Who are the 'religious right'?


ONE OF the strangest political developments in American history has to be the recent emergence of something called a religious right and the number of people -- liberal Democrats but also secular Republicans like Barry Goldwater -- who are alarmed by its power and influence.

It is strange because when you try to identify a religious right in the United States you end up with a body that cannot exist.

I suppose what's meant by the religious right is people loosely sharing views on abortion, on certain rights of women both in religion and in society, and on unconventional sexual behavior.

The religious right is rigid in its opposition to any state interference with religion. But it is curiously, not to say acrobatically, flexible in its interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment with respect to the uses which organized religion can make of the state, be they subsidies for sectarian schools, tax exemption of religious property, enforcement of prayer in public schools, the codification of religious positions into the civil and criminal law or partisan religious influence in the secular political process.

But if the religious right were to hold a convention, what a piebald congregation it would be.

There would be a huge delegation of Bible Belt Protestants. Either Pat Buchanan or Cardinal John O'Connor might lead a mighty delegation of Catholics. Some of the more unconventional Christian sects with organically conservative doctrines would agonize over whether to send delegates as would those forces of politically active Orthodox Jewry with big stakes in the earthly issues of state assistance to religious schools and other official accommodations of religious practice.

And it would be difficult, in theory, to exclude the Islamic fundamentalists whose views on the inseparability of godliness and politics are no less passionately held than Mr. Buchanan's. Given the hostilities historical to such a group, the convention would probably have to begin by adopting a rule of no knives or pistols in the meeting hall.

And when these people have succeeded in putting God into politics and even if they can somehow approve a platform defining with any coherence Mr. Buchanan's concept of the United States as "a Judeo-Christian nation," they will still be left with the divisions that have separated them both before and since such unpleasantries as the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the Spanish Inquisition and the cross burnings on the lawns of Southern Catholics.

Little issues like the divinity of Christ, sacramental doctrine, scriptural vs. papal authority, the priesthood of all believers, the damnation of sinners and clerical celibacy have had a way of causing humans to behave with unspeakable savagery toward each other whenever politics and religion mix.

The real question these people should ask themselves is whether there is any conceivable God that would want to be in politics.

There are, of course, numerous historical examples of doctrinally heterogeneous societies in which religion achieved a central position in politics.

Let's see. There is most recently the religion-driven political model of Northern Ireland and, of course, the former Yugoslavia where Slavic brothers and sisters of the blood are spilling each other's in the holy causes of Eastern Orthodoxy, Apostolic Catholicism and Islam.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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