Summer 1999, Vol. 2, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Preaching the Word in Littleton

On the Beat: In Lagos, Religion’s Above the Fold

Something Wiccan This Way Comes

Kosovo: A Confusion of Tongues

The Diallo Killings: Sharpton Ecumenistes

Methodism’s Time of Trials

Spiritual Politicking and the IRS

Correspondence: Was the Church Arson Story Legit?

From the Editor: A Different Spiritual Politics

by Mark Silk

As the clock ticks towards the first presidency of the next millennium, the role of religion in national politics is in transition. Nineteen-eighty was the year the Christian Right rumbled into town, helping to put Ronald Reagan into the White House and send a clutch of liberal Democratic senators into retirement. Over the next two decades, Christian Right activists became the most energetic force in the Republican Party, and traditionalist white evangelicals became the most Republican religious grouping in the country.

The movement was animated by a belief that the majority of Americans were religious folks who opposed "abortion-on-demand" and "the gay lifestyle," supported tough justice and prayer in school, and expected their fellow citizens to work for a living. The expectation was that, with judicious propaganda and grass-roots organizing, the electorate would make the GOP the country’s majority party. When both houses of Congress fell into Republican hands in 1994, it appeared to have done just that.

Four years later, the electorate was no longer with the program. Against all expectations, the GOP lost seats in the House of Representatives, and Republican candidates running with strong Christian Right support lost important state races in the South and Midwest. Worst of all, the great moral imperative of impeaching President Clinton proved incapable of winning the support of more than a third of Americans. Even traditionalist white evangelicals favored impeachment to the tune of just 55 percent.

After the President’s acquittal, longtime conservative activist Paul Weyrich concluded that the "whole strategy" had been a mistake because it was based on the false premise that "a majority of Americans basically agree with our point of view." The country had suffered a "cultural collapse" of such proportions that politics could not reverse it. Without rejecting political participation as a means of self-defense, he called on religious conservatives to quarantine themselves from the morally polluted American mainstream by creating their own separate educational and cultural institutions.

While Weyrich’s summons to political disengagement drew vigorous dissent from other Christian Right leaders, it seemed clear that a strategic re-evaluation was the order of the day. During the 1996 campaign, the Christian Coalition’s then executive director, Ralph Reed, found himself pilloried by fellow Christian rightists for trying to broker a deal whereby GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole could back out of his party’s embrace of a constitutional ban on abortion. On the road to 2000, barely a peep went up when leading Republican presidential hopefuls danced away from the issue by saying the country was "not yet" ready for such a ban.

But religion is far from beating a retreat on the political front. On the contrary, aspiring presidential aspirants-the two Democrats as well as the Republican host-are talking about their personal faith earlier and oftener than in any campaign in memory. For the frontrunners, religion has also taken a prominent place at the issues table.

As visitors to can readily see, one of the pillars of Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s campaign of "compassionate conservatism" is providing government support to help religiously identified institutions address social problems. Under the heading of "faith in action," the web page lays out Bush’s "faith-based" state initiatives in childcare, alcohol and drug treatment, and prison programs, as well as his vigorous enforcement of the "charitable choice" provision of the welfare reform law. "Government should welcome the help of faith-based institutions," says the governor. "Church and state should work together with respect for our differences and reverence for our shared goals."

Not to be outdone, Vice President Al Gore embraced the ideology of charitable choice in remarks at Atlanta’s Salvation Army headquarters in May, calling for the faith-based approach to be expanded from welfare-related programs to include problems of homelessness, youth violence, and drug addiction. "If you elect me your president," said Gore, "the voices of faith-based organizations will be integral to the policies set forth in my administration." While Bush campaign apparatchiks grumbled about the Vice President’s me-tooism, senior Gore policy adviser Elaine Kamarck was indiscreet enough to tell the Boston Globe, "The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time."

Whatever becomes of God, a chastened Christian Right and a religiously engaged Progressive Left make for a different kind of spiritual politics than we have experienced in some time. It is wise to be wary of political professions of faith, and, as students of the subject know, the road to charitable choice is fraught with perils for both church and state. But after nearly 20 years of watching the sword of religion carve out wedge issues for a culture war, we seem to be moving on.