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Illustration by Cynthia von Buhler

The surprising return of religion to the center of public discourse in American politics has caught many people off guard. Religiosity, the appearance of religion without its substance or consequence, has long been accepted as a part of the national culture: signs of the cross on the field at the Super Bowl, prayers at the Rotary Club and at presidential inaugurals, Billy Graham as cultural high priest, and "God bless America" at the end of every politician's speech. These all seem as inevitable--and as harmless--as my prayers and the appearance of the sheriff of Middlesex County at Harvard's Commencement. But when a significant portion of the voting public is seen to be motivated not simply by these forms of cultural religion, but by the substance of religious conviction-motivated enough to vote on the basis of those convictions-then that begins to make many people nervous. Not only do people of faith take their civic responsibilities seriously because of their faith, but because they do, they must increasingly be taken seriously by those who covet power in the land.

This has produced what many call a "third force" in American politics, a politics that is neither necessarily Republican nor Democrat, nor defined by the antipolitics that animates those who look to Ross Perot. This third force is none of the above, but intends to affect all of the above. It is the politics of these Christian convictions, driven by a desire for power, a sense of deep cultural alienation, and a determination to recapture a lost ideal. Out of the ruins of the late Moral Majority, the scandals of televangelism, and the defeat of Pat Robertson's presidential ambitions in 1988 have arisen, phoenix-like, the Christian Coalition and the hopes and fears of the so-called "religious right."

Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's telegenic executive director, does not like the term "religious right." He regards it as a cultural put-down by the elite chattering classes, who are eager to demonize what Reed calls the "pro-family" movement by associating it with hillbilly preachers, Scopes-trial-era fundamentalists, and Jerry Falwell's defunct Moral Majority. The term itself hardly does justice to the varieties of political and religious opinions and styles now at work in the land.

To many of those who make opinion in America today, the rise of a self-consciously religious political movement with savvy and clout is the same nightmare that brought us Prohibition and sustained racial segregation, and now promises an Islamic-like revolution of the fundamentalists. But Reed sees it differently, at least on this side of the election. In his new book, Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics, he writes, "What most conservative religious folk want is not to use government to impose their values on others, but to shrink and delimit government so that the left can no longer impose its secular values on churches and families." In this form of "liberation theology," people who are conservative in both politics and piety would be freed from the tyranny of the secular left (with its hostility to religion and indifference to piety), and free to develop a Christian culture that is not inhibited by the state.

Frustrations denied become the fuel of an embittered politics. Our present cultural discontents are in some measure a direct result of the secular culture's denial of the legitimacy of religiously motivated conduct and conviction. The maintenance of what Stephen Carter has called a "culture of disbelief" has pushed religion to the margins, where it is tolerated only as a private enterprise, a hobby, an avocation. I discovered this for myself last summer when presiding at a naturalization ceremony that was part of the celebration of the 375th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. There we were within eyesight of Plymouth Rock on a splendid Sunday afternoon, with Mr. Justice Souter about to swear in 102 new Americans-the same number as once arrived on the Mayflower a few hundred yards away. I was presiding, not as a clergyman but as the president of the Pilgrim Society, but the instructions given me from the federal district court in Boston included the unequivocal statement that there was to be no mention of God. In light of this stern inhibition, it was deliciously ironic to note that nearly every new citizen sworn in that day concluded his or her brief but heartfelt word of greeting to the large assembly with the words "God bless America," in more than a dozen accents.


Within the Christian Coalition are groups adamantly opposed to abortion, homosexual civil rights, and the United Nations. Many are in favor of "creation-science" as an alternative to the theory of evolution; seek some kind of constitutional amendment that permits prayer in the public schools; and want government vouchers for private education. Nearly everyone in the Christian Coalition agrees that the coarsening of our culture-through pornography, sexual violence, and the demise of the traditional nuclear family-comprises the greatest threat to our civilization. Their agenda is clear, and they now have the resources to put that agenda before the American people. They are organized, ambitious, and filled with a zeal that contrasts sharply with the tired-out politics and issues of the major parties. They are at war with the powers that be, and with the culture, that have for so long denied them and the legitimacy of their aspirations.

Although the issues that unite the coalition are among the most divisive in America's public discourse, it is paranoia more than a policy that defines much of the religious right and from which it derives so much of its energy. When Richard Hofstadter wrote his classic essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in 1964, he was responding to a renewed political and secular conservatism made incarnate in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater and the anathematizing of the liberal elements in the Republican party represented by Nelson Rockefeller. Drawing on Daniel Bell's essay, "The Dispossessed," Hofstadter pointed out that the then-contemporary radical right suffered from an acute sense of dispossession: "America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals." Conspiracy theories abound, he continued: in the old days, the subversion was foreign-Bolsheviks and anarchists in the 1920s, socialists and communists in the 1950s; now the threat is domestic. "History," wrote Hofstadter, "is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms."

In 1964 the apocalypse lost to the pragmatic Lyndon Johnson. In 1996, after a long period in the wilderness, and within sight of the millennium, the radical right, clothed in the righteous garments of religion, feels that its time has come. Already, this movement has confounded at least one basic axiom of American politics: a secular enterprise has been transformed into a religious one and thereby has gained, rather than lost, power to influence the course of events. It is difficult to recall a similar transformation in American political and religious life.

In this struggle not simply for the mind and heart of the country, but for its soul as well, it is the combination of religious zeal and political competence that worries many. But ironically, there is no monopoly on paranoia today. A second strain of Hofstadter's "paranoid style" manifests itself in the reaction of the secular establishment that sees in every invocation of values and virtue a conspiracy to erect a theocracy under the guise of a democracy, that interprets the current religious politics as a meanspirited xenophobic individualism designed to trash diversity, the weak, and the common weal. The political rantings of California's Congressman Robert Dornan, the call to jihad of Pat Buchanan, and some of the loopy millennialism of Pat Robertson certainly encourage these anxieties; so does the more artful dodging of Ralph Reed, the expedient mastermind of the Christian Coalition's increasing political presence.


But we should remember that this struggle for the soul of America is as old as it is inevitable, and is certainly worth engaging in. By no means will the so-called religious right have things all its own way. All special interests, including Christian ones, have to fight it out in the court of public opinion and under the rule of law.

So, strange as it may seem, I am grateful to the Christian Coalition and its predecessors for insisting that religious values, not just religious symbols, be restored to the center of our cultural and political discourse. These religious groups have not only filled a values vacuum created by the self-indulgent and coarsening materialism of the last 30 years. They have also provided the political means for civic virtue to be debated along the wide spectrum of religious belief in the United States.

Many of their solutions are not mine. But their conviction that politics is an expression of religion, and that religion has a rightful, legitimate place at the center of our culture, is as old as John Winthrop, as vital as Martin Luther King Jr., and finds no dissenter in me. Ham-fisted as this movement called the religious right has often been, and irritating as its moral arrogance often is, conservative evangelicals are responding--as few others have as yet--to what the secular poet Robert Larkin once called "A hungerto be more serious," a hunger that in our shopworn, seedy culture has reached the proportions of famine. How ought men and women in search of the virtuous life and a culture that celebrates the classical trinity of the true, the good, and the beautiful to proceed in a culture that knows how to make a living, but not a life worth living? Surely not by depriving the common good of those religious values and convictions that have served well both the republic and the people of faith who live in it.

There is no piety sufficient or durable enough that will for long protect bad ideas from the consequences of appropriate, rigorous public scrutiny. What the resurgence of conservative religious activism requires is nothing less than a redefinition of the nature of civic virtue and the role within it of religious convictions. Those who have made of politics their religion will be increasingly uneasy with those whose religion is not content to serve the lesser god of politics. And those whose religion is so heavenly pure that it is of no earthly good will soon discover that somebody else has filled the spiritual vacuum.

Either out of fear or emulation, those of us who do not share the particular agenda or style of the so-called religious right are necessarily obliged for our own sake-as well as that of the culture-to ask again the great questions "What is good?" and "How do we act upon it?" The bankruptcy of secularism has forced the questions out of the closet, and religious conservatives have given them a new and strident urgency.

They have asked the right questions, but we dare not be content with their answers. The spiritual values of the republic and their relation to citizenship are too important to be left to the special interests of religious partisans. What is needed, then, is a religious education, for that is how Alfred North Whitehead described the kind of education that ought to occur in a place like Harvard: "The essence of education is that it be religious. A religious education is an education that incorporates duty and reverence. Education is instruction in the art of life." It is not too late to recover that sense of education, and the future life of the republic, religious and political, may depend upon our doing so.


The Reverend Peter J. Gomes, B.D. '68, is Plummer professor of Christian morals and minister in the Memorial Church. He is the author of the forthcoming The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.

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