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Like millions of other Americans we cringed more than once at the God-talk of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and others at the Republican convention and in the subsequent campaign. President Bush was little better with his public complaint that the Democratic platform omitted “three simple letters: G.O.D.” We have commented before on Bush’s extraordinary ineptitude when discussing religion (see Public Square, August/September). But then, why should he break his pattern by being more rhetorically adept on that subject?

As galling as one side’s occasionally reckless and vulgar invocations of the sacred were the other side’s patently partisan protests against religious language in the political arena. The National Council of Churches (NCC) sent forth a statement, solemnly opining that “it is blasphemy to invoke the infinite and holy God to assert the moral superiority of one people over another or one political party over another.” This from an institution that, over the last three decades, has issued hundreds of statements on domestic and international matters, routinely pronouncing God’s blessing upon its favored causes and God’s curse upon policies it does not like. Not that we are in principle opposed to blessings and curses. While nobody has a monopoly on virtue, it is not blasphemy to suggest that some people, some patterns of behavior, and maybe even some party platforms are more in accord with God’s will than others. Not to put too fine a point on it, some actions and attitudes are evil, and should be called such.

At least as a general proposition, we are prepared to suggest, for instance, that the faithfully married are morally superior to rapists. And that loving parents are morally superior to abortionists and their political collaborators. As for political parties, it does seem that the Republicans of 1860 had a distinct moral edge over their opponents on the question of slavery. So today, the Republicans have the clear moral edge when it comes to the protection of the unborn and others who cannot assert their own right to life. One might even, like Lincoln, invoke “the infinite and holy God” in support of that claim. (To be sure, the modesty and nuance of Lincoln’s invocations is the exception in our political history. But then, his modesty and nuance on almost everything was exceptional.)

The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (BJC)—which is more like a rump committee than a joint committee since the withdrawal of the Southern Baptist Convention—also issued a harsh judgment on Republicans in the name of a presumably nonjudgmental God. “We begin with the proposition that God is neither Democrat nor Republican,” declared the committee, and went on to make clear that the BJC, if not God, is decidedly more Democrat than Republican. The devoutly leftist People for the American Way (PAW) got into the act with a statement signed by a select group of clergy asserting that “God is neither Republican nor a Democrat.” (Folks at BJC and PAW have been known to talk with one another.) But these statements were as nothing compared with the frenzy of the general press in railing against “the religious right” in Republican ranks. Any allusion to religion does seem to induce severe emotional disorder among those who deem themselves to be the cultural elite (but countenance being termed the cultural elite only by themselves and their friends, never by the likes of Dan Quayle).

The same objections are not usually raised to religion employed on the right side, meaning the left side. At the Democratic Convention and in the prestige media, Jesse Jackson’s telling of the nativity story in a manner critical of those who would have censured Mary for aborting Jesus raised nary an eyebrow. Yet reporters and columnists were relentless—almost possessed, it seemed at times—in assaulting “the religious right” wherever they encountered the language that most Americans speak when the subject turns to rights and wrongs. Americans are and always have been an incorrigibly and confusedly religious people. As Tocqueville and many others have tried to explain, religion is the source of moral discourse and moral formation for most Americans. As a consequence, in the United States, wrote Tocqueville, religion is “the first political institution.” Most of our professional chatterers just don’t get it, or are determined to deny it.

Those who inveighed against the “ugliness” and “divisiveness” of religion in public introduced to our political discourse a loathsome, if not unprecedented, measure of vitriol and hatefulness. Attacking “the religious right” in a column titled “Merchants of Hate,” Anthony Lewis of the New York Times compared Republicans to Joe McCarthy and accused them of worshipping “a God of intolerance.” Then this: “If the official Republican platform is carried out, a thirteen-year-old girl who becomes pregnant as a result of being raped by her father and has an abortion could end in the gas chamber.” If that is not a new low in demagogic dishonesty, it is surely in the running. There are indeed “merchants of hate” at the edges of, and sometimes solidly ensconced in, both parties. But as in the merchandising of almost everything else, our prestige media are second to none.

In earlier regimes, religion was established as the First Estate. Under American disestablishment, it has functioned informally as the first political institution. Like Tocqueville, most effective politicians have recognized that, drawing upon and paying deference to what in the last half of the century is called “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” The curious, and very dangerous, thing today is that the Democratic Party has come down almost unequivocally on one side in our culture wars. Its decision making is dominated by, if not entirely controlled by, those who apparently view religion as an outdated, alien, and hostile force in our public life. Thus do Democrats virtually invite their opponents to claim, falsely, monopoly on the religio-moral tradition with which most Americans identify. Whatever the outcome of a particular election, the politicizing of the religio-moral heritage along such sharp partisan lines must be unhealthy for the country.

Certainly it is unhealthy for religion. Jews and Christians who are at all reflective about their religious convictions cannot help but wince at the vulgar enlistment of those convictions in campaign rhetoric. That said, however, we are reminded that ours is a democratic republic, and democracy means popular governance, and popular means vulgar. When one party, in this case the Democratic, is perceived to be hostile or indifferent to the religiously grounded beliefs of most Americans, it is hardly surprising that the other party will present itself as the champion of the nation’s moral legacy. This can result in the exploitation and abuse of religion, and even, as the National Council of Churches rightly says, in blasphemy. The problem is not remedied, however, by a religious left that deplores the blasphemy of the opposition while bestowing uncritical blessings upon itself and its allies.

We heard much about President Bush “pandering to extremists,” as when he addressed Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. When Governor Clinton assured the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and the National Abortion Rights Action League of his wholehearted support, however, he was not pandering to extremists but “moving the Democrats to the moderate center.” Of course it is outrageously unfair, but hardly surprising, given the well-documented ideological proclivities of the journalistic establishment.

Nonetheless, people who care about the integrity of religion do have a responsibility to raise some hard questions about groups such as the Christian Coalition. For starters, the name of Robertson’s organization is offensively presumptuous. To be sure, many groups present themselves in a way that suggests that they have a monopoly on support for virtue and opposition to vice. Consider, for instance, the late Moral Majority. Or People for the American Way, which invites the inference that those who disagree are somehow un-American. Yet there is something singularly egregious about the “Christian Coalition.” Christian is not just another word but the name by which those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord are named. “It was in Antioch that the disciples first received the name of Christians” (Acts 11). To claim the name for a partisan political faction is troubling. And it is even more troubling when the rhetoric of that faction suggests that who is and who is not a “true Christian” is defined by agreement with that faction. There are millions of Christian Americans who agree with all or most of the policies supported by the Christian Coalition, but they strongly and rightly resist the notion that that is a test of whether or not they are Christians.

We should all protest the exclusion of religiously grounded morality from public life. In recent years we have witnessed a strong and necessary challenge to those who decree that this is a secular society and therefore arguments shaped by religion have no place in the public forum. But organizations such as the Christian Coalition can exacerbate the problem that its members seek to remedy. To call for religious warfare, as some of them do, is to recall the religious wars of earlier centuries that unraveled civil society and led thoughtful people to the conclusion that religion in public is inescapably divisive and destructive. Cultural wars and political wars may be accommodated within the raucous workings of democracy. Religious warfare, however, raises the ante beyond the reach of democratic accommodation.

To absolutize the polarization between “us” and “them” is to create an adversary culture that is as potentially pernicious in undermining civil society as the continuing influence of the counterculture of the 1960s the Pat Robertsons claim to be countering. To speak about taking over America in the name of God is to invite resistance from everybody, including devout Christians and Jews, who understands that, as this nation is “under God,” so all factions and causes must be kept under transcendent judgment. We must all make decisions about which course of action best approximates what we discern to be the will of God, but nobody unqualifiedly represents the will of God in the political arena.

The great and exceedingly difficult task for religious activists is to articulate a vision of a future more just and more promising for all. Without fudging the reality of conflicting visions, the rhetoric of religious warfare must give way to civil argument and persuasion. There is no denying that the phenomenon of the religious right is a defensive offense. Its partisans believe, with justice, that much of the country’s cultural leadership declared war on them and now they are responding in kind. By responding in kind, however, they play into the hands of their adversaries. Whether they hear the call coming from the right or the left, Americans have a history of not responding well to calls to the barricades. Forced to choose between the world according to Pat Robertson and the world according to, say, Bill Moyers, they are likely to feel less threatened by the latter. Many Americans may reciprocate the contempt in which they are generally held by Harvard and Hollywood, but that does not mean that they are ready to embrace the future proposed by Liberty University or the 700 Club.

Of course it may be that some in the religious right know exactly what they are doing. They may believe it is to their advantage to heighten polarization, thus constituting themselves as a minority bloc that can hold conservative politics hostage for years to come. That is what Jesse Jackson did to liberal politics in the past, and what homosexual activists and pro-abortionists succeeded in doing in 1992. Or it may be that some religious activists do believe that they can, as they say, take over the Republican Party and then prevail in the next presidential election.

In that connection, Mr. Robertson in particular should let it be known whether he intends to run in 1996. If he does, he should without delay change the name of his organization from the Christian Coalition to the Committee to Elect Pat Robertson. Honesty requires as much, and it would help to remove from him the stigma of exploiting religion as the vehicle for advancing his ambitions. One may honorably aspire to becoming President, and one may even appeal for the support of those who share one’s moral and religious convictions. It is dishonorable, however, to claim to be leading a great spiritual awakening while disguising such political aspiration. As it is, Mr. Robertson appears to want to have it all. He presents himself as a minister of the gospel while acting as a major player in the arena of electoral politics. The integrity of politics and, much more importantly, the integrity of religion require that a choice be made.

We do not wish to single out Mr. Robertson unfairly. The electoral uses and abuses of religion are widespread, and more long-standing on the left than the right. Religion will continue to be “the first political institution” of our society only as it is recognized as the moral framework for all and the exclusive property of none. Over several decades, the partisanship of the liberal oldline churches brought the public role of religion into deep discredit. Since the 1970s, the conservative churches have been in the ascendancy, and their leaders understandably think that it is their turn to try to frame the moral challenges for the society. It would be a great sadness if, looking back at this period, historians concluded that these conservatives, by their uncritical partisanship, succeeded only in further discrediting the possibility of a religiously informed moral discourse in public life.

The proper understanding of religion in public took a bad beating in this election year. Religion is debased when clergy accept the role of chaplain-cheerleader for competing political teams. When opposing voices claiming to speak for God are recruited to partisan purpose, it reinforces the suspicion that none of them speaks for God, which is a sound suspicion to reinforce. It also reinforces, however, the suspicion that politics must be hermetically sealed off from religious insight and conviction, which is disastrous in a democracy such as ours. The religious right is largely to blame for the sorry record of this year. But again, their frenzy and frequent fanaticism must be viewed as a reaction to the more sophisticated fanaticism of the religious left, and of secularists who would rule religion out of public life altogether. The 1992 campaign has demonstrated once more that we are a very long way from understanding the implications of religion as the first political institution of the republic. Perhaps we have never gotten it quite right, and never will. Nonetheless, we have no choice but to persist in the hope that we can do better. A lot better.

Photo by Marc Scaturro on Unsplash. Image cropped.