, is they want their faith to dictate what the government does. That, in a word, is un-American.”
But from the beginning, American politics was influenced by the Bible, revering certain general principles of scriptural morality. I don’t mean that Americans ever contemplated literally applying Old Testament legislation that had been written for the ancient Jewish Commonwealth—executing Sabbath-breakers or homosexuals, for example. Rather, they respected the spirit of many of the Bible’s laws. Thus, state laws restricted commerce on Sunday, and never considered granting official approval to any marital relationship other than between a man an a woman. Anyway, this is the understanding among many contemporary conservatives, who would not regard a government official consulting his Bible for inspiration as at all sinister.
The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled around the country in 1831, reported: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.” Without religion-based morality, he argued, only government can restrain people from expending the country’s resources on vice.
Tocqueville warned, however, that if religion took too direct a role in politics, it would become a combatant in political struggles. This prophetic statement reads like a challenge to today’s religious conservatives. A glance at our contemporary political scene reveals distrust of traditional faith, verging on open hostility, coming from a certain social and educational elite particularly journalists, professors, liberal clergymen, and lay people who absorb their way of thinking.
If Tocqueville’s prophecy is taken seriously, it would suggest that the wall separating church from state has fallen into dangerous disrepair. Apparently, conservative religionists are to blame. Right?
I don’t think so. It’s true that today we are in a culture war, pitting religion against secularism. However, the real question isn’t whether America will follow Saudi Arabia and Iran down the road to outright theocratic rule–but instead, whether the very general biblical beliefs of the majority will have a say in forming our laws–a far cry from true theocracy. In this struggle, labeling your opponents “theocrats” is merely a cudgel wielded by secularists.
Christian conservatives were not, in any event, the initial aggressors in this struggle. An article in the journal “The Public Interest” by two political scientists, Louis Bolce and Gerald de Maio, reminds us of the prehistory of the culture war. The authors trace American political culture from the 1960s, asserting that the 1972 Democratic National Convention marked a decisive turning point. That year, secularists took over the Democratic Party: “Prior to the late 1960s, there was something of a tacit commitment among elites in both parties to the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings regarding authority, sexual mores, and the family. This consensus was shattered in 1972 when the Democratic Party was captured by a faction whose cultural reform agenda was perceived by many (both inside and outside the convention) as antagonistic to traditional religious values.”
Does this mean that before 1972, the Democratic Party and everyone else in the country were all God-fearing religious believers? No. But the general tone of public life was deeply respectful of traditional faith. Historian and JFK biographer Thomas C. Reeves (“A Question Of Character: A Life Of John F. Kennedy”) writes of the overall “Christian” character of the culture:
“In 1955, according to Will Herberg’s classic book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” 91% of Americans were Christian (68% Protestant and 23% Catholic), 4 % were Jewish, and 5 % expressed no religious preference….during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years, government at all levels respected the faith of the vast majority of Americans…
“In this ‘golden age of American churches,’ Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and evangelist Billy Graham used their considerable oratorical and intellectual talents on radio and television to inspire millions. Newspapers carried regular columns by both clergymen and published a great deal of religious news. Highly popular magazines like Time and the Reader’s Digest contained numerous stories filled with Christian messages. …Hollywood gave us “A Man Called Peter,” a highly favorable biography of a Protestant clergyman. Businesses routinely closed on Sunday. … Few quibbled about identifying America as a Christian nation. It was and had always been.”
This Christian atmosphere had largely dissipated by 1973, when the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade, making abortion a constitutional right. Within a few years, religious conservatives organized in response, finding refuge among the Republicans. The recent battle to institute gay marriage is just the latest effort by secular activists to transform our country.
It is only if we imagine that American history began in 1980, when the so-called “Christian Right” helped Ronald Reagan win the White House, that religious conservatives look like they are seizing political terrain they never occupied before. Just the opposite is true. They are only trying to restore the status quo that had prevailed before 1972. If America wasn’t a theocracy in 1971, it won’t be now if the religious right prevails.
Liberals may respond here with quotations from religious right figures that they consider alarmingly intolerant. Typically, these quotes mean one thing to a Christian conservative, and something totally different to his critics. Thus, in his most recent fatwa against religious conservatives, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman brandished a quote from the Alliance Defense Fund. The latter group had avowed that “court victories are vital steps to . . . reclaim the legal system for Jesus Christ.”
When I read that, even I was alarmed, until a Christian friend who knows the idiom explained to me:
“From the Christian perspective, everything belongs to Jesus Christ. It would be no more surprising to have the Christian Engineering Society say that they intended to ‘reclaim engineering for Jesus Christ.’ I think that could be confused with an intention to drive non-Christians out of the engineering profession, but there’s nothing very bizarre for a Christian to want to reclaim anything in society, including the legal system, for the one who, from a Christian perspective, is its rightful owner.”
If you check out the Alliance Defense Fund’s website, you’ll see that the court decisions it considers “victories” do nothing more than create a space for Christians to live their religion fully without government interference. That’s what they mean by “reclaiming” the legal system.
When better-known Christian conservatives are attacked, it usually is for expressing views that balk at remaking America’s culture along secular lines. In his new book “Thy Kingdom Come,” disenchanted evangelical Randall Balmer decries James Dobson (of Focus on the Family) for saying in 2002 that due to “homosexual propaganda” in schools, Dobson would keep his kids out of public education in certain states: “This godless and immoral curriculum and influence in the public schools is gaining momentum across the nation in ways that were unheard of just one year ago.”
You may like the idea of our government mandating that kids learn to accept homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle, or you may not. Either way, rolling back such “tolerance” curricula–were that even possible at this point would hardly amount to the imposition of theocracy. It would only be one small step back toward a traditional understanding of sexuality that prevailed everywhere in our country less than 35 years ago.
In any event, the fact that a coalition of secular activists sows distrust of traditional faith and the political party associated with it can’t fairly be blamed on the Republican Party. On the contrary. From 1972 onward, religious conservatives had two choices: either concede the loss of longstanding political influence, or contest it. In contesting it, they weren’t fighting for theocracy. They were, and are, fighting for the American way.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author, most recently, of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.