The Religious Right Looks to the Future

Review by John C. Snider © 2009

Barack Obama, who was “the most liberal Senator in America” according to his Republican foes, a man accused of being a secret Muslim, a man whose parents were apostates from their respective religious upbringings, is now the 44th president of the United States.  Yet Obama openly talks about his Christianity, supports faith-based initiatives, and invites Rick “How Do Atheists Explain Music?” Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.  Secularists (who overwhelmingly supported Obama) are somewhat disappointed with him in this regard, while conservative Christians suspect strategic mendacity, despite Obama’s calls for unity.  Has there ever been a more confusing time with respect to religion in the public square?

Opinions are numerous on this topic, but one set of ideas is presented in The Future of Religion in American Politics (pub. by Univ. Press of Kentucky, Jan 2009, 273 pp hdcvr, $30), edited by Charles W. Dunn.  (It should be noted that Dunn is Dean of the School of Government at Regent University, founded 30 years ago by Pat Robertson as CBN University.)  The Future of Religion… is a collection of essays by some of today’s most influential conservative thinkers. 

The title is somewhat misleading (or perhaps just ill-chosen), since the lion’s share of space is taken up looking at the history of religion in American politics, and in trying to justify the influence of Christianity in the civic sphere.  To be fair, an understanding of the past is key to understanding the future, but the main conclusion I drew from this book is that religious conservatives (of the meddlesome, obnoxious Moral Majority variety) will continue their activism for the foreseeable future, but that evangelicals more attuned to turn-the-other-cheek pacificism, concerned for the underprivileged, and interested in wise husbandry of the environment, may arise as a force within both major political parties in America.

This book is a baker’s dozen of essays (including the introduction by Dunn), showcasing some excellent (with one or two exceptions) writing by right-wing pundits like Michael Barone, Marvin Olasky and Michael Novak.  The Future of Religion in American Politics can be frustrating reading for those with a secular bent; but it is also instructive of the mindset of the country’s conservative intelligentsia, and as such worth reading.

In “Religion in the Public Square,” Jean Bethke Elshtain argues that separation of church and state does not mean that religious persons should censor themselves in public discourse.  It is, of course, desirable that seekers for public office offer full disclosure on their socio-religious views, if for no other reason than to understand how they might seek to modify or even abuse existing law.  Elshtain believes current accusations that American conservatives seek theocracy (Mike Huckabee’s statements about amending the Constitution to conform with God’s Law notwithstanding) is a strawman conjured by secularists: “We have been chugging along rather remarkably for such a diverse – and religious – society for over two centuries and thus far have not been overtaken by dangerous clerics out to steal our liberties.”  This seems rather blithe considering the long history of American wrongs fueled or enabled by religion (including slavery, Prohibition, the suppression of gays and women, etc.).  It might be more accurate to say America got along remarkably well despite our religious tendencies.

Hadley Arkes contributes the ostentatious-sounding entry “On That ‘Superintending Principle’ That Was There Before the Laws.”  Says Hadley (paraphrasing certain passages in the Declaration of Independence), “…references to the Creator who endowed us with rights were no mere rhetorical flourishes.  The understanding of the laws of nature and of nature’s God placed us within a cosmos with a moral structure.  And it explained then why those bipeds who conjugated verbs were by nature the bearers of rights.”  Let us grant Hadley’s assessment of the Founders as pious patriots: the fact that they later chose not to include such language in the Constitution speaks volumes.  Hadley also reveals a low estimation of his fellow human beings, arguing that the firefighters on 9/11 would never have done what they did had they not “believed that humans were made in the image of something higher.”

Hugh Heclo reveals a low estimation of his fellow Christians by answering the question “Is America a Christian Nation?” in a way that will likely disappoint conservative readers.  Heclo is correct that American society, from its earliest colonial days to the present, has overwhelmingly identified itself as Christian.  But he laments that “recent research is unanimous in concluding that far from affirming, much less understanding and delighted in, their religion’s doctrines, American Christians have very little idea of, or interest in, what those doctrines are.”  (I’m reminded of the workaday Jesus freaks who revealed wildly inaccurate ideas of the contents of the New Testament in Bill Maher’s recent documentary Religulous.)  Heclo reminds his fellow believers that declaring a “Christian nation” is inherently incompatible with Jesus’ declaration that “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Heclo concludes, “The Christian Right’s effort to identify its country with its faith both distorts patriotism and cheapens Christianity.”  (Amen, brother!)  He then goes on to accuse the secular Left of alarmism and emotionalism; nonetheless, his point about the Christian Right stands.
Without a doubt the most tedious (and pointless) essay in this volume is Daniel L. Dreisbach’s “George Washington on Religion’s Place in Public Life,” an in-depth analysis of our first president’s famous Farewell Address.  Not only does Dreisbach flog every possible permutation of the phrase “religion and morality are the indispensable supports for political prosperity,” he reveals the unfortunate tendency of religious conservatives to treat the writings of the Founders the same way they treat the Bible: as sacred text that somehow trumps the enlightenment of the modern age.  Washington’s thoughts on public life are of historical interest, to be sure, but they are completely irrelevant to the meaning of the Constitution and to the obligations of 21st century public servants.  We should not look to Washington as an authority on the relationship between church and state anymore than we should look to John Adams as an authority on women’s rights or Thomas Jefferson as an authority on the evils of slavery.  If Washington thought, for example, that morality cannot exist without religion, then he was wrong.  Period.  Move on.

In “Virginia and the Origins of Religious Liberty,” Michael Novak, like several other contributors to this volume, reaffirms the argument that the Founding Fathers viewed our natural rights as God-given; that rights are not granted by the government (and indeed, that a “Bill of Rights” was thought a bad move by some, that it would fool the populace into a mindset that these were their only rights).  Novak recounts that it was 18th century Baptists (seeking to protect themselves against Anglican hegemony) who insisted on a Bill of Rights in the commonwealth of Virginia.  Apparently Novak misses the irony that it is the politicized descendants of these same Baptists who now seek to shove public recognition of God down everyone else’s throats.
Marvin Olasky contrasts liberal utopianism with conservative pragmatism (what he calls the “religion of panaceas” versus the “religion of reality”) in “Evangelical Political Models.”  (Oddly, Olasky tosses in a joke addressing what the design of the human body says about the nature of God, the punch line being that God must be a civil engineer, for “who else would put a toxic waste pipeline right through a recreational area?”  Olasky misses the point that only someone with complete ignorance of civil engineering would do such a thing.  So much for intelligent design.  But I digress.)  Olasky cites the example of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a key figure in the 1807 abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire.  Wilberforce famously experienced an evangelical conversion, which drove his quest against the African slave trade, but it also begs the question of what exactly in the New Testament did he draw upon to oppose slavery?  Nothing in the Bible speaks out against slavery, so one can only conclude that 18th and 19th century progressives misidentified their inherent desire for social justice as Christian sentiment (i.e. misidentifying “Christianity” with simple human empathy, a Golden Rule that stands apart from any Biblical context).  Anyway, no one can doubt that numerous prominent figures, from Wilberforce to Martin Luther King, Jr., cited their Christianity as their inspiration for social reform, but even MLK would be hard-pressed to find explicit language in the Bible speaking out against racism.

David Hart adds to the confusion over whether or not knowledge of the Bible is a dependable predictor of one’s political leanings, observing, in his essay “Left Turn”, that, among evangelicals, “the reason for voting Democrat or Republican depend[s] on which part of the Bible” the voter reads.  Hart points out that evangelicalism has actually been more progressive than conservative in the broad sweep of history (going so far as to say “the religious Right is actually an aberration within the history of evangelical politics,” and points to the example of J. Gresham Machen, a prominent Presbyterian figure from a century ago, who said of prayer in the public schools, “What could be more terrible, from the Christian point of view, than the reading of the Lord’s Prayer to non-Christian children as though they could use it without becoming Christians?”  Hart observes that there is a growing evangelical movement that “question[s] the basic assumptions of the religious Right about freedom, national defense, and participation in the military… invok[ing] Christ’s instruction about turning the other cheek… to argue that Christians may not resort to violence of any kind to repay evil.”  Hart adds, “…whereas an older generation of evangelicals read the Bible for its application to sex and family relations, younger evangelicals turn to holy writ for guidance on war, hunger, and poverty.”  This can’t be an altogether bad thing, in my opinion.

Michael Barone points out (somewhat disappointedly, I suspect) that a number of issues of intense interest to the intensely religious just don’t get much traction with voters as a whole, with the implication that the rightward surge of the last 30 years may be fading.  For example, Barone says “it’s becoming obvious even to the strongest pro-life people that abortion is not going to be criminalized again any time soon, even in the unlikely event that Roe v. Wade is overturned.”  Barone seems to offer a glimmer of hope for conservatives by concluding his essay with the truism that politics is an unpredictable business.  Indeed, who would have predicted Barack Obama would pick Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation?

In “Red God, Blue God” (or as I like to call it, “The Department of Just Not Getting It”), Michael Cromartie muses on why, after race, religion is “the most important determining variable in predicting voting behavior.”  (Of course, as David Hart pointed out earlier, this is only true of recent U.S. history.)  Cromartie points to studies that “indicate that over the past decade persons who intensely dislike fundamentalist Christians have found a partisan home in the Democratic Party,” and cluelessly wonders “How did this animosity come into existence?”  It never occurs to Cromartie that this could be because, over the last 30 years, the Republican Party has been overrun with Christian fundamentalists obsessed with abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer to the detriment of all other concerns.  Where else is a rational person to go but the Democratic Party?  Despite all this, Cromartie rightly points out that appealing to the religious bloc in America is the way to win elections (at the national level especially), noting, “Any candidate who attempts to contrive an inauthentic religious sensibility will be seen for what he or she is, namely, as insincere and politically calculating… Any candidate who is tone-deaf to religious language and who is uncomfortable speaking publicly about religious themes in even the most general way will not be nominated by his or her party, much less have a chance to win the presidency.”  Hillary Clinton, meet Barack Obama.

“Religion, Civic Engagement, and Political Participation” by Corwin E. Smidt is a detailed analysis of demographic polling data that shows, ironically, that religious participation (church attendance, frequency of praying, etc.) have been relatively static over the last 40 years.  John C. Green’s “Faith-Based Politics in American Presidential Elections” shows unsurprising correlations between church-going and voting Republican.

Allen D. Hertzke stumbles onto the truth in “Emerging Trends in Religion, Society, and Politics” when he observes “Religion… can inspire the highest acts of human benevolence or spark fanatical violence.  It can be an engine of democracy or a bulwark of despotism.”  What Hertzke doesn’t address is what this says about religion itself.  Hertzke points out that globalization is creating more diverse societies, including in America.  This cross-fertilization works both ways, of course, meaning evangelicals in the U.S. can further extend their reach into other parts of the world, and can even forge alliances for common cause with secular groups (like women’s rights advocates) to press for change in foreign countries.  (What Hertzke doesn’t say is that fundamentalist meddling in far-flung parts of the world might also cause problems for American foreign relations.)  Hertzke devotes a section to “issues of science and religion” and predicts, not surprisingly, that conflict will continue, particularly on things like stem cell research and evolution in the biology classroom.  (It would have been nice had more of this book been devoted to this very important topic.)  Hertzke echoes Hugh Heclo’s complaint about self-identified Christian America’s profound ignorance of the Bible.  I agree, but I also think fewer Americans would embrace Christianity were they to receive a proper and thorough education on the content and context of the “Good” Book.

The Future of Religion in American Politics is available at and

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