Surely there is no subject on which more words are currently being said with less real meaning than that of the intersection of religion and politics in America. And that is why you ought to read a recent New Republic piece by the indispensable Alan Wolfe, who cuts through the fog like a search-light.In the format of a review of Jim Wallis’ much-discussed God’s Politics, along with a collection of case studies of religio-political cooperative ventures, Wolfe pens a long, eloquent and often angry essay about the growing willingness of evangelical Christian leaders to reject the liberal principles of tolerance, pluralism and church-state separation that made the growth of their own tradition possible in the first place.In other words, suggets Wolfe, they’ve traded their birthright for a mess of pottage:
They have rendered under Caesar what is Caesar’s: themselves, as it happens, and all the political power that comes with them. They dwell not in the house of the Lord, but in the House of Representatives. Their prayer breakfasts are strategy sessions, their churches are auxiliaries of political parties, their pastors are political bosses. Their God must be great: look at the clout of his constituency.
In plunging into illiberal politics, says Wolfe, conservative evangelicals have willfully forgotten that America’s liberal traditions, especially those expressed in the First Amendment towards which they so often express contempt, have been essential to their ability to grow and develop in the past, and may become so again in the future. To the extent their alliance with the Republican Party is successfully tempting the GOP to abandon its own vestiges of respect for the liberal tradition, both sides of the bargain are being corrupted. Or as Wolfe puts it, “The politicization of the religious right has done great damage to both religion and politics.”Not surprisingly, this approach leads Wolfe to take a rather dim view of Jim Wallis’ case for mobilizing an Evangelical Left. While acknowledging that Wallis has a vastly more biblically grounded case for his politics than James Dobson does for his, Wolfe worries that Wallis wants to play the same game with the same result.
In adopting much of the language of Christian evangelicalism, Wallis brings along its problems. Its participation in politics has led the religious right to a position in which its politics have driven out its faith. God’s Politics is proposing the same degradation for the left. For the left would certainly suffer a similar fate if it adopted the prophetic stance that Wallis urges.
I’m not sure that’s entirely fair to Wallis, but Wolfe uses a phrase here that I think is very important in understanding the psychology of the religious right: adopting a prophetic stance.As you may know, in the Judeo-Christian tradition one who takes a prophetic stance believes the moral and spiritual conditions of a society have become so depraved that the faithful are obliged to step outside the normal bounds of civility and respect for authority and call down the righteous wrath of God. Taking a prophetic stance is by definition exceptional; occasionally essential, but always spiritually as well as politically dangerous. And that is why true prophets are so greatly honored, and false prophets are so feared and despised.My guess is that the leaders of the religious right know how perilous their adoption of the prophetic stance truly is. And this knowledge explains, better than any other factor, the remarkable tone of paranoia, self-pity, and even hysteria that has come to characterize their political utterances.If, say, the existence of legalized abortion is attributable to legitimate and honorable differences of opinion about the intersection of law, ethics, and reproductive biology–and even of religious tradition–then legalized abortion could not of itself justify a radical decision to make political activity a religious obligation–indeed, the most important religious obligation. That is why religious right leaders have to say to themselves and their followers that pro-choice Americans are consciously promoting infanticide and euthanasia.If advocacy of equal rights for gays and lesbians is simply an expression of tolerance and inclusion, and of a sense that it is the logical next step in the long American drive towards fully equal citizenship for all people, then the efforts of a few jurisdictions to extend those rights into domestic arrangements, and the reluctance of “liberals” to stop them, are hardly grounds for creating a church-based national movement to write prohibitions of gay marriages or civil unions into the U.S. and state constitutions. (Indeed, if the prevailing scientific view that homosexuality is primarily a biological orientation is true, then it’s the opponents of gay rights who are defying both natural law and divine providence). That is why religious right leaders have to attribute to their opponents a quasi-totalitarian determination to destroy the institution of marriage itself, as part of a broader agenda of complete moral relativism.And if court decisions restricting the use of public places or funds for religious purposes are a plausible, if sometimes excessive, interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, then they don’t justify a radical assault on the judiciary by either religious leaders or by the Republican Party. After all, are a few town hall creches, a few government grants, and a few watered-down public school prayers, really worth the kind of savage warfare over judicial nominations we are witnessing in Washington right now? No, and that is why religious right leaders keep making the claim that today’s judiciary is engaged in a systematic battle to destroy religious liberty, and to deny people of faith the opportunity to serve as judges.More generally–and this is the most important point I want to make–the prophetic stance is rapidly leading the religious right and its political allies into a contempt for their own country and their fellow citizens, because, after all, the prophetic stance is implictly reserved as an extraordinary response to fundamentally wicked societies. It’s no wonder James Dobson keeps comparing himself to the leaders of the German Confessing Church of the Nazi era, or that religious right politician Rick Santorum can’t stop himself from comparing his Democratic opponents on judicial nominations to Hitler.Religious right leaders, who love to proclaim their patriotism, cannot, of course, accept the logic that is inexorably driving them towards hatred of America. And that’s the source of their constant and increasingly absurd search for evidence that “liberals” are actually, covertly, and illegitimately in charge of the country despite Republican control of the federal government, the strong position of institutions like the business community and the military that conservatives love, and indeed, the robust growth of the conservative evangelical movement itself.If I’m right about all this, or even half-right, there’s not much surprising about the total-war rhetoric and tactics the religious right has embraced, infecting the conservative movement, the Republican Party, and, increasingly, American political discourse generally with a bitter and unforgiving tone. After all, these leaders have to believe that “liberals” and Democrats and anyone who stands in their way are not only trying to kill babies and old people, destroy marriage, abolish all moral codes, and persecute Christians, but are also bent on subverting democracy. Otherwise, those leaders who have gambled their faith on a prophetic stance would clearly stand exposed to the terrible accusation, made so powerfully by Alan Wolfe, that they have traded the Kingdom of God for political power, and are just as secular-minded as the most convinced atheist.