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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Pietro says:

    Now where’s the Taranto article?

  2. Jammer says:

    Swearing on that Bible is also simply a custom. Its not a requirement anywhere, and the Oath of Office does not include the phrase “so help me God”, though many add it in on their own.

  3. Jim Henley says:

    The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world are much less powerful than some would have us believe.

    OR, “Some of us would believe the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world are much less powerful than they are.”

  4. Bithead says:

    I submit this entire discussion is mis- cast.

    If we understand (as I have argued for years) that the purpose of government is to codify and enforce the values of the culture that gave it life, and also to hopefully extend the influence of that culture within the world….. then the influence of religious values in our government will be a product of the degree to which religion is a part of the culture itself. This is not mandating religion; it is simply reacting to,a nd holding respect for the culture, as government should; this is the proper relationship.

    This is not, therefore, a matter of chruch and state (And the mythical seperation thereof) as much as it is a discussion about the culture, and the influence of religion in it, which is another matter altogether.

    Consider the words of John McCandlish Phillips, a former reporter at the NYT:

    The fact is that our founders did not give us a nation frightened by the apparition of the Deity lurking about in our most central places. On Sept. 25, 1789, the text of what was later adopted as the First Amendment was passed by both houses of Congress, and subsequently sent to the states for ratification. On that same day , the gentlemen in the House who had acted to give us that invaluable text took another action: They passed a resolution asking President George Washington to declare a national day of thanksgiving to no less a perceived eminence than almighty God.

    That’s president , that’s national, that’s official and, alas, my doubting hearties, it’s God — all wrapped up in a federal action by those who knew what they meant by the non-establishment clause and saw their request as standing at not the slightest variance from it.

    While other religions (Or for that matter, atheists, which I will include as a faith unto itself) are accepted, by both law and the tradition of western culture, they are never more than a minority influence in our culture. And that seems ot be to be the most troubling to Hitches of the world and to the Randians as well.

  5. Anderson says:

    Do Christian fundamentalists really have the same right to advocate for their policy positions as others have?

    Anderson: “I propose adopting policy X because it addresses problem Y and will lead to solution Z.”

    Dr. Dobson: “I propose adopting policy A because it is in conformity with the Holy Bible, which is the inerrant Word of God.”

    (Leaving aside that Dr. Dobson et al. tend to camouflage their positions with “rational basis” justifications; anyone who thinks they’re against homosexuality for non-religious reasons, I’ve got a bridge to sell ya.)

    I don’t think that the government can adopt policies on a religious basis without violating the Establishment Clause. Perhaps I’m wrong.

  6. Bithead says:


    Do Christian fundamentalists really have the same right to advocate for their policy positions as others have?

    Why would they not have that right? Are you really suggesting that we should withold rights from the religious?

    Nobody here has suggested that policies be adopted simply because the Bible dicates it. Why even bring it up?

  7. Rick says:

    “Some of us would believe the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world are much less powerful than they are.”

    And how powerful is that? How many battalions do they have?

    Robertson is sooooo powerful, I have it on recent, fraidy-cat authority that as recently as 1988, he came in 2d in a GOP caucus!!!! Wow, that’s some juice.


  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t honestly get George Will’s state of None bit. If you aggregate all of the Roman Catholics in the United States it’s more than the populations of the states of California, Texas, and None put together. So what? We can spend all day putting together stupid, meaningless aggregations like that. In a country of nearly 300 million people the number of anythings can be substantial.

  9. Ben says:

    You stated “I’ve long argued that Christians have exactly the same right to organize as any other interest group”… I agree. However, all of the “christians” that are organizing, religious groups and churches, are tax exempt. We need to level the playing field.

  10. Bithead says:

    Ironic, that Rick likely is not aware of the link between his question and Stalin’s similar questoning of the Pope.

    Is the culture mightier than the battalion?


  11. Just Me says:

    Ben you do realize that any charity is tax exempt. A left leaning/socially liberal group can advocate for their positions and also be tax exempt. While churches are of course tax exempt they are not the only groups that are.

    “I don’t think that the government can adopt policies on a religious basis without violating the Establishment Clause. Perhaps I’m wrong.”

    If the policy solely is based on a religious reasoning, I would agree with you. But it is more than possible to make a non religious reason to advocate for or against specific policy and law. If you are advocating that the religious should have no access or right to advocate their causes, because the underlying moral reasoning behind their advocacy is a religoious belief, you are in effect denying them their right to religious expression.

    It shouldn’t matter what the underlying reason for the belief is, if the belief can be advocated outside of the religious text it is based in.

    I know quite a few atheist/agnostic/secular people who are pro life. So is their position somehow better because their reasoning is based in something other than religios texts/beliefs?

    My general policy regarding my faith and moral beliefs is that if I can’t argue for a policy/law without resorting to the scriptures, then I shouldn’t be advocating for that policy (one that immediately comes to mind and has never made sense is the Sunday liquer/alcohol sale prohibitions). But if I can make a sound argument for the policy/law outside a religious text/belief, then it has merit.

    It is just as wrong and unconstitional to deny the religious access to advocating policy/law or choosing representatives with similar policies and denying the non religious. The constitution doesn’t require that those who are religious be denied access to or the ability to choose representation.

  12. S Ty says:

    The way I see it, the actions people take in real life have no to at best very little relation to whether their afterlife belief is A or B. I mean, it’s going to be a pretty interesting symbol-filled napkin by the time someone draws the connection between their Christian denomination and that time they turned through the crosswalk while it was still on “walk” or held the door for somebody in the subway. Note that in both cases they are inconveniencing “many” for the sake of “one.” I have seen my mother in her 80’s climb behind the wheel of her car and threaten the safety of “many” so that she could enjoy her participation in church life to her heart’s content. Where’s her religion on the way to the church? In suspended animation?

    Religion begins at the door of the church and ends in the heart, full stop. Though it can form your personal opinion, religion has no public opinion. Let’s just see how far a papal directive on crosswalks or subways would fly. If it works, we should suddenly see about a 15,000% increase in crosswalk safety and also people getting the door slammed shut on them at the subway. That would be at about the same time that my mom’s pastor starts berating the elderly who are getting driver’s licenses from the government and satanizing the government for giving the licenses to them.

    And yet it is the same thing, and just merely illustrates the foolishness of giving “religion” any “official” voice in public discourse. On every issue in which they’ve made into an uproar – on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, creationism and any number of other issues, to quote Tarantino – their arguments cannot even be described as specious; they are inane. They have no relation to real life, even amongst the so-called “religious, and so therefore should be put back inside the church door and back into the heart.

    Those f**king effete “pundits”: Jayzus H. Christ.

  13. McGehee says:

    Honestly, it’s hard to distinguish the sentiments of some commenters above, such as Anderson, and something that might have been said in Mississippi about Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1962.

  14. mrkmyr says:

    “the Left must avoid condescention and outright contempt for the vast majority of Americans for whom their faith is important.”
    Because a majority of the Left believe their faith is important, it isn’t hard to avoid condescension or contempt of the faithful. Contempt is reserved for those who hypocritically force their faith upon others or use it to gain power. How about this, “The Right most avoid condenscension and outright contempt for the vast majority of Americans for whom religious freedom is important and faith is a personal matter.”

  15. GP says:

    Falwell, Dobson, Robertson et al are self-appointed, self-interested media whores who care far more about themselves than the groups they allege to represent. They are no different than Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson positioning themselves as the “Voices of African-Americans”. In both cases (Christians and African-Americans) there is no group to represent because being Christian or African-American is just one characteristic of thousands that influence how any given person thinks. It’s a joke that these people say they speak for a group. Yet the media puts them out as the face of a group, and it hurts how the country views Christians and African-Americans.

    With their man in the White House and a Congress controlled by them, I have no doubt that the Republican party is in for an eventual bruising at Democratic hands. The Republican party simply cannot sustain their power for much longer if they insist on being the Moral Majority’s lap dog. Opening the door to the Moral Majority was an electoral strategy that will prove to have been a long term mistake.

    The Democrat’s recent failings at the polling station are more for lack of leadership and effective messaging, than an embrace of morality as seen by Jerry Falwell. These Democratic things can change in an instant. At the moment, the Moral Majority and the Republican leadership seem too arrogant to notice. And once they do, they will find it is much harder to change the core principals of the party.

  16. Bithead says:

    A lack of effective messaging?
    Or is it simply that the American voter disagrees with the message?

  17. Anderson says:

    Really, McGehee? MLK said that blacks were entitled to equal rights merely because it says so in the Bible somewhere?

    What on earth are you talking about?

  18. Bithead says:

    Are you going to now deny that the civil rights movement was rooted in and driven by religious figures in our society?

    Perhaps you’re thinking we should remove the gains had by these simply because they were religious and were driven by their religion?

  19. Sue Dohnim says:

    Anderson wrote:

    Really, McGehee? MLK said that blacks were entitled to equal rights merely because it says so in the Bible somewhere?

    Yeah, how ridiculous. It’s not like Rev. Martin Luther King was a Christian or anything. And that whole thing about “all of God’s children” being “created equal” was just metaphor.

  20. Wanda says:

    What if, in the supposed dialog above, Anderson and Dr. Dobson are proposing the SAME THING? No one is going to question Anderson’s good intentions. But to gain the same goodwill, Dr. Dobson will have to lie. He’ll have to come up with two reasons for what he proposes, since any reference to religion is enough to automatically disqualify his proposal, even if it’s the same as Anderson’s. So religious people must learn a kind of Doublespeak – among friends and fellow believers, they can acknowledge the religious motive, and among outsiders they have to speak a different language. It’s an unhealthy situation because it’s effectively driving genuine religious expression underground.

  21. Bithead says:

    Well put,Wanda.

    And it goes deeper.

    Given something like 75-80% of Americans attend religious services at least monthly, can this mean that we’re actually going to exclude them from the political process, or from holding a governmental office?

  22. rho says:

    The instinctive fear blue-staters hold for white Christianity–you’ll never hear them rail against a black Christian–is quite entertaining. I’m reminded of a stereotypical housewife standing on a coffee table, skirts gathered in hand, shrieking at the appearance of a mouse.

    People have ideas and opinions. Those ideas and opinions can come from the Bible, the scientific method, random guessing or thoughtwaves beamed directly from space. It doesn’t matter. These ideas and opinions have equal weight in the arena of debate, and the people who hold them have equal access to the democratic process. The thought that somehow a position that originates with the Bible–a document upon which the most stable and successful societies have at least partially based their existence–is a priori invalid is bugshite lunacy. You might as well toss out the Constitution because it was written by white males, some of whom owned slaves.

  23. Defense Guy says:

    Well Spoken James. The only exception I would take to your stance is that rather than being cautious to a group feeling alienated, we must be cautious to not actually alienate. In other words, it must be an actual tyranny of the majority as opposed to an apparent one.

  24. Rick says:

    Ironic, that Rick likely is not aware of the link between his question and Stalin’s similar questoning of the Pope.


    No irony–I chose the famous formulation for unstated reasons. Like the Pope has greater legions than the new liberal bugbear: the 700 Club.

    Shoot, the old USSR had a lot of battalions, and the libs lost the good sense of being wary of THEM!


  25. Bithead says:

    Right enough. Rick.
    Then again, we seem to be forgetting, in this discussion, that something on the order of 80% of Americans attend religious services at least monthly. I think that puts a light on this discussion we cannot ignore…

  26. Rick says:


    I’m not ignoring it. What I do–lately at Balloon Juice–is needle the Chicken Little’s who think the “religious right” is some monolith with a Secret Protocols plan for national domination.

    Hey, domination and Dominionists are words with the same root!!! I’ve cracked the conspiracy, and Barry Lynn is right!! Omigosh!


  27. Jill says:

    I can’t believe we’re still seeing this about the democrats not having “effective messaging”…

    Let’s see, the Democrats have the liberal media at their disposal, all the network news shows, even television shows all plugging the liberal message and I can’t even pick up a women’s magazine without some liberal crap being shoved down my throat.

    And they still can’t get their message across?

    Uh huh. Riiight. Whatever you say.

  28. Bithead says:

    Nobody denies it’s big, Jill.
    But even your own reaction suggests it’s not getting the intended job done.