The Growth of the Religious Right

III. Assessment                                              

Section I., "Magnitude and Strategy", chronicled the magnitude of the Right, its hard-charging momentum in the American political scene. Its strategy of grassroots activism was explained and documented. Using the benchmark of American political writer William Greider's assessment of democratic health, the Religious Right seems to have a strategy for success which will be tough to stop. They have media power, grassroots involvement, dedication and interest throughout the ranks, the fuel of a sense of righteousness for their cause, and a growing party-like apparatus in the Christian Coalition. Regardless of the weakness of any of their arguments or positions, regardless of the philosophic or moral value of their program, they seem sure to be headed for greater electoral success. This seems the surest, honest, positive assessment of the New Religious Right.

Since this is so it seems wise to look at what the "down" sides of the Right might be, since these are likely to intensify as the movement expands. Section II, "Views" looked at the Right's views concerning family, economy and polity. Implicit in all that the Religious Right is doing is that society can--and must--be changed by political activity. Yet they recognize in their literature about child rearing that it is home and family, and not legislative lobbying, that offers if not the only, then certainly the best means to positively influence society. This is a contradiction of sorts, akin to the traditional tension within evagelicalism between piety and politics. One of the themes fueling the massive efforts to reform society, is that our nation needs to return to an ideal past when Christianity bathed the culture and our leaders ruled with righteousness.

Jerry Falwell writes,

"God blessed this nation because in its early days she sought to honor God and the Bible, the inerrant word of the living God. Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation."64

Pat Robertson says,

"I invite you to join a growing army of Christian patriots working to win America back to God."65

"We must reestablish," writes Franky Shaeffer, "the beauty and fullness in love of a Christian nation that was once ours."66

Dr. D. James Kennedy wrote,

"By relearning the facts that a righteous new government came from a righteous people seeking to advance the kingdom of Christ it will be possible to reverse the ungodly laws of this generation."67

This longing for a former "Christian America" is a rather deceiving and unrealistic caricature of America's past. There has been large scale corporate and individual corruption and immorality throughout our country's history. Slavery is an institution whose evils were condoned and furthered by many Americans professing religion, from the earliest periods of our history. The same might be said of the mistreatment of Native Americans. It is always easy to characterize the past in a way suitable to motivating people toward certain actions in the present. Every demagogue does it, and even noble leaders engage in at least some species of revisionism.

Hopefully the Right will not blindly believe its own rhetoric here because doing so might motivate them to do what many of their opponents charge: they intend to force their values on all. Since the country was once a Christian nation, we're just returning it to its roots. Instant neo-Puritanism. Large numbers of Americans would agree that America's moral values have declined, and this is certainly lamentable. But is the solution to the lack-of- morality problem to elect born-again candidates? Clifford Goldstein observes:

"The solution is not to put born-again Christians in office, but to have born-again Christians in our homes and churches, where our nation's character is formed one soul at a time. The New Right's attempt at salvation by legislation reveals, not a revival of Christian godliness in our nation, but the absence of it. 'We as Christians,' wrote conservative Christian leader John Whitehead, 'share a major responsibility for what has happened, since a significant factor has been the dwindling influence of Christianity, which has allowed humanistic thought to rise and dominate.'"68

The Founding Fathers, if they must be characterized as the Fathers of a "Christian nation",69 must have had good reason for making the only explicit religious reference in the body of the Constitution be Article VI, clause 3 which provides that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Evidently they saw it as a great threat to liberty to require certain religious opinions as a prerequisite to being a qualified public servant.70

Yet the Christian Coalition is plainly erecting its own religious tests. The CC sent out a "1994 National Referendum on the Clinton Presidency" to over 2 million Christians. One of the questions on the "Confidential Strategic Planning" part of the survey reads "Do you think a major reason lawyers at the Democratic National Committee have launched a legal attack against the Christian Coalition in an effort to shut us down is that they fear Christian voter participation?" Here is certainly a loaded question. Implicit in the question is the idea that Democrats can't be Christians. Implicit is the idea of persecution. The poor Christian Coalition is being attacked by these antiChristian Democrats. This will no doubt be viewed by some as a distasteful assessment of the meaning behind the survey question.

But consider the fact that when David Wilhelm, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, spoke at the 1993 CC Road to Victory Conference, he was booed and hissed by the same crowd which was giving standing ovations to every other speaker.71 This was politely covered by the CC newspaper the Christian American, in its October 1993 issue as follows:

"Wilhelm had the crowd's supports while he talked about the importance of religion in America and the need to protect freedom of religion. However he drew their ire when he got into the specifics of social issues. "'I believe you can be a good Christian and support a woman's right to choose. I believe it's between a woman and her conscience,' he said."72

Wilhelm, in his talk which drew the "ire" of hisses and boos, said specifically

"I believe and trust in Jesus Christ and I am a Democrat. I am a Christian and I am a Democrat. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do take my faith seriously...No party has a corner on God. No matter how inconvenient it may be, God is an Independent...Separation of church and state means that we are free to practice our faith without government coercion...It is wrong to use religious authority to influence political practice."73

Perhaps the Christian Coalition needs to reconsider either the word "Christian" or "Coalition" in its name if David Wilhelm's Christianity is excluded from the coalition.74 "Religious Conservative Coalition" or the old "Moral Majority" might better describe the nature, goals, and growth patterns of the Right than "Christian Coalition". The Wilhelm incident highlights the wisdom of the Fathers in placing the "no religious Test" clause in the Constitution, and it highlights the need of their current offspring in the Right to more perfectly understand what a "Christian nation" might be. There was a broad spectrum of Christianity in the era of the Fathers just as there is today. Revisionist history should not blind the Right into thinking that the Christians of the founding days were any more united than the Christians of the 1990s.

The proliferation of religious liberty groups among the Right is perhaps another evidence of the charge often leveled at the Right, that they are narrow-minded neo-Puritans who insist on their way as the only way and want to force it on all others.75 This may seem an odd characterization of a group heralding religious liberty. But many of the cases being taken on by the Right are cases whose bottom line meaning is simply that Christians have lost power in this society. Many of these cases when examined do not really involve someone's religious liberty being denied. There is no classical defense of the importance of liberty for its own sake, but rather laments that Rightist social values are no longer in ascendancy.

For instance, several religious liberty organs of the Right filed amicus briefs in the Lee v. Weisman case involving the prayer of a rabbi at a commencement exercise. The Right wanted the custom of prayer at graduations to be upheld, to continue unquestioned as part of American culture and practice. Justice Kennedy's opinion, written for a majority who held the prayer to be unconstitutional, offers  a classical defense of liberty:

"The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State. The design of the Constitution is that preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere, which itself is promised freedom to pursue that mission. It must not be forgotten then, that while concern must be given to define the protection granted to an objector or a dissenting non-believer, these same Clauses exist to protect religion from government interference. James Madison, the principal author of the Bill of Rights, did not rest his opposition to a religious establishment on the sole ground of its effect on the minority. A principal ground for his view was: 'Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.'"76

If one can take these Supreme Court justices at their word we have here a powerful argument for religious freedom and a "hands-off" policy for government in relation to religion. This is what the Constitution calls for, they say, and it is founded on the profound thinking of Madison and other Founders in relation to preserving not only liberty, but also good religion. But in an amicus brief filed in the Weisman case, Focus on the Family takes the position that "Religious expression is singled out for censorship in the public square."77 Efforts by the school to rotate a series of clergy "should be welcomed, not condemned, by the courts."78 The brief goes on to argue that to apply a separationist view of the no-establishment clause would be to limit religious liberty. Such a view, pervasive in the Right, denies the truths about liberty in the opinion of the Court and as historically given by Madison, and the morning star of American religious liberty, Roger Williams.

Williams wrote

God requires not an uniformity of Religion to be inacted and inforced in any civill state; which inforced uniformity [common graduation prayer?] (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civill warre, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Jesus Christ in His servants, and of the hypocrisie and destruction of millions of souls. [Italics bracketed added]79

The Right is making positive war on the concept of separation of church and state embedded in the no-establishment clause. Keith Fournier, the executive director of Pat Robertson's religious liberty organization, the American Center for Legal Justice (ACLJ), stated at the Road to Victory II Conference, "the wall of separation between church and state that was erected by secular humanists and other enemies of religious freedom has to come down. That wall is more of a threat to society than the Berlin wall ever was." Fournier went on to say "Those opposing our views are the new fascists."80 These are amazing views coming from a man directing a religious liberty and justice center. This is indeed the greatest red flag originating with the Right.

They have begun to believe their own revisionism. They really think that the separation of church and state is an alien concept to the Constitution and to the Fathers. Not only is this poor historical scholarship, but it robs American culture of a most unique and priceless heritage. This is slash and burn rhetoric meant to prepare the way for greater flirtation with the Right and the apparatus of government. It seems as the Right grows more political it grows less spiritual and needs the support of the state for its sustenance. Though the Right tries to claim George Washington as one of their own, it was he who responded to some Presbyterian elders protesting the lack of recognition of God and Christ in the new Constitution by saying, "The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction."81

This is what separation of church and state has meant ever since Washington's day: the government has no business promoting religion. Religion does not need "political direction." When it does, it must be poor religion as Madison noted above. It was Benjamin Franklin who said,

"When religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of civil powers, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of it being a bad one."82

Is not the Right calling for the aid of the State in its push for school-sponsored prayer? in wanting tax money (vouchers) to defray the cost of religious education for its children? in wanting religious symbols placed on public property? Separating the church and the state was a unique American addition to mankind's search for greater freedom under a protecting government. It came through the battling of thought and politics in the warfare that constituted America's nation building. It could easily have been steamrollered by the historical dragons of established churches and religion-as-usual. The conventional wisdom at the time of its maiden voyage was that it didn't stand a chance. "We might as soon expect a change in the solar system as to expect that they (Massachusetts) would give up their establishment," John Adams told Isaac Backus.83

But like a salmon fighting upstream, unable to be told that what it is attempting is impossible, James Madison educated a Virginia legislature over a number of years, and rocked its conscience, moral sensibilities, and highest reasoning centers with this new and gigantic ideal, so endowed to bring civil and religious freedoms to new heights of protection and expression: the greatest religious liberty will be realized when the church is formally separated from the state. For all its sputterings, failings and backslidings, of which the Right is keenly aware, America still holds this vestige of the core of her greatness. Though abused by well-paid regulatory lawyers and power-hungry administrations, though strained by judges and Justices bombarded by Freud, Nietzsche, and the modern engines of relativism which cast doubt on any objective value held dearly, the wick flickers still.84

The following five reflections, drawn from the apostle of American liberty, Roger Williams, are offered to the Religious Right, to help steer their course away from what seems to be its greatest shoals.

1. THE BASIC CORE OF WILLIAMS' IDEAS HAS BEEN VINDICATED BY OVER TWO CENTURIES OF THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT : KEEP A COMMITMENT TO GOVERNMENT PROTECTION OF RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL LIBERTY. Williams' thought anticipated "pluralism" before the word was coined. He believed that a society with mixed persuasions could prosper and that all should be given "soul liberty" to speak and act as their consciences prompted. Christians and non-Christians alike were possessed of such conscience and it is the purpose of government to provide them a protected arena to work out their visions of conscience. America, in its founding, embodied and shared this conception, especially in its First Amendment. America's relative strength as a country is at least passive vindication of these constructs. The success of America should keep us careful to not stray far from this core message from Williams.

2. FREEDOM WHICH IS ONLY FOR THE "POLITICALLY CORRECT" OR THE "THEOLOGICALLY CORRECT" IS NOT TRUE FREEDOM. Williams' concept of freedom meant freedom for all. Though one disagree vehemently with another, there must be full acceptance of each by the other. The only weapons that should be used against those who disagree with us should be the weapons of thought, logic, persuasion, exhortation and reason.

3. THERE SHOULD BE NO RELIGIOUS TESTS FOR HOLDING PUBLIC OFFICE. This is a portion of our Constitution built upon the firm logic of Williams' and others that says, in the physical realm in which government can work, all men are capable of judicious leadership and no statement of political or religious correctness should be held out as a hedge against political participation.

4. THE FIRST AMENDMENT RELIGIOUS CLAUSES MUST BE AFFIRMED IN THEIR ORIGINAL INTENT. THE ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE. A church that seeks governmental aid for its activity is a weak one. A church, if it is doing the will of God, should expect God's help, power and guidance and should expect no special financial or material help from the government, other than the duty of the government to provide safe havens for religious expression. It should not be the job of government to promote religion. THE FREE EXERCISE CLAUSE. This is the single greatest source of strength for society. Citizens must be free to hold, express, and act on their conscience. They must be free to follow God as a duty even higher than their civic obligation. If all are allowed to do this, in open communion one with another, the greatest good can derive for a society, not the reverse as many enemies of soul liberty fear, and claim, including John Cotton in William's day and many parts of the Religious Right in ours..

5. WILLIAMS' PRISM OF BIBLICAL ANALYSIS IS IMPORTANT. DANGER COMES IN DEPARTING FROM IT. This is important in the climate of the Religious Right which views Scripture with the same respect as Williams and his contemporary rival John Cotton. But far different outcomes for the present polity can result depending on which prism for Scripture one uses. Cotton treated Old Testament Scripture as if its commands could speak with moral authority into the present, as Christian reconstructionists and some conservative parts of the Religious Right do. This is far different from Williams who said that those aspects of the Mosaic law (apart from the Ten Commandments, which he viewed as binding moral law for all time) which Cotton used as normative were actually symbolic and typical of the present age of grace and meant to inform believers of their relationship with Heaven, not meant to be imperatives for the organization of government now.

The Religious Right offers America the exuberance of a new player with high principles and the promise of clean, family centered living. It is gaining momentum and likely to experience greater electoral victory and the power that comes with it. The "Christ" of the Christian Coalition is called in the Bible both a lion84 and a lamb.85 Let us see which one the Right will bring us.

bulletReturn to Part I, "Magnitude and Strategy"  
bulletReturn to Part II, "Views"  

Footnotes to part III, "Assessment"

64 Jerry Falwell, Listen, America! (NY: Bantam, 1980), 25.

65 Goldstein, 69.

66 Franky Shaeffer, A Time for Anger: the Myth of Neutrality (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1982), 78.

67 Foreward to Catherine Millard, The Rewriting of America's History (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon House, 1991).

68 Goldstein, 71.

69 Goldstein and Lienesch both deal with some of the distortions of the Right in their attempts to baptize almost all the Founding Fathers as orthodox Christians. Goldstein, 74-82. Lienesch, 145-148.

70 Daniel Dreisbach argues persuasively that the "no religious Test" clause was purposed to secure religious liberty, deter religious persecution, ensure sect equality before the law, and promote independence of civil government from ecclesiastical domination and interference. Dreisbach, "God and Constitution: Reflections on Selected Nineteenth Century Commentaries on References to the Deity and the Christian Religion in the United States Constitution" a paper presented at the 1993 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association at the Washington Hilton, Sept 2-5, 1993, 18.

71 Ed Reid, 1993 "Report..."

72 Paul English and Connie Zhu, "Road to Victory '93 Special Conference Report," Christian American, October 1993, 13.

73 Ibid and Ed Reid, 1993 "Report..."

74 Indeed it was the CC's intent to include more Catholics, Jews, and blacks in the Coalition. The strategy of Ralph Reed, executive director of CC, mentioned above, to enlarge its issue base, included the goal of attracting "members of more traditional Protestant denominations, Catholics and conservative Jews, as well as blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Catholics now constitute about 10 percent of the coalition's membership and racial minorities 5 percent--figures Reed hopes to double through a new outreach program that includes printing 1994 voter guides in English, Spanish, and Asian languages and distributing them in churches not now associated with the Christian right." The Galesburg Register-Mail (AP), Sept. 9, 1993, A-5. This goal showed itself in the 1993 Conference. There were 3 Jewish rabbis who took part in the 1993 Conference and one black speaker. (There had been none in 1992.) When Bill Bennett spoke at the '92 Conference he began by saying, "I'm a Roman Catholic. This may surprise you but we're all in this together." When, as the final speaker of the '93 Conference, he arose he said to Ralph Reed, the executive director of CC, "Ralph I think we've done a good job; we almost outnumber you now."

75 One place among many where this view is stated is Julia Corgett, "The New Puritanism: We Must say 'No' Again," The Humanist (Sept/Oct 1988), 19-23, 38.

76 Lee v. Weisman, U.S. Supreme Court October Term, 1990, No. 90-1014, Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion quoted here, in II, joined by Blackmun, Stevens, Souter, and O'Connor.

77 "Brief for Focus on the Family and Family Research Council as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioners," Stephen H. Galebach, Counsel of Record, Laura D. Millman, West & Galebach, 1925 K Street, NW, Suite 304, Washington, DC 20006, 4.

78 Ibid, 5.

79 Cecil Northcott, Religious Liberty, (NY: Macmillan, 1948), 48.

80 Ed Reid, 1992 "Road..."

81 Goldstein, 76.

82 Ibid, 77.

83 Dean M. Kelley, "The Forgotten Champion of Religious Liberty,", Liberty , Vol 88, No. 4, Jul/Aug, 1993, 25.

84 I am thinking here of Phillip E. Johnson's latest book Reason in the Balance: the Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995.)  Johnson was a law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren and has taught trial law for over twenty years at the University of California at Berkeley.  He contends that naturalism, the metaphysical position that nature is all there is or all that matters, leads inexorably to relativism in ethics, politics, and law.  In such a climate, which Johnson insists is pervasive in modern America, ti is hard to long defend any objective doctrine, including the notion that there is virtue in separating the church and the state.

85 "But one of the elders said to me, "Do not cry! The Lion from the tribe of Judah, David's descendant, has won the victory so that he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals."" -- Rev 5:5 (NCV)

86 "The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him. John said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" -- John 1:29 (NCV)