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Uses and Abuses of the Christian Right

Your editorial The Electoral Uses and Abuses of Religion” (December 1992) was an excellent and much needed corrective warning. However, there are certain elements in your statement that are troubling.

First, it is clear that you are somewhat nervous and uncomfortable with the active political engagement of the religious right and especially the Christian Coalition. This apparent anxiety leads you to conclude that, for some, a choice must be made between being “a minister of the gospel” and being “a major player in the arena of electoral politics.” Maybe I misunderstand your point. But, if not, then this is a false choice. (While you were referring in context specifically to Mr. Robertson, your conclusion does read as a more general admonishment.)

I am a Christian”a “minister of the gospel””who finds his hope among fifteen million other Christians in the churches that make up the Southern Baptist Convention. Our confession of faith, the “Baptist Faith and Message,” states that “every Christian is under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in his own life and . . . should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.” Jesus Christ required no less when He commanded His followers to be the “salt” and “light” in society.

For Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, or any other Christian (seeking public office or not), there is no choice to be made. The Christian’s decision regarding the Great Commission and public responsibility should not be an either/or option. Instead, it is a both/and requirement. There should be no direct call to shed the clerical collar in order to enter the sometimes raucous world of electoral politics. Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry, a member of the First Things Editorial Advisory Board, put it this way: “As citizens of two worlds, Christians know that the penalty for withholding exemplary guidance and involvement for the social common good is to surrender the political arena by default to non-Christian alternatives.”

Second, you imply that the Christian Coalition speaks about “taking over America in the name of God.” And while you grant that their posture may be a “defensive offense,” you also suggest (correctly) that the “rhetoric of religious warfare must give way to civil argument and persuasion.” However, I would argue that there is a difference between those who recognize the fact that we are indeed engaged in a cultural battle and those who are calling for “religious warfare.” I would place the Christian Coalition among the former not among the latter.

Those who represent the Christian Coalition certainly do not need me to defend their cause. I am not a member of their organization. However, I do believe that we should take them at their word and accept them as civil participants in the public debate. Following the 1992 elections Dr. Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, said the goal of his organization should be to rely on “strategies of persuasion, not domination.” “We must be tolerant of diverse views and respectful of those who express them,” he said. That sounds quite reasonable to me. It is certainly not the language of one calling for a religious war.

Your conclusion: “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.” My guess is that (if you asked) Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition would probably endorse that conclusion.

Richard Sperbeck
Madison, VA

After reading your editorial I was puzzled. Somehow I recalled going through this before. Then I remembered that in the middle 1980s, after reading Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square and thinking about its content, I was similarily puzzled. My final perception at that time was that Neuhaus was proposing that the problems of the naked public square be resolved by the same type of people that had created the problems in the first place. It is my perception that First Things is doing essentially the same thing in this editorial.

I will not comment on specifics contained in the editorial except to say that I was disappointed with its rancor. There is no question that we have many major problems in this country of ours, but we must not dilute our efforts in solving the problems by engaging in tangential efforts.

It would not be too difficult to argue that our major problems are caused by straying too left of center. I do not believe that we should be too concerned about moving in the opposite ideological direction in looking for solutions. If corrective movements go too far, they can always be moved back towards the center.

Carl H. Carlson
Homewood, IL

Your editorial was in many ways an insightful analysis of the pervasive double standard practiced by the media when they tolerate religiously motivated political activity by the left but viciously attack such activity by those on the right. However, I must express my profound disappointment in your mischaracterizations of Christian Coalition and the many factual errors you printed.

For instance, you express the view that the name “Christian Coalition” is “offensively presumptuous,” in large part because it is allegedly being applied to a “partisan political faction.”

The fact of the matter is that, all the liberal media allegations notwithstanding, Christian Coalition is a nonpartisan organization. We do not endorse candidates, nor do we give money to candidates, even though there are instances where, by law, we are allowed to do so.

In addition, we do not, as you allege, suggest that people are not “true Christians” if they do not agree with our issues agenda. As the national director of our field program, I know of no instance where any staff member or leader in Christian Coalition has suggested any such thing.

Your article makes mention of inflammatory rhetoric such as “taking over America in the name of God.” I would be interested to know the source of that quotation. Again, to my knowledge, no staff member or leader in Christian Coalition has made such a statement. Even if one has, that would be the exception to the generally understood goal of this organization. While the media certainly allege that we make such statements, the truth is we speak primarily in terms such as “giving Christians a voice in their government again.”

You also allege that Pat Robertson “appears to want it all,” i.e., that his ultimate intent is to advance his own personal ambitions. To this end you call upon Dr. Robertson to “let it be known whether he intends to run [for President] in 1996.” The fact is, he has already made several public statements disavowing any intention of running in 1996, most recently on “Meet the Press,” September 27, 1992.

The last statement with which I take issue is when you write: “The religious right is largely to blame for the sorry record of this year.” While we have made our share of mistakes, you cannot begin to imagine the lengths to which many in the media will go to disparage who we are and what we are trying to accomplish. Space does not permit me to chronicle all the distortions, factual errors, and outright lies perpetrated in the media.

For instance, one of our state directors was identified as David Duke’s campaign manager in an article in the Denver Post . This was absolutely untrue. One newspaper headline labeled us a “campaign cult.” The Phoenix Gazette even went so far as to allege that our 1992 voter education project was underwritten by Charles Keating, another outright lie. These would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic.

It is clear such media smears do tinge public opinion, evidenced by the fact that many of your mischaracterizations of Christian Coalition are exactly what the media are trying to foist upon the American people. To my knowledge, you did not talk to any of us in leadership at Christian Coalition before writing your editorial opinion. That is perhaps my greatest disappointment. For while we expect the hostile media to pillory us, we would hope that respected Christian leaders like yourselves would demonstrate keener discernment and exercise greater responsibility than evidenced by your editorial.

Guy Rodgers
National Field Director
Christian Coalition

The editors reply:

There apparently was one factual error, not “many factual errors,” in our editorial. We are pleased to learn that Mr. Robertson has definitively taken himself out of the running for 1996.

As to other points raised by Mr. Rodgers: By the technical definition employed by the IRS the Christian Coalition may be nonpartisan. Partisan ordinarily means a cause or party advancing specific positions in the public arena, and, if Christian Coalition is not partisan by that measure, one might well wonder what is its reason for being. Yes, those who speak about a Christian agenda in the public arena and who form organizations called, for instance, the Christian Coalition, do, as we said, invite the inference that others who disagree are not true Christians. We are glad to be assured that language about Christians taking over America is “the exception” at the leadership level of Christian Coalition. We hope it will become ever more exceptional on its way to disappearing entirely. In addition, it is a mistake to assume, as Mr. Rodgers appears to assume, that everything in the editorial on the electoral abuse of religion was referring to the Christian Coalition. Finally, and for all the reasons given in the editorial, we continue to hope that Christian Coalition will change its name. It is presumptuous, and it does play into the hands of those who would depict Christianity as an alien force that “they” are trying to impose on “us.”

Why Abortion Isn’t Murder

In the November 1992 issue you once again express your opposition to abortion (“A New American Compact: Caring About Women, Caring for the Unborn”). There are several points that I want to respond to. The first point is your claim that the courts control abortion policy. I object to this analysis. The courts have ruled on abortion, but only within the confines of the law and the Constitution. The Constitution is our equivalent of the covenant God established with Israel. The covenant came first and the law amplified and explicated it. Likewise, the Constitution came first and our laws explicate it, even if in a contradictory and confusing manner. The Congress is free to pass an amendment to the Constitution, but until they do it is invalid to fault the courts for failing to do so . . . .

I strongly object to your argument that life begins prior to birth . . . . Humans are actually spirits. The spirit is not consciously detectable but it is the essence of the human . . . . The spirit exists prior to birth and will go on existing after the body dies. I propose that the spirit of a particular human enters the body along with the first breath of air. The spirit is involved in the development of the fetus from conception, but doesn’t occupy the body until the first breath of air occurs. Not only is this consistent with the creation story, but it is consistent with the human experience. Anyone who has participated in the human birth experience knows that mothers have a fundamental deepening experience of their child after birth. I don’t think this is because mothers suddenly develop maturity at the infant’s birth, or because they can at that point in time see, hear, smell, taste, or touch the child. The basis for this response of the mother, I propose, is because it is not until after birth, or more specifically not until after the first voluntary breath of the child, that the full-fledged human is present . . . .

Does my premise that we are not uniquely human until after birth then result in supporting abortion? Absolutely not! It does, however, move the point of “humanness” until birth and eliminates any support for regulating, by law, what a woman does with her fetus prior to birth. Murder is when we deprive a spirit of its body . . . and therefore remove the possibility of future development in this life. Abortion, therefore, is not murder . . . . Murder is removing life from a spirit that already possesses it. Abortion is depriving a spirit of expected life.

When conception is considered to be the moment of life originating, the “Right to Life” movement is encouraged and given moral support. This is a major problem, because the fanaticism of the “Right to Life” movement is seen as an example of Christianity. It cannot be Christian to harass women, burn clinics, and interfere with people following their personal choices. It also creates hostility with the “Free Choice” movement. The “Free Choice” movement falsely defines abortion as a freedom issue. It is not a freedom issue, because any woman could carry a pregnancy to term, give the child up for adoption, and miss, at most, four to six weeks of work . . . .

Warren F. Metzler, M.D.
Hackensack, NJ

The Anti-Family Goddess

Olivia Vlahos’ masterful survey of revived goddess mythology (“The Goddess That Failed,” December 1992) emphasizes two enduring themes in the ancient record: the complementary if sometimes acrimonious interworking of the male and female principles, and the centrality of the marriage-based family. She asks if goddess religion reconstructed by feminist ideologues can serve the needs of modern men and women and answers with a firm negative.

Her comprehensive account nevertheless fails to address the scope of radical feminist family theory. It may appear to duplicate matrilineal kinship systems or claim direction from goddess-primary religions. But, in the minds of the most ambitious matriarchalists, it enters new territory where maternal power alone determines who may enter a family and who may remain and what a family is to begin with. That power is already partially realized with the exercise of the absolute abortion right that gives to the mother alone the right to determine whether a fetus shall become a child and whether a sperm donor shall become a father. That such a power is central to feminist family theory is demonstrated by the ferocity that meets any effort to restrict the abortion right, particularly any effort to give a father any say in”or even any knowledge of”the decision that determines the fate of his child . . . .

As Olivia Vlahos points out, most of [the woman’s right to determine family structure] derived from opportunistic goddess theology. As far back as the early seventies, for example, radical feminist Adrienne Rich was using Bachofen’s concept of the “mother right” to fashion a new kind of kinship system that, she believed, would “gynomorphize” society and establish the “Primacy of the Mother.” Rich and other scholarly radicals like Gerda Lerner did not place unquestioned faith in goddess theology”nor in dead white European males like Bachofen”but saw in it a way of imagining a social system that would subordinate fatherhood to maternal discretion.

Less discriminating feminists such as Marilyn French embraced the new mythology as a redeeming faith. French wrote about a golden age when “there was a garden and in it we gathered fruits and vegetables and sang to the moon and worked together and watched the children grow.” And sent the fathers packing when they were no longer needed. “Marriage,” she said, “was informal, casual . . . the female was economically independent . . . male responsibility was for the most part limited . . . men were marginal.” . . .

The utopias envisioned by radicals have, as Olivia Vlahos points out, never appeared in any real-life society. That has not stopped them from pushing for a mother-right that grants the female parent autocratic discretion. Their efforts have not only contributed to the decline of the two-parent family but have frustrated its rehabilitation. In all societies, such a family was structured by the legitimacy principle that guaranteed for each child both a mother and a father. The concept of legitimacy has itself been deconstructed because, as Allan Bloom said, “Feminism has triumphed over the family.” . . .

Frank S. Zepezauer
Sunnyvale, CA

Tradition, Yes and No

In reading Avery Dulles’ “Tradition and Creativity in Theology” (November 1992), it was a pleasure to find the views of theologians and writers pointing out how fruitful tradition is and has been for them. Indeed, the “deposit of faith” could be defined as the pastness of the past and its presence in the present, in words used by T. S. Eliot. Or, as Chesterton wrote: “Man can only find life among the dead.”

According to the article, Maurice Blondel’s criticism of Modernism was to serve as Pius X’s, for Blondel saw it as pure process without a stable content. By contrast, in Scholasticism there was a possible overlooking of personal involvement. Blondel also called attention to the paradoxical fact that the future is illumined by remaining faithful to the past.

It’s not surprising that Chesterton should agree. In an essay in The Illustrated London News he wrote: “Every good thing has a personal and impersonal side. Religion, for instance, is a good thing, but it is no good unless it is both personal religion and impersonal religion.” It is obvious the “personal” refers to love for Christ and “impersonal” to church dogma and teachings.

Charles Peaguy is among the writers discussed in Dulles’ article. Although the words “superficial and imperfect tradition” are not a quotation from Peaguy, Fr. Dulles appears to be saying that Peaguy’s criticism was directed here. I am wondering whether it was not directed instead to a formalistic response to tradition (and not to the tradition itself) by the upper classes in nineteenth-century France. Peaguy also criticized the privatization of religion. After so many years since Peaguy, has the situation changed much here?

Margaret Waters
New York, NY

The sober reflections of Mmes. Glendon and Himmelfarb in your trilogy on Tradition and Creativity present a dramatic contrast to the rosy perspectives of Avery Dulles. Rather than a dispassionate commentary, the latter are more in the nature of an apologia. Indeed, the aberrant creativity found in law, culture, and the writing of history would seem [according to Fr. Dulles] not to have occurred in the progress of recent contemporary theology, or has been of little consequence. This is not really the whole truth. Shorn of jargon and the dutiful invocation of Dei Verbum and the Holy Spirit, Dulles constructs an idealized model capable of bringing forth not only “new things and old,” but also good things and bad.

Theological “new insights” of our experience are heavily predicated on historical-critical constructs that are now seriously in question. And derivative liturgical and pedagogical norms reflect an experiential theology that totters precariously on an epistemology of prayerful perspective. Interestingly, the entire edifice awaits the wrecking ball, thanks to a few tiny shreds of papyrus found in a cave near the Dead Sea.

Tradition and creativity in theology remains a topic much in need of discussion. It pertains to a tragic episode touching the lives of millions of the faithful, something that Avery Dulles appears not to recognize.

Richard F. O’Neill
Coeur d’Alene, ID

Avery Dulles replies:

The letters of Margaret Waters and Richard F. O’Neill to some degree offset each other. The former contains, among many points of agreement, one mild criticism. She suggests that I would have done better not to speak of a “superficial and imperfect tradition.” In response I would say that this term seems to me to correspond to what I think Peaguy had in mind when he spoke of “traditional moins profonde” and of “traditional moins parfaite.”

Richard O’Neill, from an opposite perspective, faults me for overlooking the phenomenon of “aberrant creativity.” If by this he means a departure from the true tradition, there is of course no lack of it in theology. But my purpose was to examine how creativity can be combined with fidelity to the tradition.

I could not in one article address all the problems to which Mr. O’Neill is referring. For those interested in the Qumram scrolls, I can recommend Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s recent book, Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Paulist, 1992) and his article in Commonweal , December 18, 1992.

Orthodoxy and Civility

Orthodox Brother James Miller’s letter (November 1992) defending Orthodox behavior in Eastern Europe against what are deemed to be Catholic incursions reminds me of so many other statements coming out of Orthodoxy these days. With barely a nod toward civility it calls Roman Catholicism and Protestantism “Western half-truths.” Within the Western churches one almost never hears such uncharitable and inflammatory language used with regard to the Orthodox or any other confession. Among the Orthodox clergy and hierarchy, the imputation of base motivations to Catholics seems to go on incessantly.

It is not that there is nothing to be said by the Catholics with regard to Orthodox behavior toward them. There is plenty. In very recent history, it seemed to many Catholics that some Orthodox brethren not only passively stood by while every sort of persecution was visited upon Catholics but also eagerly concurred in it.

Catholics, however, are not willing to let their perceptions of such behavior get in the way of trying to reach out to the Orthodox. It is time the Orthodox reached back by first adopting a tone of civility and charitableness in their references to Catholic activity. Harsh public language against Catholics leads to anti-Catholic hatred among Orthodox populations and to atrocities such as those now seen in Bosnia. It is time the Orthodox realized that such language, and the division attendant upon it, permits evil an opening to work its way. I believe this may be discerned to be the historical lesson of Christian division.

Stanley Gaines
Mesquite, TX