Rooting Against the Religious Right
Christopher Hitchens and George Will, an antitheist Leftist and Christian conservative, both have op-eds this morning arguing that the Republican leadership needs to be cautious in how it approaches matters of faith.
Hitchens, “Why I’m Rooting Against the Religious Right” (OpinionJournal)
At least two important conservative thinkers, Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, were unbelievers or nonbelievers and in any case contemptuous of Christianity. I have my own differences with both of these savants, but is the Republican Party really prepared to disown such modern intellectuals as it can claim, in favor of a shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity?
Perhaps one could phrase the same question in two further ways. At the last election, the GOP succeeded in increasing its vote among American Jews by an estimated five percentage points. Does it propose to welcome these new adherents or sympathizers by yelling in the tones of that great Democrat bigmouth William Jennings Bryan? By insisting that evolution is “only a theory”? By demanding biblical literalism and by proclaiming that the Messiah has already shown himself? If so, it will deserve the punishment for hubris that is already coming its way. (The punishment, in other words, that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believed had struck America on Sept. 11, 2001. How can it be that such grotesque characters, calling down divine revenge on the workers in the World Trade Center, are allowed a respectful hearing, or a hearing at all, among patriotic Republicans?)
Will, “The Christian Complex” (WaPo, A25)
The state of America’s political discourse is such that the president has felt it necessary to declare that unbelievers can be good Americans. In last week’s prime-time news conference, he said: “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.” So Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a long, luminous list of other skeptics can be spared the posthumous ignominy of being stricken from the rolls of exemplary Americans. And almost 30 million living Americans welcomed that presidential benediction.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Americans who answer “none” when asked to identify their religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than double the 14.3 million in 1990. If unbelievers had their own state — the state of None — its population would be more than twice that of New England’s six states, and None would be the nation’s second-largest state:
California, 34.5 million.
None, 29.4 million.
Texas, 21.3 million.
Moreover, Will says Christians should quit whining that they are being victimized:
Religion is today banished from the public square? John Kennedy finished his first report to the nation on the Soviet missiles in Cuba with these words: “Thank you and good night.” It would be a rash president who today did not conclude a major address by saying, as President Ronald Reagan began the custom of doing, something very like “God bless America.”
Unbelievers should not cavil about this acknowledgment of majority sensibilities. But Republicans should not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.”
Of course, for all intents and purposes, there is a “religious test” for high public office. One can simply not imagine an openly atheist candidate getting a major party nomination, let alone elected, president. There are perhaps a handful of states where that wouldn’t be true for governor or senator as well.
Likewise, unbelievers should stop crying “Theocracy!” This isn’t exactly Iran. That the president takes his oath on a Bible and that we take the day off for Christmas are perfectly reasonably manifestations that we live in a culture founded by and dominated by Christians.
The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world are much less powerful than some would have us believe. They’re charismatic figures who have some influence but only tiny minorities of American Christians agree with their more extreme views.
Update (1013): A commenter and Dean Esmay point out that OpinionJournal had a companion piece by James Taranto.
Taranto, “Why I’m Rooting for the Religious Right”
I am not a Christian, or even a religious believer, and my opinions on social issues are decidedly middle-of-the-road. So why do I find myself rooting for the “religious right”? I suppose it is because I am put off by self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and contempt for democracy and pluralism–all of which characterize the opposition to the religious right.
One can disagree with religious conservatives on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, creationism and any number of other issues, and still recognize that they have good reason to feel disfranchised. This isn’t the same as the oft-heard complaint of “anti-Christian bigotry,” which is at best imprecise, since American Christians are all over the map politically. But those who hold traditionalist views have been shut out of the democratic process by a series of court decisions that, based on constitutional reasoning ranging from plausible to ludicrous, declared the preferred policies of the secular left the law of the land.
For the most part, the religious right has responded in good civic-minded fashion: by organizing, becoming politically active, and supporting like-minded candidates. This has required exquisite discipline and patience, since changing court-imposed policies entails first changing the courts, a process that can take decades. Even then, “conservative” judges are not about to impose conservative policies; the best the religious right can hope for is the opportunity to make its case through ordinary democratic means.
Taranto’s argument is not inherently contradictory to those of Hitchens and Will. I’ve long argued that Christians have exactly the same right to organize as any other interest group and that religious fervor is every bit as legitimate a motivating factor in American politics as self-interest, political ideology, or “because that’s how Daddy voted.”
Just as the Right must ensure that they don’t create a chilling effect tantamount to a Tyranny of the Majority, where non-Christians and non-believers feel alienated, the Left must avoid condescention and outright contempt for the vast majority of Americans for whom their faith is important. From a practical standpoint, the Left have more of a problem just because of the numbers. From an ethical standpoint, the Right have a higher duty because of their greater power.