The Long View: Active Faith

This one is now eighteen years old, but it has only gotten more pertinent, as American politics fossilizes into the Late Republican phase. We find ourselves doing the same things over and over, because there really are no other options left. This is what is meant by the End of History, not the ceasing of events and intrigue, but a limitation of the possible. By way of example, read John's concluding paragraph, and tell me whether this is an apt description of the Tea Party:

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.

It will be interesting to see how the election of Pope Francis changes the landscape of Catholicism in America. With John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we had over thirty years of politically conservative papacy. Francis is definitely a man of the Left, although nearly everyone forgets he is also completely orthodox. If you want a vision of what a politically engaged Catholicism might engender, post-WWII Europe is an excellent example. France, Germany, and Italy all implemented something very much like Christendom reborn. It all went off the rails seventy years later, but no one can expect any political program to have a shelf-life better than that.

Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics

by Ralph Reed

The Free Press, 1996
$25.00, 311 pp.
ISBN: 0-684-82758-1

All Dressed Up and No Place To Go

 

It is not Ralph Reed's fault that he looks like Antichrist to some people. Sure he has slicked-back black hair and unnaturally perfect teeth. Sure at 35 years of age he has the sort of perpetual adolescent appearance that gets police detectives assigned to work undercover at high schools. Sure he has an unfortunate predilection for having his picture taken back-lit (as the jacket of this book illustrates). None of this is evidence of dark ambition or bad character. It is the press, ignorant of religion and terrified of resurgent cultural traditionalism, that has made this very sharp Executive Director of the Christian Coalition into the face of liberalism's nightmare. The fact that he and his organization are, usually, punctiliously reasonable only makes them the more threatening.

People looking for strange opinions in "Active Faith," such as those that so richly inform the books of Reed's mentor, Pat Robertson, are likely to be disappointed. Judging by this memoir, he is a prosaic, perceptive man. A doctor's son, raised as a conventional Methodist in the New South, he has been a Young Republican since high school. He was the sort of student who interns with the state legislature and who works on political campaigns for the sake of working on political campaigns. In early adulthood, his faith became evangelical, a matter he disposes of in a few sentences. After a brief stint in Reagan's Washington, he went on to acquire a Ph.D. in American history from Emory University. (Are history doctorates now to play the role in political life that law degrees once did?) We learn a great deal about his views on how today's Christian politics fits into America's tradition of political reform sparked by religious revival. By his own account, it was just as he was finishing his doctoral thesis in 1989 that he got the call from Pat Robertson about becoming director of a new Christian lay organization whose creation Robertson was considering. The rest is history.

Reed takes up a lot of space explaining what the Christian Coalition is not, sometimes to rather disingenuous effect. Thus, we are repeatedly assured that the Coalition is not a partisan political organization dedicated to the promotion of Republican candidates. Those candidate information summaries they hand out at churches across America just before election day are merely objective accounts of the candidates' positions on issues important to people of faith. Oh, the things people will say to keep their tax deductions. Since I don't believe the National Conference of Catholic Bishops when they make similarly coy claims about their peace-and-justice activities, I don't see why I should find the Christian Coalition's far more blatant politicking any less political. Rather more plausibly, he insists that the Coalition is not a front for white racists. Indeed, for political reasons if nothing else, he fervently desires the expansion of the Coalition to include more black churches, more evangelical Hispanics, more of all those who still cling to the disintegrating raft of the New Deal's "majority of minorities." Perhaps the stereotype he rejects most convincing is the conventional wisdom (found not only in the liberal press) that the Coalition consists of the "poor, the ignorant, and the easily led." In reality, as Reed is at pains to instruct us, his membership tends to be richer and better-educated than the population as a whole. (It is also somewhat older and more female.) As events of the past few years have demonstrated, those who assume that the Christian Coalition is simply the nation's white trash in arms will suffer unpleasant surprises.

The most important thing that the Christian Coalition is not is the Moral Majority. "Active Faith" gives you as lucid an account as you are likely to find of how the rise of evangelical participation in American politics, marked in the 1970s by the election of the genuinely pious Jimmy Carter to the presidency, stumbled badly during the Reagan years. The Christian Coalition is one form that the recovery from that stumble took. Culturally conservative Christians have learned from their mistakes. One suspects that they are in for the long haul. What they lack, however, is what their critics are most afraid of: judging by this book, the Christian Coalition has no real plan for the future, nor any idea how to develop one.

Evangelicals faced two problems when their resurgence began in the aftermath of the cultural chaos of the 1960s. The first was purely practical. They had withdrawn from politics for most of this century, particularly on the national level. Politics was tainted, worldly. While it might be morally permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, to actually enter his service was to risk criminal conviction in this world and damnation in the next. Evangelicals could and did run for office, of course, but not for he most part on peculiarly evangelical platforms or with the help of self-consciously evangelical organizations. Thus, there was no effective organizational mechanism for representing this important sector of the American people.

The South, where they were demographically strongest, was traditionally Democratic. The Democratic Party therefore would have been the logical vehicle for the evangelicals, as it had been at the beginning of the century, in the days of William Jennings Bryan. However, while the Democratic Party had never lost the moralistic tone which it acquired in the days of the Social Gospel and the Populists, the content of its worldview had proven to be extremely malleable. In Prohibition days the party was Progressive, during the New Deal it was Social Democrat, during the first half of the Cold War it was the supply train for the great anticommunist Crusade. By the time the evangelicals had need of it, however, it was firmly in the grip of the cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s. That left the Republicans, who had no idea what they were in for.

The Republican Party had grown from the Abolitionist movement, one of the social reform movements that owed their impetus to the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s. As is often with case with successful crusaders after the crusade, by the turn of the century the party had lost it moral fervor and become a party of economic interests. It frowned on the enthusiasms of Bryan and his native Populists and on the largely immigrant labor movement, both of which had so much to do with the making of the Democratic Party in this century. Under the inspiration of people like Theodore Roosevelt, it did give some play to the muscular Christianity of the Social Gospel, but this tradition within the party tended to become more and more attenuated with the passage of time. Thus, by the time of the final insult of Goldwater's defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party really did not have many ideas of its own about social or cultural issues.

What the Republican Party did have was a great need for new members. Therefore, when evangelicals and some conservative Catholics began drifting into the party as the Democrats became stranger and stranger, the newcomers were more than welcome. After all, in the beginning, they did not act as a self-conscious faction within the party. All you had to do to win their support was buy them off with a few token phrases about the defense of the traditional family and opposition to abortion. They rarely showed up at meetings, but they would vote Republican like clockwork, at least for president. Poor, ignorant and easily led, so the party's traditional leaders thought, they made the perfect electoral cannon fodder for high-visibility races.

The problem with this strategy was that it succeeded. When Ronald Reagan was elected Emperor of the Last Days in 1980, his devoted followers among the cultural conservatives thought they were owed something. Jobs in the new administration would have been nice, but more than cursory attention to their agenda would have been better. As it happened, they got nearly nothing. Reagan would not even address the annual anti-abortion rallies in Washington in person. They had not just been slighted, they had been deprived of access to the only political institutions they could consider using. They therefore began to build their own institutions. At first, they did this badly.

Evangelicals and conservative Catholics had no permanent local political organizations. Politics for them was largely something that happened on television. Thus, while they might be important for presidential politics, they were much less important in deciding who sat in Congress or on local school boards. (Most important, they had little say about who would be nominated to run.) There are two general strategies for mobilizing an inchoate voting block, a "rally" strategy or a "grassroots" strategy. The first is a strategy of mailing lists and television. It is the sort of politics for which the term "hot button" was coined, meaning any issue that is certain to attract the attention of easily defined constituencies and, hopefully, provoke them to donate money. A "grassroots" strategy sounds like it should be something homey and neighborly, but in fact it simply means political organization as it has been traditionally understood. It means building permanent local organizations of volunteer workers and precinct captains, people who may pay regular dues but who, much more importantly, can be counted on to donate some of their own labor to a campaign. It has long been known that the best way to maintain such an organization is as a collateral activity of some other institution. Labor unions are very good frames to hang a political party on. The Christian Coalition would eventually show that local churches are, too.

Before the evangelicals proved the power of organized religion in politics, however, they first tried a rally strategy. This is what the Moral Majority organization was all about. It was certainly conspicuous enough. The press loved it, like vampires love young women who neglect to wear crucifixes around their necks. It lived and died by its own knack for publicity. It was a remarkably clerical organization: at one point, all but one of its board of directors were ordained ministers. Since the televangelists of the 1980s could claim an audience in the tens of millions, ignorant reporters translated these figures into millions of political followers. The problem with the Moral Majority was that there was really nothing to it. Being a member simply required writing a check, so it had little control over what the prominent people associated with it did. More to the point, it had no troops on the ground. After a while even reporters began to notice that the only actual representative of the Moral Majority in a state where it claimed hundreds of thousands of members might be a single pastor with no staff. It was not a "majority" by any reasonable construction of the word. Then the garish downfalls of the great '80s television preachers amidst charges of embezzlement and sexual scandal suggested that it wasn't particularly moral, either. By the end of the Reagan Administration, it appeared that the era of the evangelical in politics was over.

The Reverend Pat Robertson thought otherwise. His experience during his run for the presidency in 1988 gave him some notion of what actual politics was like. If he conceived the "long march" of the Christian Coalition by himself, then he must be a very smart man indeed. But even if, as Reed suggests, Robertson was at first uncertain about whether to continue with the rally strategy or try the grassroots method, then he at least deserves credit for continuing to support what at first must have seemed like a doubtful enterprise. He is also, perhaps, to be given credit for having the good sense to limit his public association with the Coalition as much as possible. Everyone knows, of course, that Robertson provided the inspiration and backing to get the Coalition off the ground. Indeed, Reed began work in a warehouse amidst the old posters, office furniture and mailing lists of Robertson's 1988 campaign. However, the Coalition was never just a branch of Robertson's ministry, nor indeed a particularly clerical organization at all. Its board of directors, says Reed, contains only a single ordained minister. I do not think it is being cynical to suspect that Reed is exaggerating the independence of the Coalition from Reverend Robertson. Nevertheless, the Coalition has benefited immensely from not being structured as a preacher's fan club.

Unlike the Moral Majority, its has a professional lobbying presence in Washington that does not go away. This means that it can exert pressure, not just on the sort of hot button issues that were sometimes manufactured in the past to keep evangelicals placated, but on day-to-day legislation affecting welfare and education, or for that matter on things like telecommunications reform, which might seem to be peripheral to the Coalition's concerns. Even more important, legislators hear about the Coalition's positions not just from lobbyists, but from their own constituents. The Coalition is adept at organizing letter-writing and telephone call-in campaigns, as well as delivering live bodies to party caucuses and other meetings.

In some ways, the most interesting successes of the Coalition have not been in Washington or national politics, but in their ability to win races at the local level. Their special forte has been school board elections. They do not, perhaps, win quite so many of these as the consternation they cause among liberals may suggest. Still, they everywhere have served the function of slowing the advance of multiculturalism into the primary grades. Local party organizations in the United States have come to be notoriously skeletal affairs, easily dominated by small groups of enthusiasts. Since the 1960s, the enthusiasts have mostly been on the Left, and have turned their attention to the Democratic Party. With the Christian Coalition, we see the beginning of a similar process on the Right with the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition makes no claims to be a "majority" (it has 1.7 million members). An well-organized minority is important enough. There is nothing about its demographics which suggests that it could become the dominant force in American politics. Nevertheless, it is seven years old and a force that must be reckoned with. One can easily imagine it and organizations like it becoming as important as the unions were in their heyday. The problem with this picture, however, is that the unions knew more or less what they wanted. Because they had some vision of how society as a whole should work, they were able to advance beyond their original concern with wages and hours to present coherent policies on everything from foreign affairs to the structure of the health care system. The Christian Coalition, as Reed himself recognizes, is in contrast characterized mostly by what it is against.

The failing is fundamental, indeed theological. The fact is that evangelicals have no coherent political theory in their tradition. American evangelicalism is without a theory of natural law, or even of good government. Reed calls his agenda the "pro-family" agenda, a characterization that I doubt many people find informative. Certainly it is an extraordinarily pale allusion to the ancient certainties that an organization purporting to represent Christianity in politics should have. Evangelicals have a foggy premise that government must be bad because the world is bad. They then reach the equally foggy conclusion that the best government is the least government. Thus, they manifest an inordinate preference for gum-up-the-works amendments to the Constitution, such as the proposals for limiting the number of terms legislators may serve and requiring super-majorities to increase not just tax rates, but government revenues. To Reed's evident discomfort, they are without a clue about foreign policy, except for the premises that foreigners are wicked and international organizations are wickeder. They are, of course, consistently in favor of support for Israel, but the Middle East is fast becoming a backwater as the focus of world history shifts eastward.

Liberation theologians like to say that they are formulating a theology "from below," giving revolutionary voice to the voiceless masses. American evangelical political theory, such as it is, really is "from below." It has been formulated by people who have never thought of themselves as rulers and, consequently, have no idea how to rule. It is not enough.

The Catholic Alliance is perhaps the most daring of all Pat Robertson's innovations. It was designed to provide a political home for culturally conservative Catholics. The fact that the Alliance has been as successful as it has is probably the fault of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. While the bishops themselves are for the most part faithful and intelligent men, their national organization is served by the sort of fatuous liberal bureaucracy that has done so much to destroy the mainline Protestant denominations. The bureaucrats can tolerate, because they must, the traditional Catholic opposition to abortion and euthanasia, but they seek without respite to submerge these things in a popular front agenda that is otherwise indistinguishable from that of the most reactionary-left elements of the Democratic Party. Like the evangelicals, culturally conservative Catholics have turned to the Republican Party and its collateral organizations for lack of a hospitable alternative.

Reed shows a certain predilection for aspects of Catholic social theory. He admires the ability of educated Catholics to frame moral issues in terms of natural law. He quotes Pius XI on the need for limited government. Like most people interested in devolving functions from a central government, he is intrigued by the notion of subsidiarity. However, the fact is that Catholic statecraft and evangelical political theory cannot survive in alliance indefinitely. Catholic theory does not look on government as an unavoidable evil, but as a divine institution, the means whereby we achieve collectively that good which we could not achieve as private individuals. It is democratic, in the sense that it requires rulers to rule with the consent of the government, but it is not egalitarian. It does not find hierarchy suspect, whether based on learning or birth. It never quite came to terms with market economics.

If given its head, Catholic social theory will restructure society as did the great Catholic post-war statesmen of Europe. Adenauer in Germany, de Gasperi in Italy, and later de Gaulle in France, all created "christian democratic" regimes that worked spectacularly well for several decades, which I suppose is all that you can ask of any political philosophy. They produced what were in essence moralistic welfare states, which proved far more successful than the secular-left welfare state being built by the Labor Party in Great Britain at the same time. These states were friendly to religion, breathtakingly solicitous of families by American standards, and even good for business unless you wanted to start your own company. Doubtless they were doomed by the excessive faith of their creators in the ability of the state to control the economy for the common good, but there was nevertheless a great deal to be said for them. Still, I do not think they are what the Christian Coalition has in mind.

Perhaps America will do better. The Christian Coalition, in alliance with like-minded organizations, might be the template for a future Christian Democratic Party of America (which might, of course, be called the Republican Party). American Christian Democracy would, one hopes, have a clearer understanding than its European predecessors that wealth is easier to redistribute than to create. It would also, I trust, avoid the European mistake of supporting churches so much that they no longer have to worry about maintaining an active membership. Naturally, American Christian Democracy would also have to recreate a legal structure consistent with human life as we known it.

If this is to happen, there will be a great deal for people on the right to reassess. They will have to learn that the way to control crime is not harsher laws but more and better police. They must be wakened from the fantasy that local government is necessarily good government. They must undertake the arduous study needed to understand that the security of the United States is determined by the state of the world. Before any of this is possible, of course, there is one lesson in statecraft they must learn: On coming to power, the first you do is not close down the government.

 



This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. For more information, please click on the following line:
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly


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