Religion Loses When It Plays Politics


Wichita, Kansas. -- The Christians are coming! The Christians are coming!

That cry is echoing among Democrats and moderate Republicans alarmed by -- pick your preferred label -- the "religious right" or "social conservatives:" Those politically active evangelicals and fundamentalists who oppose abortion, dislike homosexuality, favor prayer in the public schools and worry that the nation's moral fiber is unraveling.

The religious right's national crusade has produced a counter-attack, threatening a Republican civil war. Republican Senators Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania and other moderates have announced creation of the Republican Majority Coalition to resist attempts by social conservatives to set the GOP agenda.

It's certain that over the next four years, the godly right will be a vocal presence in American politics. President-elect Bill Clinton will undoubtedly do much to offend social conser vatives, such as allow gays in the military. Likewise, the Democratic Congress will probably approve the Freedom of Choice Act, which would put abortion rights into federal law.

For the most part, the emergence of the religious right is a good thing. Socially conservative activists have brought millions of new people into politics. They have raised some fundamental issues about the direction of the nation. They have forced people to re-examine the role of religion in an increasingly secular society. They have asked questions about the quality of public education. They have defended the Western tradition against extreme multiculturalism and similar movements. They have reminded Americans that values are the basis of society.

Indeed, much of the consternation over the religious right is from people who seem genuinely surprised that many articulate, politically sophisticated Americans still take the teachings of the New Testament seriously -- that Bible-based belief didn't disappear following the Scopes "monkey trial" in the 1920s.

In fact, the religious right defies common stereotypes. The strongest support for social conservatism isn't found in "Bible-belt" backwoods and hollows, but in solidly middle-class

suburbs. The religious right also has been on the cutting edge in using the technologies of satellite television, desktop publishing and computer networks.

In other words, these are not Bible-thumping, snake-handling Elmer Gantrys. They are highly motivated, many of them well-educated people who are profoundly concerned about the country's moral and spiritual drift and decay.

That said, I doubt that the religious right will ever fulfill its activists' hopes or justify its opponents' fears.

For most Americans, abortion, homosexuality, school prayer and pornography are not driving political issues -- economic matters are. Furthermore, for a huge number of Americans intolerance is the greatest sin. And the religious right has been quick to condemn people with non-traditional lifestyles and attitudes. In our therapeutic culture of self-esteem, where no one is responsible for his or her destructive conduct, guilt and restraint are not popular concepts.

Nevertheless, the religious right can provide an important counterweight to the trend toward a materialistic society that sees all values as relative, views truth as a matter of interpretation and rejects the lessons of 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian experience. Conservative Christian activists can help ensure that people who have powerful resentments against America's libertine, hedonistic popular culture are heard.

My primary criticism of the religious right isn't its politics, but its possible distortion of the Christian message. If people come to see the New Testament as just another political manifesto, the words and suffering of Jesus were in vain.

I share the view of C.S. Lewis, the British lay theologian and scholar, that for Christians the world is "enemy-occupied territory." As Lewis explained in "The Screwtape Letters," the devil wants people to feel satisfied with their temporal existence, because it will help them forget the Christian teaching that humanity's true home is not here, but the hereafter.

"Our best method," Screwtape, a satanic henchman, writes to his underling Wormwood, "of attaching them [humans] to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics, eugenics, 'science' or psychology, or what not."

Christianity is not a religion of political salvation. It could even be argued that a corrupt society is the most powerful evidence of the truth of the Christian faith -- and that anyone trying to use politics to create an earthly paradise has little understanding of Christianity.

For that reason, I suspect that when the Anti-Christ prophesied in the Book of Revelation arrives, he will act more like Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan than like Hitler or Stalin. The atheistic Nazi and Com- munist leaders threatened only people's lives. By distorting Christianity through their use of the Bible as a political weapon, former GOP presidential candidates Robertson and Buchanan jeopardize people's souls.

Christianity has thrived in all sorts of political systems, including monarchy and fascism. But the faith was hurt the most whenever it identified with a particular regime or claimed governmental power for a particular group. As long as the religious right doesn't confuse its immediate political goals with the ultimate divine purpose, it can be a positive part of American democracy.

David Awbrey is editorial-page editor of the Wichita Eagle.

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