Public Morality After the Religious Right: 'Religion still retains a hold on the American conscience.'
Is the religious right a spent force in American politics? There seems to be a growing consensus that it is, based in part on John McCain’s rather easy dispatch of Mike Huckabee in the Republican primaries. Huckabee, a preacher and unabashed advocate for the evangelical movement, certainly touched a chord among Republican primary voters, but they were far too few in number to challenge a candidate, McCain, who is hardly the darling of the religious right despite his opposition to abortion.
If the conservative evangelical movement has, in fact, lost some or much of its clout in national politics, people of faith to the left of Pat Robertson no doubt will be pleased. The evangelical movement, in alliance with conservative Catholics and Jews, has monopolized the national conversation about moral and cultural issues for a generation. Urgent issues like euthanasia, stem cell research, abortion and gay rights have crowded out discussion of other sorts of moral and cultural issues that, broadly speaking, fall under the category of social justice. Those issues—tax policy favoring the rich, the unfettered marketplace, the war in Iraq, the health insurance crisis—rarely are framed as moral issues, because the media have allowed the religious right to decide what constitutes public morality.
This is not to say that the issues the religious right has identified through the years are unimportant. They could not be more important. The question for centrist and progressive Catholics is how to frame political concerns other than these as moral issues with a claim on a voter’s conscience. That has not been an easy task, as the writer E. J. Dionne reminds us in his new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. Dionne reprises the controversies of the 2004 presidential election, when some American bishops and clergy told their flock, in essence, to vote for George W. Bush rather than John Kerry because Bush’s opposition to abortion trumped all other issues. Archbishop John Myers of Newark wrote in The Wall Street Journal that September that these other issues, such as “welfare, national security, the war in Iraq, Social Security or taxes” did not provide a reason to vote for a “pro-abortion candidate.”
Dionne anticipates a day when centrist and progressive people of faith will be able to expand our notion of moral issues to include not only the issues on Archbishop Myers’s list, but some that he left off. (Is our for-profit system of health insurance moral? Is it moral to advocate free markets for some but socialism for failing investment houses?) Dionne’s optimism is based on the claim, implicit in his book’s title, that the religious right is about to lose its monopoly on issues of faith and politics.
If he is right, if the religious right no longer packs an electoral punch in national politics, we will see not the disappearance of faith-based political discussion, but a broadening of it. Ironically, that may be the ultimate tribute to the religious right, for if people of faith in the center and on the left begin to frame their issues in moral terms, the triumph of the evangelical movement will be complete.
It was, after all, the Moral Majority of the late 1970s that mobilized voters who saw politics not merely as a secular contest for power and patronage, but as a process that ought to be steeped in morality—their idea of morality, to be sure, but morality all the same. Their efforts led to more prominent discussion of the place of faith in the public square, to the benefit of all people of faith, regardless of their voting patterns. The religious right and their allies were not wrong to assert, as they did and continue to do, that it is one thing for government to be neutral in religious matters, but quite another to be explicitly hostile to expressions of religious faith. The religious right gained a following and political influence in America even as Europe was drifting toward a historic decline in traditional religious worship and a dispiriting secularism. While America’s houses of worship may not be as crowded as they were a half-century ago, they are positively thriving when compared to so many of Europe’s churches.
Religion still retains a hold on the American conscience and, indeed, its voting patterns, as so many secular commentators note to their dismay. How often have we heard commentators contrast our sense of public morality with that of the secular French, who, it is said, make no judgments about the private behavior of public people? These comparisons are generally meant to portray Americans as censorious bluenoses. I take them as a compliment, and I wonder how much of this nation’s continued discussion of public, civic and political morality can be attributed to the rise of the religious right.
The very notion of a “religious left,” which Dionne and people like Jim Wallis have been promoting for several years, clearly owes an intellectual debt to the religious right, which cleared a space for discussion of political issues in religious terms a generation ago, when the political discussion was for the most part devoid of such considerations. If voters in the center and the left now feel free to publicly frame their political views as an outgrowth of their faith in God, in a sense, they are conceding the religious right’s broadest point: that there is even in a secular republic a place for religion in the civic square.
And that is good news for all of us.