Politics

What God Owes Jefferson

By

God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It By Jim Wallis
(HarperSanFrancisco, 384 pp., $24.95)

Taking Faith Seriously Edited by Mary Jo Bane, Brent Coffin, and Richard Higgins
(Harvard University Press, 381 pp., $29.95)

The phenomenon of martyrdom demonstrates that political success and personal salvation do not generally go together. The faithful find grace not in building winning coalitions, but in worshipping God's glory. Gazing toward heaven means stumbling on earth, a small price to pay for the rewards that await.

For a deeply religious society, the United States has had little or no culture of martyrdom. There are those--bless them--who share the suffering of the downtrodden. But America's voluble religious rightists, those who are most visible in their insistence that they embody the true faith, are too busy celebrating their victories to have much time for defeat.They have rendered under Caesar what is Caesar's: themselves, as it happens, and all the political power that comes with them. They dwell not in the house of the Lord, but in the House of Representatives. Their prayer breakfasts are strategy sessions, their churches are auxiliaries of political parties, their pastors are political bosses. Their God must be great: look at the clout of his constituency.

Once confined to the margins of American politics, the religious right seems to be everywhere these days, rallying to the cause of Terri Schiavo or lobbying intently for conservative judges. No wonder that activists on the left of the political spectrum find themselves filled with wonder. Surely, they believe, it ought to be possible to remind Americans that Jesus was a man of compassion who turned swords into plowshares. On theological grounds alone, the left's case to rally God to its side ought to be stronger than the right's. "It's time to take back faith in the public square," writes Jim Wallis, America's leading evangelist for progressive causes. In the presidential campaign last year, Howard Dean asserted that he belonged to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Jim Wallis insists that he belongs to the Christian wing of Christianity.

Wallis is not the only prominent believer with progressive instincts to challenge the religious right's influence in American politics. Taking Faith Seriously offers a collection of policy papers written by scholars associated with Harvard's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Arguing that religious organizations are a crucial aspect of America's network of ever-spawning voluntary associations, these writers aim to use the insights of social science to better understand the role that religion plays in American public life. Although Jim Wallis worked with them from time to time, their book is not written in his prophetic yet strangely inside-the-Beltway tone. Still, even if they write with greater analytical precision, there is no masking their larger political point: liberal democracy has a place for religious believers, in no small measure because religious believers constitute a pluralistic, diverse, and basically reasonable group of Americans. As sensible as that claim may be to most people, it would be considered hostile and inflammatory to the new breed of Christian Republicans.

Here, then, are two books that together make the best case yet for the notion that the left can no longer allow the right to claim a monopoly on religion's involvement in politics. Yet in making the case so well, they also expose some of its flaws. Of course the left should not let the right monopolize religion. The politicization of the religious right has done great damage to both religion and politics. But everything depends on how religion and politics meet. There are good ways and bad ways to bring them together, and for all the sensible suggestions in these books, neither avoids the bad ways completely. If liberals are to return to power, it must not happen by appropriating some of the rotten ideas of conservatives.

 

 

II.

In keeping with their literalist disposition, with their theological conviction that the Bible is literally true, right-wing Christians believe that the more conservative the society, the better matters will be for religious conservatives. This is the premise of their politics; but the premise is false. It is, in fact, a spectacular mistake. For conservative religion has always flourished best in liberal societies, and the more liberal, the better.

Of all liberal society's great innovations, none has been more important to the rise of conservative religion than the commitment to free exercise embodied in one of the First Amendment's two clauses. Today's religious conservatives live off the accomplishments of previous generations of religious radicals, whose willingness to challenge received doctrine, to confront established authority, to dispense with encrusted tradition, to develop their own vernacular, and to insist on the dignity of the individual believer pierced the heart of everything conservative around them. Had not a love of liberty accompanied the rise of evangelical religion in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and North America, there would never have occurred the awakenings that inspire today's religious activists. Free exercise requires a free society. This should have been obvious. It is, indeed, a literal reading of the constitutional language. About the relation of free exercise to a free society, ask only the Jehovah's Witnesses. No other organization has done more to expand the quintessentially liberal idea of allowing dissenting voices to be heard than this decidedly conservative faith.

The First Amendment's other clause--the one separating church and state--is another liberal idea without which conservative religion could not exist. Written just two decades after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, the First Amendment essentially created a free market in the salvation of souls. Left without the financial guarantees offered by state monopolies--especially, in the early American Protestant imagination, the decadent and reactionary Catholic Church--congregations would live or die by their own efforts in recruiting members, tithing their purses, and kindling their enthusiasm.

By the time Tocqueville arrived in the 1830s, the pattern had been set. The itinerant preacher, the bewildering variety of new denominations, the determination to evangelize: all took advantage of America's remarkable experiment in church-state separationism to organize on behalf of God. European religion--not only in its Catholic form, but also in its various Calvinist and Episcopal manifestations, burdened by the privileges secured by established churches--withered and, in the opinion of many, died. But American religion, banned from the state, infused the culture. The more it was kept out of politics, the deeper would be its reach into every other area of life.

If the close links between established religions and European monarchies spurred the growth of religious liberty in the United States, their hierarchical organization and their affinity with privilege convinced many an American believer of the necessity for equality. There would be a clergy, of course; but it need not be a learned one speaking a language foreign to its flock, nor need it wear the finery associated with decadent aristocracies. Compared with the old regime, liberal societies were leveling societies, and nothing leveled more than a faith that, in insisting on the priesthood of all believers, held everyone to be equal in the eyes of God. It surprises us today that America's most famous symbol of conservative religious reaction, William Jennings Bryan, was also a great advocate for equality. It should not surprise us at all.

America's free air and free soil worked to the benefit of all American religions, but its truly special blessings flowed to conservative Protestantism. Protestantism's greatest source of strength has been its capacity to re-invent itself. As older modes of worship lost their power to attract, new modes rushed in to fill the gap. In the nineteenth century, the urban revival hall and the rural camp meeting drew crowds away from the staid chapels of the more upper-class faiths. In the twenty-first century, the megachurch brings in those more exposed to Oprah than to Amos, as organ music and hymns give way to contemporary Christian rock, and the diet book is studied more carefully than the Bible, and Sunday attire is replaced by aisle-rolling and spirit possession. Listen to the sermons in the sprawling, dynamic, and theologically incoherent world of conservative Protestantism, and you may hear liberalism denounced from the pulpit; but these jeremiads are philosophically and historically blind, since they are oblivious to the fact that without liberalism, there would not exist the vibrant voluntary sector, the responsiveness to popular taste, or even the freedom to attack the Democratic Party that serve as the homily's backdrop.

Some religious conservatives are aware of the debt that they owe to liberal ideas. Among them has been the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists cut their teeth on liberal principles.Their most famous leaders across the centuries--Roger Williams (1603- 1683), John Leland (1754-1841), George W. Truett (1867-1944)--preached on behalf of religious liberty and church-state separation. True, their commitments were not the same as those of Enlightenment skeptics; Williams sought to protect the garden of faith from the wilderness of government, not the other way around. But their significant presence among American believers helps to explain why we never developed a tradition of clericalism and thus were spared nosy inquisitors relying on the police power of the state to enforce the creedal orthodoxies of one particular sect. As odd as it may sound in these days of conservative ecumenicalism, when all that matters on the right is whether your beliefs are conservative and not what your beliefs actually are, Baptists were once closer to Jews in their commitment to religious liberty than they were to establishment-oriented Catholics (against whom, it must also be said, they were once deeply prejudiced).

It is a matter of considerable political importance that so many of today's Baptist leaders have opted to neglect the history and the traditions of their own denomination. Sensing an opportunity to wield considerable political influence, leaders such as Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Adrian Rogers, of Memphis's Bellevue Baptist Church, developed close connections with the Republican Party, and with the religious right that was fueling its growth. In March 1998, after meeting with the conservative political strategists Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer, and James Dobson, Land said of his relationship to them: "The go-along, get-along strategy is dead. No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage."

They got one. Land sometimes criticizes the Republican Party, as he did when it tried to use church mailing lists to bring out voters in 2004, and he goes to great lengths to try to prove that his political activism can be reconciled with the Baptist tradition of religious liberty. (He argues, for example, that the state can "accommodate" religion without violating the First Amendment.) But he is fooling no one, not least other Baptists. "Though not ready to jettison separation," writes the historian Barry Hankins in Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture, "he knows his views on this aspect of church-state relations are different enough from previous considerations that he needs to use a different term, hence his use of 'accommodation' to encapsulate his principles."

Liberals worry that the religious right, by failing to respect the proper boundary between church and state, will move the United States in a theocratic direction insufficiently appreciative of the blessings of human freedom. That may well be true, but among the first to suffer would be religious conservatives. If it could, the religious right would create a society in which Christianity's place of privilege would be supported by special access to public funds, police powers charged with enforcing its conception of morality, restrictions on the free speech of atheists and non-Christians, and a foreign policy designed to spread its word. Yet by sucking up the air of human liberty, such a society would leave a vacuum in which new religious movements-- tomorrow's evangelical establishment--would find no place of nourishment.

Religions that draw too close to politics lose their capacity to innovate. If they receive government money, they become bureaucracies, which is one reason that at least some deeply conservative believers are skeptical of President Bush's talk about faith-based initiatives. If their objective is to get out the vote, they will want an obedient flock, not disputatious otherworldly saints. Their clergy will become more comfortable in the country club than on the street corner; worried about their standing, the status of their capital campaign, and their ties to local business, they will lose their ability to speak to the economically marginalized, from whom conservative religion has always drawn the bulk of its new recruits. (Whatever its commitment to real Darwinism, the Bush administration's unblinking support for social Darwinism ensures that untold numbers of potential conservative Christians will never live to adulthood.) Their churches may grow, to be sure; indeed, they will develop management objectives, best practices, and consumer surveys to ensure their growth. But the resources of the spirit are limited, and the more that goes into committee work, the less there is for God. Evangelicals did well in America not least because they had little or no political power.

The leaders of the religious right have evidently decided that none of this matters to them. After all, how many times in a millennium does one get the opportunity to change the culture? The age of Bush is their opportunity, and they are not going to let it pass by. They may think that religion--the spiritual, otherworldly, transcendental kind--is for idealists, and that politics is too exciting and too profitable for them to stay stringently behind the pulpit. Right there before their very eyes is the prospect of a Supreme Court with an unshakable majority in favor of returning the United States to its Christian roots. God would not want them to take their eyes off the prize, and the least they can do is to work on his behalf.

Yet for all its political muscle, the religious right is an easy roll. Republican leaders are happy to throw symbolic crumbs to them--Terri Schiavo's life, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage that are designed never to pass--and they lick them up gratefully. Of course they may someday get their Supreme Court, and perhaps the struggle will have been worth it; but to this point it seems correct to say that they have sacrificed the future of their faith for pretty thin gruel. Given the degree to which Americans distrust politicians, it boggles the mind that religious leaders would consign themselves to that particular circle of hell. But they have chosen to do so, and they, more than anyone, will reap the whirlwind.

III.

'We all need, in a very real and dire sense, to get some old-time Religion! Politics can't save itself. Nor can it rely for its salvation on the debased spirituality so prevalent in the culture." These are the words of the left-wing firebrand Jim Wallis, not the right-wing activists Pat Robertson or James Dobson. God's Politics is filled with words such as these."We've lost the social, unifying, and liberating aspects of biblical faith," Wallis laments. "What is needed is nothing less than a renovation of our souls and the soul of our politics." And lest any reader fail to grasp the point, Wallis leaves no doubt that his faith, the evangelical one, is the one that our country needs most. "Without a personal God, there is no personal dimension to belief.… In today's world, there is one overriding and key distinction in all of the religion that is growing--a God who desires relationship with each person." That is Jesus talk, even if Jesus is not mentioned.

Politically speaking, Wallis's book is long overdue. He is correct to point out that the Jesus invoked by so many conservative religious believers has little or no relationship to the Jesus who preached on behalf of the outcasts and was widely admired for his humility. When it comes to interpreting Scripture, at least in its moral and social aspects, Wallis has it all over Robertson and Falwell, and if he had his way, they would go the way of Jimmy Swaggart and Tammy Faye Bakker. But in adopting much of the language of Christian evangelicalism, Wallis brings along its problems. Its participation in politics has led the religious right to a position in which its politics have driven out its faith. God's Politics is proposing the same degradation for the left. For the left would certainly suffer a similar fate if it adopted the prophetic stance that Wallis urges.

Religion and politics have such a difficult time mixing because the uncompromising faith required for the one defies the brutal realism of the other. Wallis is in many ways a very worldly man, an active politician; he fills his book with letters and memos that he has written to the leading political figures of our times, and accounts of his meetings with very important people, and glimpses of his life on the road as he speaks across the country on a schedule that only a presidential candidate could love. This Jim Wallis is a policy wonk. He has positions on the war on terrorism, Millennium Development Goals, the future of the Gaza Strip, the global campaign against HIV/AIDS, and the proper role of the IMF and World Bank. His Jesus would need a staff of economists and planners to make his presence felt among us.

In another sense, though, Wallis does not seem to have a political bone in his body. "Many of the president's critics make the mistake of charging that his faith is insincere at best, a hypocrisy at worst, and most a cover for his right-wing agenda," he writes. "I don't doubt that George W. Bush's faith is sincere and deeply held." Well, I do: I can imagine no scenario in which the president dissuades Karl Rove from a political strategy because his religion forbids it.But what if it is? Bush is no victim of "bad theology," as Wallis informs his readers. He is a politician striving to achieve real-world objectives that would have devastating consequences for millions of people; and whatever religion he may have surely is secondary to that. I admire Jim Wallis the man of God for faith in all people, even the lamentable George W. Bush. I do not find Jim Wallis the political analyst particularly trustworthy about the struggle that it will take to stop Bushism and all that it represents.

The best example of Wallis's political myopia is his insistence that he has no political agenda. Religious values, he claims, are inclusive ones, and as a religious leader he does not want anyone to feel left out of the conversation. At various points in his book, Wallis even identifies himself as conservative, especially "on issues of personal responsibility, the sacredness of human life, the reality of evil in our world, and the critical importance of individual character, parenting, and strong 'family values.'" Yet as he goes through his list of what Jesus would do today, there can be no doubting that Wallis's heart leans left. "Of course, God is not a partisan; God is not a Republican or a Democrat," Wallis writes. But people are Republicans or Democrats, and if they were to vote for the agenda in which Wallis believes--a healthier environment, greater equality of incomes, a repudiation of foreign policy unilateralism, gay civil unions--they will be voting Democratic. No Republican activist would take seriously Wallis's claim to be above politics, and with good reason. Progressive beliefs are not made less progressive by claiming that they embody what God wants.

To position himself as nonpolitical, Wallis creates a dichotomy between the militant Christian right and those who belong to the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League. The latter--"secular fundamentalists," Wallis calls them--fail to appreciate religion's role in American history and "attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions." These people "make a fundamental mistake" by insisting "that the separation of church and state ought to mean the separation of faith from public life." God, in Wallis's account, may be personal, but he is never private.Our public life needs him because otherwise we would have no sense of the common good, no prophetic vision needed to realize it, and no individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. willing to hold us up to our highest ideals.(Leftists who invoke King on behalf of religious intervention in politics ought at least to remember that King was a close student of Reinhold Niebuhr, who, more than any other American theologian, warned of the dangers of too easy an identification of faith with power.)

One need not agree with the values of the ACLU and the ADL to find Wallis's dichotomy bizarre. Secular liberalism and religious fundamentalism do not have even remotely similar political or psychological dispositions. The former allows room for religion, including religious fundamentalism, if only in the private sphere; but the latter allows no room for liberalism, in the private or the public sphere. Wallis may be on the left, but like his fellow believers on the right, he is not much of a liberal. If there were legions of progressive Christians in the land willing to vote for his prophetic stance--I wish that there were--they would need the same protections of free expression, church-state separationism, and the right to organize that have sustained the religious right.

If God is a source of our common morality, he is not the only source. From him we derive lessons in the meaning of life, but we may do the same from moral philosophers, Founding Fathers, writers and artists, and even an occasional social scientist. We could use some more God talk, I think, in our public life, but we could also use a lot more history and reasoned argument. The advantage of the latter is that those who have used them have rarely tried to exclude anyone else from the conversation. I would not want to live in either a society composed solely of secular liberals or a society composed solely of religious fundamentalists, but at least the former lives and lets live.

"The best response to bad religion is better religion, not secularism," Wallis writes. That may be true of religion in the private sphere, in the soul; but from the standpoint of a pluralistic society, we are better off with bad religion than with theological single-mindedness. Affirmations of "God" or "the creator," platitudinous and "badly" religious as they may be, exclude fewer Americans than pledges to Jesus or the Prophet. "The best religion to counter the Religious Right," Wallis claims, "is prophetic faith--the religion of the prophets and, of course, Jesus." Count me out, because Jesus is not my God. When it comes to politics, Jim Wallis is on the other end of the spectrum from Jerry Falwell.When it comes to Jesus, they stand in the same corner.

IV.

Religion needs secularism to thrive. But it is also true that secular society needs religion to grow. This idea, which liberals do not like to hear, is made with exceptional clarity by Peter Dobkin Hall and Ronald F. Thiemann, two of the contributors to Taking Faith Seriously. Hall demonstrates how the important and now quite secular idea of moral agency--the belief that we are captains of our own fate--had its origin in the revolt against strict Calvinism led by preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight, and Lyman Beecher. The problem is easily stated. If we are all tainted with original sin, our salvation or our damnation is in the hands of a capricious God; we have no autonomy and, without it, our love of God is cheapened. It was a short step, in Hall's account, from this theological point to the development of the American voluntarism so celebrated by Tocqueville.

Searching for a role for human beings to play in the process of their own salvation, Beecher discovered the importance of voluntary associations, and the free air of the West (he moved to Cincinnati in 1832), and the notion of a common good. Although Hall does not say so, it nicely fits his story that Beecher's daughter would play such a vital role in exposing the this-worldly evils of slavery. "The historical record indicates that the proliferation of voluntary associations in nineteenth-century America involved groups whose theological convictions and religious practices led them to see secular civil society as the most promising arena for exercising moral agency," Hall concludes. Without its frequent religious awakenings, America would not have become a great secular nation.

Thiemann's focus is different. He is concerned with somewhat arcane developments within the world of Lutheran social service provision. Yet what he tells us puts to shame any simple notion that the religious and the secular constitute two different worlds. No doubt to the surprise of many a contemporary conservative Christian, Martin Luther did not believe that only Christians could carry out good works, or that doing so would be an essential step in their salvation. Good work, Luther told his flock, is good because it helps people, not because it proves the sincerity of a person's faith.Christians ought to be guided by the ideal of a vocation, but this is not in itself solely a religious duty to be carried out by the faithful for the faithful. Once launched into the world, Lutheran orphanages met the same problems of limited budgets, diverse clienteles, and staff professionalization as any other kind of organization; as Thiemann writes, "their missions became shaped more by the demands of external public demands than by a clearly stated internal theological rationale." The lesson for our times is plain: provide public funds for religiously motivated social services if you wish, but do not expect them to remain "religious" if you do. Religion is an excellent incubator for such secular ideals as the modern welfare state.

To the editors of Taking Faith Seriously, the mutual interdependence of the religious and the secular allows us to avoid the extremes of "faith-based boosterism" and "dogmatic secularism." (Yes, it is the same dichotomy perceived by Jim Wallis.) Were they to avoid this coarsening polarization, Americans could find common ground on some of the most contentious issues of the day. One example is offered by the debate over faith-based initiatives, Bush's proposal to allow religious organizations to play a greater role in social service provision. Religious boosters are mistaken, Bane, Coffin, and Higgins point out, when they insist that faith-based initiatives can replace the welfare state, for there are many sources of compassion, not just religious ones. At the same time, secularists are wrong to oppose faith-based initiatives for fear that they will become sectarian, since religious organizations have many purposes, not only salvational ones. Once we "adopt a stance of critical openness toward religion's place in public life," we can recognize that there is a middle ground out there. Secularists ought to extend rights of recognition to believers, and believers ought to understand that liberal pluralism includes a place for them.

Taking Faith Seriously offers a series of case studies designed to demonstrate that the always tricky and sometimes unsolvable puzzles posed by faith in a liberal democracy can best be addressed by appreciating the role that religion actually plays in concrete circumstances. The decision to look at specific cases was a good one; people who believe in different gods, as well as people who believe in none of them, are more likely to find common ground when they know one another personally than when they shout abstractions at one another over the airwaves or disagree with one another through their political leaders. Social science cannot tell us what is morally the right thing to do; but it can tell us what, practically speaking, from the standpoint of a compassionate democratic society, is the smart thing to do.

Some of the case studies are outstanding, such as Bane's analysis of the gap between Catholic teachings on the common good and the often dismally low rates of civil participation among ordinary Catholics, and Omar McRoberts's unflinching portrait of how difficult it can be for inner-city churches to evangelize the culture when the culture around them is crime-ridden and drug-drenched. But alas, the bulk of the material in Taking Faith Seriously either repeats research that has already been published or fails to address the issues raised by the editors. And the one contribution that forthrightly takes on the issue of religion in liberal democracy--Coffin's account of the way churches in Lexington, Massachusetts dealt with conflicts over homosexuality--is hardly reassuring.

Coffin's story is organized around a town forum that took place in October 2000 called "Respecting Differences:Creating Safer Schools and a More Inclusive Community for Gay and Lesbian People and Their Families." This was not the kind of title chosen to leave attendees in suspense over the outcome. Every word in the title screams liberalism, and indeed the forum was the brainchild of one of the town's Unitarian Universalist churches, First Parish, surely the most liberal congregation in this very liberal suburb. Still, Helen Cohen, First Parish's minister, believed that the forum could not be taken seriously unless evangelical Christians attended, and so she invited Chris Haydon, pastor of Trinity Covenant Church. Eventually nine religious leaders (as well as Representative Barney Frank) addressed the forum; Haydon was the only evangelical among them. Coffin does not offer many details on what actually took place at the forum, but he does say that "an open, respectful exchange developed" and that the discussion was characterized by "searching questions, personal experiences, moral convictions." The whole experience left Coffin persuaded that churches can play a role in "recognizing religious pluralism, disagreeing without dividing, and articulating democratic values of tolerance and mutual respect."

But a closer look at his case suggests a different conclusion. "While they tend to be affluent," Coffin writes, "Lexington's congregations mirror broader trends." This is simply not true. Lexington is not affluent, it is rich; its median housing price approaches seven figures. It is also a disproportionately academic town, its culture shaped by the fact that Massachusetts Avenue, which runs through Harvard, continues directly to Lexington, eight miles away.And its congregations do not mirror national trends at all. The fact that two rabbis and five mainline Protestant ministers addressed the October forum, with only one priest and one evangelical pastor, suggests just how far away Lexington stands from the increasingly megachurch-inspired American religious landscape. There may be an argument available to Coffin to suggest why his hometown offers an appropriate case study, but his failure to provide one--along with the fact that three of the four congregationally based case studies in Taking Faith Seriously use Boston as their focus--makes the reader worry about the generalizability of his findings.

Even more importantly, Coffin's own findings are not what he claims. Haydon, while an evangelical, is about as far from what is typical in American evangelicalism as it is possible to get. He is part of something called the Evangelical Covenant Church. Quoting from the denomination's description of itself, Coffin describes the ECC as having "roots in historic Christianity as it emerged in the Protestant Reformation, in the biblical instruction of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, and in the great spiritual awakenings of the nineteenth century." You would be surprised to discover, if you relied only on that description, that to Jim Wallis the ECC is "the most interesting church in America today," the very model of what a progressive evangelicalism would resemble. From Wallis we learn that this originally Swedish-inspired denomination is poised to grow among African Americans, and that "all the denomination's pastors now make a pilgrimage to many of the historic sites of the civil rights movement and to forgotten places of extreme hunger still present in America today." So you could not find an evangelical church in the United States more sympathetic to find common cause with Unitarians than this one. "Out of the Covenant's emerging multicultural identity is coming a powerful and prophetic commitment to social justice and peace," Wallis writes, playing music to a liberal's ear.

And astonishingly enough, even Lexington's Trinity Covenant Church was too conservative to find much common ground with the town's omnipresent liberals. Trinity did have an internal conflict over family values, but it had nothing to do with gay and lesbian inclusion, because, as Coffin writes, "Trinity's evangelical culture did not allow the matter of sexuality to be debated in terms of gay and lesbian inclusion." What divided Trinity Covenant Church was the question of whether the church could accept a couple who had children but were not married. (The congregation eventually refused to do so.)

On matters involving homosexuality across denominational lines, moreover, no agreements were reached in Lexington, because no discussions actually took place. The book's three editors, including Coffin, praise the fact that "liberal and conservative churches in Lexington were able to structure a civilized dialogue on an important public issue, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the community." In reality, however, Reverend Craydon, on his way to speak at the forum, had to walk past protesters holding signs saying "What Next?: Pedophiles in Our Schools?" and "Do Not Turn Your Back on God," and inside he heard Barney Frank speak in what Coffin describes as "adversarial, take-no-prisoners rhetoric," which "seemed to mirror the polemics outside." And even more damning to the cause of cross-denominational civility, it turns out that there were two forums on homosexuality in Lexington, not one. Five months after the October event, the town's conservative believers organized one of their own called "Respecting Differences, Part II: A Revolutionary Response to Kinsey-Based Sex Education and Culture." Two people spoke at that meeting, both of them African American. Not a single leader of any of Lexington's liberal congregations bothered to show up.

Social science is an unpredictable horse to ride; once you mount, you have to go where it takes you. Coffin may think that his "thick description" leads to a way to bring religion and politics closer together, but as I read his tale, there exist warnings aplenty to keep them apart. Unlike Lyman Beecher and other nineteenth-century clergymen, today's religious conservatives, even the prophetic sort so much admired by Jim Wallis, are not quite ready to participate in American civic life if doing so means losing their status as a self enclosed community unwilling to have its values challenged by the larger culture. More remarkably, even Beecher's direct descendants, today's mainline religious liberals, are more comfortable hanging out with people like themselves than treating the views of evangelicals as worthy of debate. If there is dogmatism in this tale, it comes not from the secularists, but from the Unitarians. (For a Christian rightist, of course, they are the same thing.)

In America's past, religion helped to create a society committed to secular liberalism, which in turned helped to spur the growth of religion. Today, if Lexington is any indication, conservative believers want nothing to do with secularism, and liberal religion's advocates are not especially liberal. Both need considerably more training in the need--no, the duty--to live together with people whose views are different from their own before politics and religion can help each other out.

V.

In the wake of John Kerry's defeat, Democrats have been pondering the question of whether they should engage in more God talk. Jim Wallis's book has become Exhibit A for the case that they should do so. And while the editors and the contributors to Taking Faith Seriously are not political activists, their message is one that clearly urges greater openness to religion on the part of liberal elites.

I agree with both books: there is no reason, save that of political martyrdom, for the Democratic Party to turn its back on people who not only believe in God but also look to him for guidance about the nature of the good society.Americans want leaders to protect them against foreign threats and to improve the economy, but they also want people who stand for values, and any party that does not respond to the latter as well as the former will be in the minority. But if Democrats seem unwilling to address questions of religious morality, it may not be a fear of faith that inhibits them but a fear of big ideas, even secular ones. They shy away from identifying with liberal and Enlightenment philosophy just as they do from Christian or any other kind of theology. Twenty million Christians have purchased a book that tells them--wrongly, in my view--that they need Christ to lead purpose-driven lives. But liberals rarely speak of purpose at all.

Moral agency, human dignity, freedom of thought and expression, respect for other ways of life, the right to organize:these are moral values, every one of them, and they have all emerged out of the combination of secularly liberal principle and evangelically inspired faith that have mixed together so well throughout American history. That they have stopped mixing in contemporary America is no reason to ignore them. Quite the contrary. The United States now more than ever needs constant reminders of the benefits that liberalism offers to faith--not just, or even especially, to liberal faith. If religious rightists are unwilling to make the case for liberty that enabled Baptist and other conservative churches to grow, let the case be picked up by liberal secularists who, in defending the rights of non-believers, will also protect those who worship in their own way. Our conservative president speaks of the need to protect and to expand freedom, including religious freedom, abroad. It is time for the liberal opposition to make an equally strong case for the same objectives at home.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.

 

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