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Issue Date:  March 10, 2006

Up to our steeples in politics

Panelists describe born-again president

New York

The topic under discussion -- “Conservative Politics and the Future of Religion” -- has been a staple on the Sunday morning talk shows, of late night television interviews and across America’s op-ed pages almost since the day George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, took over as president.

Often the presentations have been strident, even caustic, pitting conservatives and liberals against each other and bringing a new level of confrontation between the nation’s religionists and its secularists.

So it may have surprised some that such a discussion, held Feb. 1 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus here and attended by some 200 students, faculty and visitors, was “thoughtful, elevated and searching,” according to syndicated Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.

Dionne was one of four panelists who sought to examine the impact of conservative politics on religion and the impact on religious groups that have identified their social values agenda with a particular political agenda. Dionne found several reasons religious citizens -- particularly Christians -- are natural allies of political conservatives.

Chief among them is the role of tradition, he said, noting that religious conservatives subscribe to a belief in a transcendent order or body of natural law that rules society as well as individual conscience. They also hold to a belief in authority.

Dionne related how his sister, a 26-year veteran in the Navy Reserves, has come to understand why America’s armed forces are largely made up of Southerners and Catholics. Both know instinctively how to deal with authority, she told her brother.

Liberals on the other hand are anti-authoritarian. Liberalism arose in part as a revolt against the authority of the church, of scripture, of the divine right of kings, said Dionne. “Liberals worry that authority is often the enemy of reason, liberty and self-direction.”

Another shared view that unites many political conservatives and religious adherents is that of life as a mystery and a gift. It is a belief that puts them in opposition to secular liberals on such matters as abortion and stem-cell research.

Though many religious people have discovered a home in the conservative political movement and easily find a commonality between Western and Judeo-Christian values, Dionne, a Catholic, saw problems for religious citizens in such a union. “Contemporary conservatism requires religious conservatives to put themselves to the service of an economic agenda that favors the market over almost all other values, and on the whole favors the wealthy over the poor,” he said.

Moreover, many of today’s political conservatives espouse “a radical individualism over community and its demands and satisfactions,” he noted. But liberals face this problem too, he said, adding, “The communitarian impulse is much admired but rather homeless in American politics.”

Dionne said he hoped Christian conservatives would attend to the demands of biblical traditions regarding justice. The challenge put forth by Isaiah three millennia ago -- “to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free” -- is no less urgent today, he said.

Gone too far?

Have religious conservatives taken their perceived duty to be responsibly engaged citizens too far? Have they at times overinflated the importance of politics, making their political convictions as important -- or more important -- than their theological beliefs?

The consequences of such an examination of conscience, as posed by panelist Michael Cromartie, can be seen in those who would “excommunicate people from Christian fellowship on the basis of political doctrines,” said Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of Religion and Politics in America.

While his example was focused on conservative Protestants for the most part, many in the audience -- as noted in a question-and-answer session later -- saw similarities with those U.S. Catholic bishops who sought to refuse Communion to pro-choice Catholic political candidates during the 2004 election season.

Cromartie held that some religious conservatives run the risk of imitating liberal Protestant denominations in so politicizing the Christian message that its core message -- love your neighbor -- is lost to issues of political urgency. Noting that America today is “up to its steeples in politics,” he issued a warning: “Woe to religious conservatives and religious liberals who politicize their faith. They shall get their just reward.”

No one on the panel opposed the vigorous moral debate now being waged in U.S. society. Neither did they see the wisdom in the overt hijacking of Republican issues by the religious right.

“The argument should never have been whether religious conservatives ought to be involved in social and political issues. Rather, the argument should be on what matters should we be most concerned and what are the most prudent ways to express such convictions,” Cromartie said.

Religion and politics have linked arms in every major U.S. reform movement during the last 160 years, said historian Patrick Allitt of Emory University in Atlanta -- from the antislavery campaign to the drive for civil rights a century later. Allitt saw the modern rise of political conservatism stemming from a protest of the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions against prayer and the Bible in public schools.

The Christian right has become bitterly disappointed with its repeated failure to get Republicans to enact its programs concerning abortion, gay marriage and the family, said Allitt, author of Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985.

But not every conservative Christian participates in religious life for political reasons, he said. They come for fellowship, community and support in life crises.

Dionne agreed, singling out his parish in suburban Washington, which is attended by political opposites like William Bennett and Sen. Ted Kennedy. At the time of the 2004 election, the parish displayed voters’ guides in the back of church that described prominent issues that voters should keep in mind. “Mind you, all were GOP issues,” Dionne said.

Despite criticism of the modern alliance of religion and politics, sociologist Nancy Ammerman of Boston University observed that increased conservative political involvement is likely to result in congregations that are more politically homogeneous.

Catholics, Protestants and Jews already choose congregations based on a complicated mix of religious and social factors, noted Ammerman, a sociologist of religion. “So if politics is a visible part of that culture, that is part of what they will take into account in making their decision.”

Her research has shown that congregations that report active involvement in conservative political work -- like handing out voter guides -- are slightly less likely to report that they have experienced serious internal conflict. Ammerman suspects those who don’t like political messages have gone elsewhere or left organized religion entirely.

Political message

The sociologist has also observed that conservative political activism inevitably has consequences for the theological message being preached. Ammerman, a Baptist, questioned to what extent is “love thy neighbor as thyself” being replaced by “get out the vote against gay marriage” as the measure of what the Bible says we should do.

While African-American Christians share a traditional biblicism and piety with white evangelicals, they have historically focused it with a concern for economic and social justice, she said.

Ammerman has found that conservative political activism has had the unintended consequence of awakening evangelical churches to the idea of social service, and “in some instances linking them with strange bedfellows in pursuit of those goals,” she said. In the past evangelicals devoted their outreach energy to evangelistic and missionary activity in America and overseas, leaving little or no energy for politics.

But conservative activists now seem to be creating “a synergy among political agendas, missionary work and an increasing involvement in the material and social side of the church,” Ammerman said. Faith-based initiatives allow churches to do even more of their missionary work all over the world so long as it is tied to some sort of social goal that can be justified as deserving tax support, she said.

The sociologist hinted that if liberals really knew who was crossing the U.S. border, they would be less in favor of immigration and if conservatives really knew, they would oppose immigration less. She based her “speculative observation” on the fact the American religion is being transformed by the arrival of new immigrants.

Large segments of the newcomers become conservative Christians once they are here, she said. What they learn early on is that “a good Christian votes, and votes for certain moral values” -- those upheld by the religious right, she said.

None of the panelists suggested that the juggernaut of conservative politics and the religious right might end any time soon. Religion and politics will continue to impact the 2006 election campaign even if religion does not hold a monopoly on morality, they said.

As Allitt saw it, “The whole history of American politics is of people with strong moral convictions trying to create political action to correct perceived injustices.” For many of them their religion has been the source of those convictions, he said. “That’s as true today as ever, and there’s nothing regrettable or sinister about it.”

Bill Blakemore of ABC News moderated the panel and the discussion that followed, which was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture under the codirection of Peter Steinfels and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels.

Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006

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