FAITH AND POLITICS: The Rise of the Religious Right and Its Impact on American Domestic and Foreign Policy - Part 1
by David Halton
Larkin-Stuart Lectures Toronto, March 8-9 2007
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My subject tonight is the rise of the Religious Right in U.S. politics and its impact on American domestic policy. Tomorrow, I will examine the role of Christian nationalism in shaping American foreign policy, and conclude with some thoughts about the future of faith and politics in the United States.
It was my good fortune to spend fourteen years in the United States covering American politics for the CBC. It was a turbulent and fascinating period that spanned the last year of George Bush Senior’s presidency, the Clinton years, and the first five years of George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House.
When I look back over that period, there’s no doubt in my mind that the single most important trend in U.S politics has been the extraordinary growth in the power and influence of the Religious Right. It is a trend that has led to the near-capture of a governing political party by a religious movement for the first time in the history of the Republic, and that has threatened to undermine the separation of church and state that has been a pillar of U.S. democracy. It is a also a trend that, in my view, has allowed an intolerant sectarianism to have a profoundly negative impact on many facets of American life.
Let me immediately put my own personal biases out front. As you may have already guessed, my perspective on this subject is that of a fairly typical secular Canadian; in my case, that of an agnostic who is strongly opposed to the notion of religion being used to win votes but open to the idea of Christian principles being used to guide political action.
Let me also begin with a brief explanation of my terminology. I have used the phrase Religious Right, as opposed to Christian Right, because we are focusing on a broad ecumenical movement that has included Orthodox Jews and even, on some issues, American Muslims as well. The movement also includes Roman Catholics and adherents of the mainline Protestant churches.
But for more than three decades, the driving force behind the Religious Right has been the wide range of churches that call themselves Evangelical -- the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Pentecostals, Charismatics and smaller Fundamentalist groups. All of them have been growing rapidly, their ranks swollen by a steady exodus of the faithful from older traditional churches.
The numbers are huge. More than 60 million American adults are Evangelicals who define themselves as “born-again Christians”, meaning that they have accepted their sinfulness and established a personal relationship with Christ through conversion. One Evangelical group alone -- the Southern Baptist Convention -- has more members than the Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches COMBINED.
At this stage, let me stress emphatically that Evangelicals do NOT form a monolithic political bloc. African-American Evangelicals, for example, continue to be solidly in the Democratic camp and there are progressives who promote a generally liberal agenda.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals are Republicans. A remarkable 78% of them voted for George W. Bush in the last presidential election, and it is these voters who have become the heart and soul of the Republican party. So I will be taking the liberty this evening of using the word “Evangelicals” as a convenient shorthand to describe those who have become the foot soldiers of the Religious Right without mentioning the exceptions.
Religion in The US
The United States has become, as we all know, the most religiously observant country in the Western world. Nineteen out of 20 Americans say they believe in God, and 85% identify themselves as Christians. I believe it is now impossible, in the current political context, for an atheist or an agnostic -- or perhaps even a non-churchgoing Christian -- to be elected president of the United States.
George W. Bush has suggested that America is in the throes of a Third Great Awakening. He was referring to previous periods of intense religious revivalism in America: the so-called Great Awakening of the 1740’s and the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s . These were periods characterized by the growth of new religious movements that were more emotive and which put less emphasis on liturgy and hierarchy than traditional denominations. They also emphasized salvation and, in some cases, the claims of their founders to special revelation.
There are indeed, as President Bush suggests, some striking parallels with the Evangelical revivalism that we have seen over the past four decades. But there is one very major distinction: the desire of Evangelicals today to have religious values incorporated in public policy, and to bring faith and politics together. In an opinion survey not long ago, sixty-six per cent of Evangelicals said they favour amending the Constitution to declare the U.S. a Christian nation. The break with the past is played down by the leaders of the Religious Right . They claim that there is an essential continuity in American history between the Puritans of the New England colonies, who saw themselves as agents of Christ, and politicians today who say they are doing the Lord’s work.
America, they say, has always been defined as a Christian nation, even by its Founding Fathers. It is a claim that seems to me (and I suspect most people who have studied American History 101) to be a breath-taking denial or reality. The one and only mention of God in the Declaration of Independence is of “Nature’s God,” who is not defined in any way as a Biblical or Christian God. Nor is there any mention of God in the Constitution or the Federalist papers, the working documents of the Founders.
It is also revealing to examine the faith of the founding fathers. There were practising Christians among them but also prominent deists like George Washington. Thomas Jefferson admired Christ’s teaching, but didn’t believe in his divinity, and once described the Book of Revelation (which is the key biblical reference for today’s Evangelicals) as “the ravings of a maniac.”
It was men like these who insisted on that famous first amendment of the American Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of any state religion while guaranteeing the free practice of religion.
James Madison, another of the Founders, said: “ The purpose of the separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” And in his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, Jefferson used the phrase “wall of separation” -- a phrase the Puritan Roger Williams had first used 158 years earlier when he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for advocating the separation of church and state.
However, listen to the leaders of the Religious Right today, and you will often hear the wall of separation described as a “wall of shame. “
To understand why they feel that way -- and why many accuse the Religious Right of fostering a theocratic America … one needs to review the political history of evangelicalism in the U.S.
Many Americans would probably be surprised, given the political coloration of the movement today, to discover that American Evangelicals were a socially progressive force in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries . They were in the forefront of the struggle to abolish slavery, made their mark on issues such as prison reform, and later were champions of universal suffrage. Until the mid-1970’s, they often voted Democrat, as they did in 1976 for Jimmy Carter, himself a self-described “born-again” Evangelical.
So what changed, and why? For the leaders of the Religious Right, there is a standard answer: It was outrage at the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion in Roe versus Wade, and it was outrage over what they saw as the moral decay of the 1960’s -- secularism, sexual permissiveness, feminism, gay rights and so on.
That may be the standard answer but it is one challenged by some religious historians. Their view is that the movement was galvanized by a 1975 court decision that upheld the IRS in denying tax-exempt status for segregated private schools.
Remember this was the tail end of a period when hundreds of thousands of Americans, mainly in the southern states, had moved their children from public schools to private Christian academies to avoid integration.
Jimmy Carter was seen as siding with the IRS on the school tax issue and, in 1979, seething Evangelical anger is channeled into the first major institution of the Religious Right -- the Moral Majority led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. The movement described itself as “pro-life, pro-family, pro moral and pro America “ and declared that its goal was nothing less than “to take back America for Christ” and to end the separation of church and state.
The tactics adopted were to become to become the standard operating practice of the Religious Right: the use of wedge issues, such as abortion and gay rights, to hive off social traditionalists from the Democratic party, and to harness the energy of Evangelicals to the Republican party.
A year after the Moral Majority is founded, its votes become a key factor in defeating Carter and propelling Ronald Reagan into the White House. A seismic political realignment has begun and never since has a Democratic presidential candidate won anything but a small minority of white Evangelical votes.
Other factors though -- and here I would like to discuss doctrinal shifts among Evangelicals -- are of enormous importance in explaining both the growth and ideology of the Religious Right.
I hesitate to inflict on you any explanation of the theological doctrine known as “dispensational pre-millennialism “but I must, at least briefly, and hope there is no rush for the exit doors!
Dispensational pre-millennialism is a doctrine propagated in the 19th Century by a defrocked Irish Anglican preacher named James Nelson Darby. Darby made a number of missionary visits to North America in the 1860’s and 1870’s, including one to Toronto, and founded a sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. Its beliefs centre on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and above all of the Book of Revelation.
The pre-millennialists believe we are close to the end of history -- the “end time” as they call it -- and before long will be caught up in a chain of apocalyptic events. First, there will be an event called the Rapture in which the righteous will be swept up from earth to heaven. Those left behind will then suffer a seven-year period of horror under the Anti-Christ, who will only be vanquished with the Second Coming of Christ and the Battle of Armageddon. After the slaughter, a victorious Christ establishes his thousand-year kingdom based in Jerusalem.
It’s a theology that has shaped the political and ideological views of the Religious Right to a remarkable extent.
If, as pre-millennialists believe, the world is spiralling towards the apocalypse, there is not much humans can do but live righteously until the Final Judgment unfolds.
Social programs and policies -- spending money and effort to fight poverty or AIDS or to clean up the environment -- become irrelevant because we will soon be facing the end of the world. Therefore many Evangelicals see less government as the best government. That view, not surprisingly, often converges with the interests of corporate America, which on some issues has forged alliances of convenience with the Religious Right to limit government regulation and activism.
While dispensational pre-millennialism may sound like a rather esoteric doctrine, its populist version has had enormous appeal in recent times.
The 1970’s saw an explosion of interest in the subject with the publication of “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” a best-seller that linked current events with End Times prophecy.
Then in the 1990’s came the publication of the so-called Left Behind series of novels by two Evangelical authors, the Reverend Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Essentially these novels are religious pulp fiction that popularize the Book of Revelation and tie the themes of Rapture, Armageddon and final destiny to a modern world seen as poisoned by Satanic forces of secularism. The books and related cassettes broke all publishing records in the U.S., selling more than sixty-two million copies and spawning some 200 websites. Jerry Falwell described the Left Behind novels as the most important books since the Bible and, to a remarkable extent, they have helped shape the worldview of the Evangelical majority.
To pre-milleniallism, one must add another doctrine that has had a more direct bearing on the welding together of faith and politics in America.
The leaders of the religious Right favor some form of Dominionism, as it is called -- the belief that Christians are mandated by God to take control of political institutions and to subordinate civil law to biblical law. It is a doctrine that takes as its prime source those verses in Genesis that say that man should subdue the earth and establish dominion over it.
An extreme version of the creed, known as Reconstructionism, was propagated by John Rushdoony in the 1960’s and singles out as its model society both Puritan New England and the Calvinist theocracy of 16th Century Geneva. Some of its beliefs … that the death penalty, for example, should be applied to homosexuals … are too extreme for most leaders of the Religious right.
But where reconstructionsm has had its biggest impact is in its advocacy of stealth tactics to break down the barriers between church and state. Christians, it is argued, have a moral duty to infiltrate political and social institutions and remove what the movement calls “secular humanists” from office … and I should add that in the lexicon of the Religious Right, the words “ secular humanist” are even more pejorative than the word “liberal”.
By the end of the 1980, stealth tactics are being used with great effect. In 1989 Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority merges into the Christian Coalition. Its president is another televangelist, the Reverend Pat Robertson, but its organizational genius is Raph Reed, a young man aptly described as having the face of a choirboy but the political instincts of a Machiavelli.
Under Reed’s guidance, Evangelicals were encouraged to infiltrate school boards and local government, then to take over Republican committees at the precinct and district level. The aim was to ensure that Christian conservatives, not moderates, are elected as delegates to state and national Republican conventions.
In a moment of candour, Reed described his ability to defeat opponents -- both moderate Republicans and Democrats -- with these words: “ I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know its over until you’re in the body bag. You don’t know until election night.”
By 1992, the take-over of the Republican party is already well underway. My own direct exposure to the Religious Right began at the party’s nominating convention that year in Houston. I was surprised to discover that 40 per cent of the delegates were members of the Christian Coalition and that they exercised more influence over their party’s platform than their presidential nominee, George Bush Senior.
On the second night, I listened to a chilling speech by Pat Buchanan in which he said that America was undergoing a religious and cultural war as important to the country as the Cold War. The rhetoric struck me as being absurdly overblown, but it accurately reflected the feelings of dozens of delegates whom I interviewed later that week. Among the Evangelicals, there was a near total belief that the United States was indeed involved in a war for its soul in which Christians must be called on to save a fallen nation.
What was equally striking was the extent to which the bread-and-butter issues of politics -- the economy, health care, and so on -- were relegated to the sidelines. Instead the focus was on school choice and school prayer and, above all, on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and sexual permissiveness in its many forms.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, the theologian and editor of Tikkun magazine offered what I think is an apt if slightly exaggerated description of the priorities of the Christian Right. “In a world filled with the pain of war, starvation and homelessness,” he wrote, “the Religious Right manages to refocus attention on who is sleeping with whom, and how and what they do, and what happens afterwards.”
That same focus partly explains, of course, the intense hatred of the Religious Right for Bill Clinton during his presidency. Clinton was seen as the epitome of evil, the philandering product of a Godless America, the president who allowed gays to serve in the military, ad so on.
During his impeachment hearings I did a tour of Tennessee to report on Evangelical reaction. At a Sunday service in a pre-millennialist church in Knoxville, the pastor devoted most of his sermon denouncing Clinton as Satan, as the new anti-Christ. After the service, parishioners came up our camera crew and accused Clinton of such depravity that he was turning America into Sodom and Gomorrah. The hateful, fundamentalist language was not atypical.
It was the kind of language you could hear every day on hundreds of evangelical radio and television stations from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and many others. And it underlines what I think is the dangerous Manichaeism of the Religious Right. If you believe that God is on your side, you are more likely to see politics in absolutist terms of good and evil, you are more likely to see your opponents not only as misled but as morally derelict, and you are less willing to engage in the kind of civil discourse and compromise that are so essential in a democracy. And that is exactly what we have tended to see in recent years in the increasingly polarized U.S. Congress.
Which brings us to the year 2000, which in a very real sense was a watershed year in the rise of the Republican Right.
At this stage the Christian Coalition, which had built up a membership of more than two million Americans, has fragmented into multiple power centers.
We are talking about groups like Focus on the Family and the Coral Ridge Ministries, as well as Falwell and Robertson’s evangelical organizations. Think of them as powerful and wealthy religious empires. Most have their own television and radio networks. They have their own universities and colleges, their own theological seminaries, their own lobby organizations in Washington, and their own legal centers devoted to challenging what are seen as liberal court decisions. They all enjoy tax-exempt status, the larger ones pulling in more than 150 million dollars each. The headquarters of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs employs more than 1,200 people and is so big that it has its own ZIP code. Its leader, James Dobson, writes a weekly column that is carried by almost 500 newspapers, while his broadcasts are heard by two-and-a-half million listeners every week.
All these groups form an interlocking and remarkably homogeneous political organization.
At its pinnacle is the Council for National Policy which meets two or three times a year, bringing together top Evangelical activists, leading Conservative Republicans, Dominionist theologians and wealthy donors. The meetings are highly secretive and no minutes are taken. To this day no one knows what George W.Bush said when he addressed the Council in 1999 and, in all probability, won its blessing for his presidential run.
However it is not the pinnacle but its base that is the true phenomenon of the Religious Right. By 2000, the movement has an electoral machine that is unprecedented in numbers and sophistication.
It can draw on millions of church-going supporters to staff phone banks and register voters for Republican candidates. It is also ready to deliver the all-important voter guides. Churches in the U.S. lose their tax exempt status if they endorse a candidate from the pulpit but they are allowed to distribute voter guides on candidates positions that are almost invariably skewed in favor of Republicans. Seventy million voter guides were distributed in the 2000 presidential election.
It was in that election that religion was injected into the campaign more than ever before in modern times. The Democrats were obliged to acknowledge the new reality, Al Gore, describing himself as “a Child of the Kingdom,” while his vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman actually prayed at some of his campaign rallies and said God should play a much greater role in U.S. politics.
But as memorably close as that election was, the Democrats were nowhere near matching George W. Bush’s appeal to religious voters, especially to evangelicals who now could rejoice that they had a born-again leader who shared both their faith and their politics.
What about Bush’s own conversion experience? Well, it is said to have begun in a 1984 meeting with Arthur Blessit, a roving evangelist. The perhaps appropriately named Blessit was well known for carrying a 12-foot Crucifix around the world and winning not only souls for Christ but a citation in the Guinness Book of Records for “World’s Longest Walk.” But it isn’t sure whether Bush gave up his heavy drinking at his meeting with Blessit or a later session with Billy Graham.
Bush’s religiosity is difficult to assess because it functions on two tracks. In private meetings and before religious audiences, he conveys a sense of his passionate personal faith, even claiming on occasion that he is divinely inspired. But in appearances before a broader public he tries to avoid any impression that he is a religious zealot.
Before announcing that his candidacy for the White House, Bush told a group of Texas preachers that quote : “I feel that God wants me to run for president . I cannot explain it but I sense my country is going to need me… I know it wont be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.” And after his election, Bush told an Amish audience in Pennsylvania: “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”
My own instinct is that Bush is truly sincere about his religious commitment but quite willing to let it be used to woo religious voters. One indication of the latter is what biblical scholars have called “double-coding” … the larding of his speeches with biblical allusions that are deeply meaningful to his evangelical base but pass under the radar of the general public.
Michael Gerson, an evangelical who until recently was Bush’s main speechwriter would drop phrases into presidential speeches such “hills to climb” -- an allusion to Israel’s escape from slavery -- and “seeing the valley below” -- a reference to Moses’ vision of the Promised Land.
On another occasion, when Bush said, quote, “there’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” many religious listeners would instantly recognize that the words came from an old hymn that talks of the “wonder-working power in the blood of Jesus.”
Other efforts were less subtle. During his first term, Bush appeared at a Dallas Christian youth center where you couldn’t miss the two banners behind him, one prominently displaying the words “King of Kings” and another with the words “ Lord of Lords.”
And at his nominating convention in New York in 2004, many of us noticed that there appeared to be the shape of a crucifix engraved on the main speaker’s podium which itself resembled the pulpit of a church. Next day several Jewish groups complained that Christian symbols were being exploited. The White House vigorously denied the charge but it does seem likely that religious imagery was being deliberately used given the fact that every detail of presidential appearances is rigorously choreographed.
In the White House itself, religion appears to be more pervasive than in any other modern presidency. We are told that Bush starts every day kneeling in prayer, begins cabinet meetings with a prayer, and reads passages from the Bible every day. The first words David Frum heard when he began work as a speech writer were “Missed you at Bible study …” It was, he says “disconcerting to a non-Christian like me “ to be in “a White House where attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory either.”
No one realized the importance of pleasing the Religious Right more than Karl Rove, the president’s top political strategist, and no one exploited religion more effectively for political gain. In addition to specific policy concessions which I will review in a moment., Rove systematically began packing the government with evangelicals and social conservatives. The priority was getting them into agencies and departments such as the FDA, Health and Human Services, Justice and Education that deal with priority issues for the Religious Right.
For Evangelicals, one of the most welcomed appointments was that of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft is a Pentecostal who once declared that “America has no King but Jesus,” and who has accused liberal judges of turning church-state separation into what he called “a wall of oppression.” On important occasions, Ashcroft anoints himself with cooking oil as King David did in the Bible, and one of his first moves was to cover a bare breast on a statue of the Spirit of Justice outside his office.As significant as the appointments was a new practice at the White House of consultation with the Religious Right on all initiatives affecting its agenda. Weekly conference calls were held with evangelical leaders, and a religious outreach team was set up in the West Wing to inform Christian Conservative leaders of forthcoming presidential events and, on occasion, to seek their help in drafting legislation.
The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives
Much higher-profile was the new Office of Faith-Based Initiatives that was also established in the White House. It was designed to be the cornerstone of Bush’s campaign promise of a so-called “compassionate conservatism.” Its major theorist is a former Marxist and Jewish convert to Christianity named Marvin Olasky with whom I spent an intriguing afternoon in Texas just prior to Bush’s election. Olasky explained to me that poor people, drug-addicts and criminals cannot be helped much by government social programs. They must recognize their sinfulness and be redeemed by Christ. Taxpayers’ money therefore must be transferred away from government programs and into church-based charities that offer redemption along with conventional social services.
Well, George Bush wasn’t the first president to allow public resources to be allocated on a confessional basis in the U.S. But through an executive order Bush allowed federally-funded charities to hire their staff on the basis of religion which critics saw as a violation of the Constitutional ban on using religious tests for publicly-funded jobs. It also appeared to be a clear breach of the principle of church-state separation itself.
What has always been a perplexing question for me is who is exploiting whom in this alliance between Republican politicians and Christian conservatives. On the Faith-based initiative program, there is solid evidence that it was the politicians manipulating the faith community.
One of the best inside sources we have on the issue is David Kuo, who published a book last year entitled Tempting Faith. Kuo is an evangelical with impeccable conservative credentials who became second in command of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. He writes that Karl Rove and others would bestow hugs and kisses on religious leaders then, in private, dismiss them as quote “ nuts” and “goofy.” According to Kuo, far less money was spent on faith-based initiatives than promised, and much of it went to ostensibly non-partisan events that were designed to win support in key swing states.
Kuo resigned in despair and he writes in his book about what it was like to work in the faith office: “We were good people forced to run a sad charade to provide political cover to a White House that needed compassion and religion as political tools.”
Well, Rove’s strategy may have been cynical but it paid off handsomely. In 2004 Republican candidates won nineteen of twenty targeted Congressional races in which faith-based money had been promised or delivered. Rove also arranged with the Religious Right to have electors in key states such as Ohio vote on banning gay marriage at the same time as they voted for president. The ballot initiatives were designed to maximize the voting strength of hard-line evangelicals for whom homosexuality is regarded as a dire threat to the country.
Roman Catholics were not neglected either. In a visit to the Vatican five months before the election, Bush complained that U.S. bishops should be making their voices heard more strongly on social issues such as abortion. It wasn’t long before several of those bishops were saying very publicly that they would deny communion to John Kerry because of his pro-choice position on abortion. Roman Catholics, once a Democratically inclined constituency, awarded most of their votes to George Bush in the 2004 election.
That election of 2004 may -- and I emphasize the word MAY -- have marked the peak of the Religious Right’s power. The Republicans were now in control of the White House, both houses of Congress, a majority of state governorships and state assemblies. And it was felt that it was just a matter of time, and two or three appointments, before the Supreme Court too was solidly in conservative hands. Karl Rove described the election as an historic watershed and boasted that the Republicans had created a governing majority that would last for over a generation.
Again it was a majority largely crafted with the votes of religious Americans, especially those of white Evangelicals. Seventy-eight per cent of them – and, remember, we are talking here of tens of millions of people -- voted for a president whom they saw as both their spiritual and their political leader.
The joke around Washington was that the traditional designation for the Republicans --“GOP”-- no longer stood for the “Grand Old Party” but for “God’s Own Party.” In the Congress, about 45 Senators and 180 representatives received 80 to 100 per cent approval ratings from Religious Right, and stood ready to push its agenda.
Perhaps never before had the country been as sharply divided between its church-going and its more secular citizens. This was a U.S. version of Two Solitudes: an enormous gulf between the so- called Red and Blue States, between the America of mega churches in the sprawling new exurbs and an urban, coastal America on the other side of what is sometimes described as the “God Gap” in U.S. society.
Well, in the aftermath of the 2004 election there was much talk about whether the U.S was on the road to becoming a theocracy. Among Democrats and a declining number of moderate Republicans, alarm bells were rung.
Bill Moyers, a former Baptist priest and TV journalist, warned that religious zealots had taken over the Oval Office and Congress: “For the first time in our history,” he said, “ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.”
Indeed, there were early indications of that Dominionist theology I mentioned earlier which advocates the Christianizing of political and social institutions.
Republicans in the House of Representatives quickly introduced the so-called Constitution Restoration Act. It was largely drafted by the former Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore, who was removed from office by a federal court for putting up a monument in his courthouse depicting the Ten Commandments. The law could have virtually exempted the states from the First Amendment. It did so by stripping federal courts of their power to rule on cases where state or local governments acknowledge God “as the sovereign source of law, liberty or government. The law passed in the House but was stalled in the Senate.
Another act was introduced making it legal for churches to collect money for political campaigns It was defeated but still won the support of forty per cent of House members for what by any standard was a flagrant violation of the principle of church-state separation.
At the state level, too, religious radicalism was much in evidence. The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform formally declaring that America is a “Christian Nation.” Its leader solemnly announced that God “is the chairman of this party.”
In my view, claims that the United States is sliding into a full-blown theocracy are greatly overstated. However, what we very definitely were seeing and continue to see is a constant effort by the Religious Right to chip away at that wall of separation between church and state.
Chipping Away at The Wall of Separation
The effort has had some notable successes that I believe have had a generally damaging impact on American society.
Let me cite a few examples. Education is a prime one. Historically, public schools have been a unifying and egalitarian force in the U.S. Yet they are under relentless attack from social conservatives for allegedly spreading secular values and sexual permissiveness. Some leaders of the Christian Right have even talked of abolishing public schools.
One result has been that there has been a phenomenal growth in home schooling … an estimated one-and-a- half million children are now kept away from the public schools and educated with school textbooks that stress creationism and other fundamentalist beliefs.
There has also been strong growth in the school choice movement, prompting a partly successful drive to allow government funding for religious and charter schools.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled five years that it is legal for the state of Ohio to subsidize vouchers for religious schools. Critics saw this as a dangerous precedent, eroding the principle of church-state separation.
The Religious Right is also involved in an unrelenting effort to influence the curricula in the public schools. The battle over teaching creationism still rages on, albeit in a different form.
You may recall that back in 1987 the Supreme Court decided that creationism was a religious belief and therefore couldn’t be taught in public schools.
So the Religious Right began promoting Intelligent Design -- an effort to give creationism academic legitimacy and force it to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. Bush has supported the effort, stating in his 2000 campaign that “the jury is still out “ on the merits of Darwinism.
District court decisions so far have gone against teaching intelligent design in science classes. But in several states, school textbooks are required to state that evolution is purely theoretical and not verifiable, and some school districts have decided not to teach evolution at all.
One small but symbolic victory for the Religious Right occurred when the Bush Administration overruled objections in the National Park Service and authorized the sale of a book that said the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s flood less than six-and-a-half thousand years ago. The Religious Right has also had a powerful impact sex education in public schools. The Bush administration spends hundreds of millions of dollars on abstinence-only programs, which, it insists, are the best way to deal with the problems of abortion, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDs and other sexually transmitted disease.
By law now, federally funded abstinence programs are not allowed to discuss condoms except to mention failure rates. Programs must teach “that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. “ The Centers for Disease Control were forced to remove from their website the findings of a panel of experts that concluded that abstinence-only programs are of limited benefit and that condom use should be encouraged.
The Abortion Issue
Predictably, the Religious Right has also been active on another of its signature issues: abortion. It was involved in getting Congress to pass two laws designed to create legal precedents that might eventually help overturn Roe versus Wade. It continued its push to make abortion unavailable in many parts of the U.S. And it pressured the U.S. National Cancer Institute to drop a statement denying that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer -- as some Christian conservatives claim. Ultimately far more damaging, in my view, was the extension of the Religious Right’s policy on abortion and abstinence to American foreign aid. Within forty-eight hours of moving into the White house, President Bush rewarded his base with an executive order that banned U.S. aid for any family planning organization abroad that either performed legal abortions or provided information about them. Later the so-called global gag order was extended, funding for the UN Population Fund was blocked, and thirty per cent of the budget for AIDs prevention abroad was earmarked for promoting sexual abstinence. Nothing for condoms.I have often wondered about the impact of those decisions , and last month I phoned Stephen Lewis, the former UN special envoy on AIDS and an acknowledged expert on the problems of Africa. Lewis told me that those decisions by the Bush administration put the lives of millions of people in jeopardy and may have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and elsewhere. A similar judgment was made by Paul Neilson, the former European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid. Neilson pointed out that the consequences might have been even graver if the E.U. hadn’t moved to fill what he called “the decency gap” by replacing some of the funding that the U.S. withdrew.
Dogma Overrides Knowledge
Whether on this issue or dozens of others such as the “right to die” case of Terry Schiavo which I will talk about tomorrow, there’s a constant pattern in the Bush Administration -- a pattern of sectarian religious views trumping science and medical expertise, a pattern of dogma overriding knowledge.
Three years ago, sixty of the country’s top scientists, including twenty Nobel laureates, issued a devastating critique of the Bush Administration’s neglect of scientific analysis. They accused the administration of suppressing and distorting science for political ends and appointing unqualified personnel in scientific departments throughout government. Americans will continue to suffer serious consequences, they said, unless the integrity of public policy-making in science is restored. Well, until recently, there was no better example of the Administration’s denial of science than its policy on the environment.
In this case, we find that until recently Evangelicals are again providing strong support for the Administration, and allied this time with the energy industries in opposing tough measures to protect the environment.
The Dominionists among them argue that God has put all of nature at the disposal of humanity, and thus allows it unfettered exploitation of natural resources. For their part, the pre-millenialists take the view that tackling global warming is pointless because of the approaching apocalypse. Indeed, if you log on to Raptureready.com, one of their many websites, you would find that unusual weather patterns and melting glaciers are not seen as the result of global warming but as prophetic signs of the End Times. James Inhofe, a fundamentalist who chaired the Senate Environment committee last November, once called global warming “ the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
So there was no opposition from the Religious Right when the administration introduced measures like Clear Skies Program -- an Orwellian name if there ever was one -- giving companies more freedom to pollute, an its Healthy Forests Initiative, which allowed more logging in old growth forests.The good news is that a major segment of the American Evangelical community has reversed its position on global warming … long before President Bush’s apparent conversion on the issue last month. Three years ago, the National Association of Evangelicals broke with the leaders of the Religious Right and put out a statement entitled “For the Health of Nations”. It deplored deforestation, species extinction, and the poisoning of the atmosphere and called for strong government action to protect the planet.
More recently, another organization, the Evangelical Environmental Network persuaded 86 prominent pastors and theologians to petition for a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emission. “This is God’s world,” their declaration said, “and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God himself.” Incidentally, the Environmental network has a website entitled, “What does Jesus Drive!”
Unfortunately, there are far too many other examples of unenlightened policies from the Evangelical Right. They are too many to list but let me mention in passing the campaign to ban certain books from school and public libraries. American classics by John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser have been censored and -- this will surprise you --Harry Potter books have been banned in some districts because they were judged to promote witchcraft!
All too often the message from the Religious Right has been one of obscurantism and intolerance that one would wish to be out of place in our great neighbour to the south. Allow me to finish tonight with a quotation that I think illustrates the extent that the Religious Right has transformed American politics.
The year is 1960 and John F. Kennedy is speaking to Baptist ministers in Houston. “I believe.” Kennedy says, “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ….I believe in an America where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly on the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”
For those of you who weren’t here last night, let me give you a very brief recap of my remarks. I advanced the view that the phenomenal growth of the Religious Right has been the single most important trend in U.S. politics over the past two decades. I traced how the Religious Right has come close to capturing the Republican party … how it has significantly eroded the so-called wall of separation between church and state … and how in my view it has had a damaging impact on many facets of American life.
Tonight I would like to focus mainly on the impact of Christian nationalism on U.S. foreign policy. I will then conclude the lectures by picking up the threads of yesterday’s talk and offering some thoughts on whether the power of the Religious Right has peaked, what the prospects are for the newly emerging Christian Left in America, and how faith is likely to influence the current presidential election campaign.
As we all know, George W. Bush’s approach to foreign policy until recently has been marked by some radical departures. After 9/11, older, more passive doctrines of deterrence and containment and multilateralism … of playing cooperatively by international rules … are largely cast aside. They are replaced by an aggressive unilateralism that, to a remarkably degree placed America in the role of judge, jury and executioner in global affairs. Parallel to this trend though, there is a claim that America has a providential mission in the world that reflects a deep continuity in American history.
America’s missionary vocation
What I will try to show tonight is that, in both these trends, American Evangelicals have been the biggest cheerleaders for the Administration and have played an important but largely ignored role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and military policy.
The notion of America as a Redeemer Nation, chosen by God to play a special role in the world, is as old as the Puritan settlements. As far back as 1630, John Winthrop offered his famous vision of America as the “city upon a hill,” a beacon to the world.
From then on preachers and politicians have regularly talked of America’s missionary vocation. In the 19th century, the famous Presbyterian pastor Lyman Beecher preached that “nation after nation, cheered by our example, will follow in our footsteps till the whole world is freed.” President William McKinley said he fell to his knees and prayed for guidance from God before deciding to invade the Philippines. It came to him, he told a group of Methodist ministers, that he must, quote, “uplift and civilize and Christianize” that country’s people. McKinley conveniently forgot that the Filipinos had long since been converted by the Spanish. Then, as now, America’s global ambitions were cloaked in a missionary zeal.
Nor, among other examples, should one forget Woodrow Wilson who believed that God had ordained him to be president in order to spread freedom and democracy. As Margaret MacMillan points out so well Paris 1919, Wilson assumed that American values are universal ones that should be adopted by a grateful world.
There are some striking similarities between Woodrow Wilson and the present incumbent in the White house. George W. Bush has also talked of being divinely guided, and he has suggested that American troops in Iraq are on a providential mission. Again, the values the troops are said to be fighting for are depicted as universal ones: in Bush’s words, “Not America’s gift to the world but Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman.”
On another occasion Bush has stated that “we have a calling from beyond the stars,” sending an apparently unambiguous message that America is a nation chosen to do God’s will.
The President, who once memorably said “ I don’t do nuance,” laced many of his speeches on the U.S. mission with biblical imagery. There are frequent references to “evil-doers,” talk of pursuing the “evil ones in their caves,” and warnings that other nations are “either with us or against us” in a battle of good against evil.
Bruce Lincoln, a theologian and professor at the University of Chicago, analyzed Bush’s speeches and compared them to those of Osama Bin Laden. “Both men,” he said, “constructed a Manichean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or the other, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation or middle ground.”
Is It A Holy War?
On several occasions, Bush has publicly rejected the notion that the U.S. is involved in any kind of holy war. As you will recall, his aides said he misspoke himself when he used the word “crusade” to describe the war on terror.
The sad truth is though that vast numbers of Muslims do see the U.S as engaged in a crusade against Islam … and so do large numbers of Evangelical Americans who welcome the idea of America as a crusader nation waging a holy war.
Evangelicals have long been among the most fervent supporters of a belligerent approach to foreign and security policy. During the Cold War, many were inspired by the Reverend Billy Graham’s crusade against what he called godless Communism.
Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority ran full-page ads in American newspapers in favor of a huge arms build-up against the Soviet Union. Evangelicals were told that it was a “moral obligation” for Christians to support Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars. Other groups in the Religious Right were heavily involved in raising money for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and supporting right wing anti-communist governments in Guatemala and El Salvador.
When he was still alive, the great American journalist Walter Lippman had a warning for U.S. leaders. He said that “the tendency to transform our mundane and secular matters, for example what to do with Quemoy or Berlin, into religious and moral dogmas is an old and bad habit of the human race.”
It is a habit that has resurfaced with a vengeance under the Bush Administration. In the post-9/11 world, however, it is Islam that emerges as the new “evil empire “ for the Religious Right.
If you listen to its many radio outlets in the U.S., you will regularly hear Muhammad denounced as the anti-Christ. You will hear the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan depicted as a clash of religion and civilization, and you will hear American soldiers described as a Christian army doing God’s work. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, denounced Islam as “a very wicked and evil religion.”
Another striking example is the case of Jerry Boykin, the general who was in charge of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. General Boykin would appear in uniform at Evangelical churches preaching that America was at war with Satan. In one of more than a dozen sermons, he said the U.S. would prevail over the Muslim enemy because quote “my God is bigger than his “ and jihadists will be defeated “ if we come to them in the name of Jesus.” And for good measure, Boykin added that Bush had been appointed by God, suggesting that the President has a divine mandate to wield the sword in the Middle East. Asked about these comments, Bush responded by simply saying he didn’t share Boykin’s views.
There was never any serious question of firing a man regarded as a hero by most Evangelicals, the core Republican constituency considered much too powerful to be ignored.
The Boykin controversy barely survived the 24-hour news cycle in the U.S. but by all accounts it had an enormous impact in the Islamic world. His comments -- along with other statements from the Religious Right and Bush’s own declarations about a godly mission -- seemed to confirm the fears of many Muslims that the U.S. is indeed fighting a religious war. Those fears stoked the fires of radical Islam, and by all accounts brought in a flood of new recruits to the cause of Jihad. They also had a deeply damaging impact on Washington’s efforts to enlist moderate Muslim support for its actions in the Middle East. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, pointedly said that “If there was one Bin Laden before the invasion of Iraq, there will now be a thousand Bin Ladens.” I don’t want to exaggerate the influence of the Religious Right. On the decision to invade Iraq, for example, the driving force was obviously the Neo-conservatives -- the Neo-cons -- NOT the so-called Theo-cons. For the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis, the goals of the invasion were the geopolitical ones we all know about -- the use of U.S. power to dominate and reshape the Middle East and, in the immortal words of Richard Perle, to send a message to America’s enemies that “you’re next”.
Evangelical Support for the War
But the importance of the Religious Right should not be underestimated. Opinion polls showed it was the 60 million Evangelicals who were among the strongest supporters of the Administration, providing a moral and religious blessing for both the war on terror and the Iraq intervention.
The support was partly based on… sorry to have to bring it up again … dispensational premillennialism --- that populist theology I discussed yesterday, which sees the world spiraling towards the apocalypse.
Opinion polls showed that huge numbers of Evangelicals saw the attacks on the World Trade Center as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. 9/11 was a sign of the approaching Final Judgment as well as punishment for the secularism and immorality of U.S. society. You may recall the infamous remark by Reverend Jerry Falwell that abortionists, gays and lesbians, feminists and the ACLU had brought down the wrath of God. It was a belief that was probably shared by a great many of his flock.
Evangelicals also believe that the war in Iraq was predicted in the Bible. Pastors and Pre-millennialists reminded the faithful that the Book of Revelation speaks of “four angels bound in the great river Euphrates … who were loosed to slay the third part of men.” So what we see is the eschatological vision of millions of Americans providing support and a religious underpinning for what George Bush himself said was a divinely sanctioned mission in Iraq. The theologian Michael Lerner says the fundamentalism of many American Evangelicals “fits neatly with a politics of militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and support for U.S. domination over other countries.”
The Left Behind Novels
There is also an eerie parallelism between the Evangelical worldview and the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Some of the distinctive traits of Washington’s public diplomacy -- its demonizing of Saddam Hussein, its fierce criticism of the U.N, and its singling out of France for particular scorn -- are all anticipated in the Left Behind novels of the 1990’s. These are the novels that Jerry Falwell described as the most important books since the Bible and which did so much to foster pre-millennialist fervor among Evangelicals.
Their co-author, the fundamentalist preacher Tim Lahaye, depicts the Anti-Christ as emerging from Europe and rising to power at the United Nations. He just happens to have a financial advisor who is French, a people Republicans would caricature later as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” because of France’s refusal to support the war.
Later in the series, Satan moves to New Babylon in Iraq, where many Evangelicals believe Saddam Hussein becomes the new Anti-Christ.
All this may strike you as very marginal. But remember, the Left Behind novels are read by 60 million Americans and their message echoed on dozens of websites. The fact that a great many Americans believe in the truth of the novels made it easier for the Administration to keep alive for several years the myth that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. And until this day, the Administration maintains that Saddam was tied at the hip to Osama bin Laden -- a deception that was key to sustaining public support for the war long after it was clear that the occupation was failing badly.
However, it is on another issue … the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … that the religious Right has had a much more direct and I believe damaging influence on U.S. foreign policy.
Again I must allude to dispensational pre-millennialism. The millions of Evangelicals who believe in this theology are sometimes called Christian Zionists. They believe that the cataclysmic events heralding the Second Coming will all happen in the territory of Biblical Israel -- the territory that is that stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates. This land, they claim, was covenanted by God to the Jews and must be reclaimed by Israel before the Second Coming can happen and before Christ can build his kingdom in Jerusalem. Many Christian Zionists even believe that the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites, must be destroyed as a pre-condition for Christ’s return.
Now if you hold these views the political implications are clear: trading land for peace, the longstanding premise of any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is a heresy.
Why? Because it involves an Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank and, as has already happened, from Gaza. The televangelist Pat Robertson, by the way, said Ariel’s Sharon’s stroke was divine retribution for organizing the pull-out from Gaza.
Because of the strength of their numbers and their passionate commitment to Israel, the Christian Zionists have become an extraordinarily powerful force on Israel’s behalf -- in many ways even more powerful than AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs lobby.
Over the past seventeen years, the Christian Zionists have created literally dozens of pro-Israel organizations, notably the Stand for Israel movement and CIPAC, the Christian Israel Public Action Committee.
They have raised more than a hundred million dollars to sponsor Jewish immigration to Israel, and to expand Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the Golan. These too are pre-conditions in the eyes of pre-milleniallists for the End Days to unfold and for Judgment Day to happen.
Evangelicals also organize pro-Israel solidarity rallies and distribute videos that encourage the faithful to pray for Israel’s victory over its enemies. “The Bible Belt,” Jerry Falwell said not long ago, “is Israel’s only safety belt right now.” There is no safety belt for Palestinians.
Many Christian Zionists feel that Palestinians should simply be brushed aside by destiny, and be transferred to Jordan or some other Arab country.
For their part, successive Israeli governments have welcomed an alliance with Evangelical Christians, and do all they can to cultivate it. A special section in the Israeli embassy in Washington was set up to cement ties with Evangelicals As a Likud spokesman said several years ago: “ Properly cultivated, the relationship could strengthen our position immeasurably, and guarantee bedrock support for Israel for years to come.”
American Jewish and Christian Right Alliance
Major Jewish organizations in the U.S. also welcomed an alliance of convenience with such a fervently pro-Israel community.
But many American Jews feel their interests are not well served by the Religious Right’s assault on the wall of separation between church and state. Understandably. The last thing they want is for America to be formally defined as a Christian nation.
In November 2005, Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, criticized the Religious Right for its bigotry. Remarkably, they were quickly silenced by other Jewish leaders, and by threats from Evangelicals that they might withdraw their support for Israel.
American Jews also wonder -- with some reason -- whether Christian Zionists are anything more than fair weather friends. After all, in the apocalyptic “End Days” scenario, it is prophesied that two-thirds of the Jews will die in the battle of Armageddon, and the remaining third will have to choose to convert to Christianity.
The choice -- “die or convert” -- is obviously not the most appealing one for Jews, even if they believe, as they do, that Evangelical scenarios are nonsense.
Foreign Policy and the Views of the Religious Right
It didn’t matter to the White House, however, whether Evangelical views are nonsense or not. What mattered was that their votes were far too important for their positions on Israel to b e ignored. As a consequence, George W. Bush has rarely taken any position on the Arab-Israeli conflict without taking into account the views of the Religious Right.
That was much in evidence in many of the stories I covered in Washington. In 2002, George Bush initially urged Ariel Sharon to withdraw from key West Bank towns that Israeli troops had reoccupied when the second Palestinian uprising began. But within forty-eight hours, Bush suddenly reversed himself and gave a green light to the re-occupation. What had happened was that Evangelicals had flooded the White House with a hundred thousand e-mails and phone calls. And Karl Rove and other presidential advisors were not about to alienate the most important constituency in the Republican party.
A similar reversal happened when Bush’s press spokesman expressed concern over Israel’s assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. His statement provoked another firestorm of Evangelical protest and another volte-face -- this time an endorsement of Israel’s policy of selective assassination -- a policy that violates the Geneva Conventions and which the U.S. was alone in supporting in the UN Security Council.
In Congress, more than a hundred members of the Religious Right are active Christian Zionists. They oppose final status peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and dismissed the now defunct Road Map process.
Before being forced to resign on corruption charges, Tom DeLay, the House Majority leader, stated that “the time has come to drop the empty pretence that we ( the U.S) can serve the region as a mere (peace) broker.” On a visit to the Golan and West Bank, DeLay stunned observers by saying: “I don’t see occupied territories. I see Israel.”
It’s widely believed that Bush only agreed to sign on to the Road Map peace process because of pressure from Tony Blair. Blair rightly judged that the U.S. could hardly improve its image in the Muslim world without making at least a token effort in favor of justice for the Palestinians.
It is true that Bush has made some strong declarations in favour of a Palestinian state, which, on the surface, appear to run counter to the view of the Christian Right. So far though it has been a purely rhetorical commitment. Over the past six years, it cannot be said that Bush has invested any real energy or effort towards advancing the two-state solution.
Indeed he has acquiesced in the building of Israel security wall that divides the West Bank, and he has quietly given a green light for the steady expansion of Jewish settlements there that make a peace agreement less likely every day.
Bush has said that Israelis have the right to make territorial adjustments -- code words signifying that they don’t have to return to their pre-1967 borders, the so-called Green Line. It was also made clear at the outset of his administration that, unlike his father, George W. Bush would never use economic levers to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Again, to do so would be to jeopardize the support of literally millions of his Evangelical voters.
So what we see in this context is the Religious Right having a very direct role in shaping American foreign policy. And once again, in my view, an obscurantist theology and sectarian worldview has hurt American interests and in all probability drawn more recruits to the cause of Jihad.
Let me say in closing this section though that Evangelical Christians have had a very positive impact on some foreign issues, notably in their fight against human trafficking and religious discrimination, as well as in trying hard if unsuccessfully so far to end the genocide in Darfur. Allow me to make a sharp U-turn now and pick up the threads of yesterday’s lecture on the domestic impact of the Religious Right.
Domestic impact of the Religious Right
Two big questions come to mind: has the influence of the Religious Right peaked? And was the 2004 election the high water mark of its extraordinary power in American politics?
Well, you may be saying, “obviously it was a high watermark.” After all, the Republicans lost both chambers of Congress in last November’s mid-term elections, and the approval ratings of the most demonstrably religious American president in modern times have sunk below thirty per cent.
In fact, I would suggest that the equation is far more complex.
When you examine the exit polls after the Congressional election, you find that white Evangelicals -- the foot soldiers of the Religious Right -- stuck with the Republican Party to a remarkable extent. And on the other side, a significant number of newly elected Democrats campaigned on family values, taking positions on issues such as gay rights and abortion that were not dissimilar from those of social conservatives.
So it is too early to speak of the demise of the Religious Right.
But there is evidence that a certain voter fatigue may be setting in with the self-righteous moralizing of the movement’s leaders, and with their intolerance of any dissent.
Opinion polls indicate that a narrow majority of Americans now feel that the Religious Right has too much power in Washington.
Terry Shaivo - The Turning Point
In retrospect, the turning point may prove to have been the saga of Terry Schiavo, the so-called “right to die” case.
You are probably all familiar with the case. Let me just remind you that Schiavo was the Florida woman who was allowed to die after fifteen years in a vegetative state. Extensive medical evidence confirmed she was severely brain-damaged, and nineteen judges in four different court rulings granted the request of her husband and legal guardian to have her feeding tubes removed.
For the leaders of the Religious Right -- the Dobsons and Falwells and Robertsons -- this was an outrageous example of violating God’s will and fostering what they describe as the “culture of death”. Immediately they called in their IOU’s from the politicians they had helped elect.
There were truly macabre proposals … to have the National Guard enforce reinserting the tubes, then a plan from members of Congress to subpoena Schiavo to appear before a congressional committee.
Finally though those proposals were abandoned in favour of legislation that required a federal court to keep Schiavo alive while it reconsidered the case from scratch. Legal experts said the law amounted to flagrant political interference in the independence of the judiciary, and violated key constitutional principles, notably one that prohibits Congress from passing laws that give special treatment to a single individual.
Tom Delay, the Republican Majority leader, calls Congress back into an emergency session on a Palm Sunday weekend to pass the bill. President Bush interrupts a vacation on his ranch, which he is usually reluctant to do, to fly back to Washington to sign it into law.
This was a truly awesome display of the power of the Religious Right over both Congress and the White House. It demonstrated the willingness of a political movement to impose its will, in the name of God, on fundamental decisions of life and death.
Once again, as in the many cases I cited yesterday, the religious views of Christian conservatives trump the best medical science and legal expertise.
Representative Chris Shays, one of a sharply declining number of moderate Republicans, declared at the time that, “The Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy.”
This time though, the Religious Right had overreached. A federal court refused to order the reinsertion of Schiavo’s feeding tube, and refused to retry a case that was clearly a matter of state jurisdiction.
Polls showed that 65 to 75 per cent of Americans were angry with the politicians for pandering to the Religious Right, and jeopardizing a well-established principle that patients or close relatives can refuse medical treatment in cases involving the very final stage of terminal illness. There is actually a law to that effect in the U.S. -- the 1990 Patient Self Determination Law.
The Schiavo case also opened up fissures within the Evangelical community. Some of the more open-minded began questioning the moral absolutism of the Religious Right, and its narrow focus on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and sexual permissiveness
Evangelical pastors like Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, began calling for a much broader agenda that puts greater emphasis on social justice, protecting the environment, and aiding the Third World.
The Emergence of a Religious Left
There has been another significant development in Evangelical politics: the emergence of a Religious Left. Yes, a Religious Left.
After their defeat in the 2004 election, there was a period of anxious soul-searching among Democrats There was a realization that the party had failed to recognize the aspirations of many Americans to a higher purpose in life than just economic well-being. “What the Left needs,” said theologian Michael Lerner, “is an alternative view of who God is, not a denial of God and religion.”
It’s exactly that alternative view that progressive groups like the Interfaith Alliance and the Sojourners are promoting.
A true biblical agenda, they say, must be based on fighting poverty and working for peace, not on Republican issues like homosexuality and abortion of which there is no mention in the Gospels. And a much greater emphasis should be put on Christianity as a religion of reconciliation not of confrontation.
On national security policy, more than 200 progressive theologians published an anti-war statement entitled “Confessing Christ in a World of Violence.” It deplored what it called “the theology of war” and the language of “righteous empire”, and rejected the belief of many on the Religious Right that America has a mission to rid the world of evil.
In the campaign for the mid-term elections, the Religious Left began adopting some of the tactics of the Religious Right… holding its own political rallies and distributing its own voter guides. Political consultants were even engaged who specialize in helping Democratic candidates talk about religion.
We are also seeing the party’s presidential candidates putting a lot of emphasis on courting religious and so-called “value voters”.
Hillary Clinton, who has been a practicing Methodist all her life and once taught Sunday school, describes herself as “ a praying person.” She has talked about the Democrats needing to reclaim faith and has taken a more centrist position on abortion rights than she has in the past.
Barack Obama says he found himself some years ago “kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago” and “I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me.” Shades of George Bush’s born-again experience. Obama likes to describe himself as part of a new generation of political leaders who call themselves the Joshua generation. Since it was Joshua’s role to lead the Jews to the Promised Land, one wonders whether he too is hinting that he has own providential mission.
Obama has also made a point of saying that believers should not be asked “to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.” What is fascinating in this presidential campaign is that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appear to be more comfortable weaving religion into their political discourse than the two Republican front-runners.
One finds it hard to imagine either Rudolph Giuliani or John McCain saying that Jesus is their favorite philosopher, as George W. Bush did.
McCain is an Episcopalian, who once described the leaders of the Religious Right as “agents of intolerance”. But since then he has made his journey to Canossa and travelled to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University to seek his blessing. As for Giuliani, he is regarded with suspicion by the Religious Right because of his liberal views on abortion and gay rights. But now he too is trying to curry favor with social conservatives, which, of course, he must do to have any chance of winning the Republican nomination.
In summary, faith will continue to play a big role in the public square in America, but may be less the exclusive preserve of the Republican party.
I doubt though whether the Religious Left will ever be able to summon up the same energy, rage and commitment as the Religious Right. It is certainly never likely to have the same vast resources and infrastructure, nor the kind of echo chamber that Christian conservatives have in outlets such as Fox TV and Rush Limbaugh Radio. Nor is there any guarantee that the Religious Left won’t fall into some of the same traps as the Religious Right: the claim that God’s will can be identified with a political platform … or the claim that one party has a monopoly of moral righteousness.
I said at the outset of these two lectures that I feel it to is entirely legitimate to use Christian principles to guide political action, but that there must be the strictest limits on using religion to win votes.
It would be presumptuous of me to define what those limits are, and in any case I am both unwilling and unable to do so.
One can only hope that Americans accept -- to a greater degree than they have in the recent past -- that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.