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An imperfect polemic.

Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (Warner Books, 2007, 224pp) 9780446577154, $24.99

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND characterizes her book Failing America's Faithful as a "reveille" in which she seeks describe the appropriate role of religious values in contemporary American politics, analyze why religious leaders have fallen so far short of the authentic role of faith-based political discourse, and encourage people of faith in the United States to restore religion to its proper place in public life.


Townsend is a familiar figure to political activists in the United States. She is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives and for governor of Maryland, and served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration. She is also the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. As such, she has a close familial connection with some of the most prominent Catholic public officials in American history. This book is replete with insights gathered at the knee of "my father," or learned from the actions of "Uncle John." Although acknowledging that her ancestors had flaws, Townsend suggests that the Kennedy family has embodied an authentically Catholic (or more generally Christian) approach to American public policy.

What is that approach? For Townsend, it is the familiar "social Gospel" mission of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and ministering to the sick. Townsend suggests that, in its Golden Age in the early and mid-20th century, the American Catholic church distinguished itself by its charitable activities, which form a social justice agenda for contemporary American Catholics. Townsend discerns corresponding themes in American Protestantism: protest and the possibility of revolution, spiritual equality among all people, and human perfectibility. Thus, an authentic Christianity in the contemporary United States involves an ethic of "other-directedness," in which we are, like the Good Samaritan, charged to help one another.

Townsend's book is an attempt to recover the political viability of the Christian left after its eclipse in the late 20th and early 21st century. According to Townsend, the religious component of the political right became obsessed with personal morality (what my colleague David Leege has termed "pelvic politics"), placing an undue emphasis on gay rights and abortion. Correspondingly, the political left became increasingly secularized, and concerned about maintaining what Townsend regards as an excessively stringent separation of church and state.

THE COSTS OF THESE TRANSFORMATIONS have been substantial. According to Townsend, the religious right has been co-opted by the Republican Party and its leaders driven to take conservative positions on issues such as tax cuts and the environment. Townsend suggests that the scriptural basis for lower taxes and reduced benefits for the poor, of for skepticism about environmental regulation, is tenuous at best, and that a more complete understanding of Christian doctrine would in fact lead to the opposite conclusion. Similarly, the decoupling of progressive policy positions on the environment, health care, and assistance to the poor from their religious roots has stripped liberalism of its moral basis and made it difficult to persuade citizens of the desirability of liberal programs.

These transformations took place, according to Townsend, as the result of "identity politics." Townsend suggests that the Christian right arose largely as a negative reaction to the civil rights movement, while the Catholic church's excessive emphasis on abortion is the result of the Catholic hierarchy's misogyny and desire to keep women in subordinate positions.

It is with the last set of assertions that I take most serious issue. Townsend's book works well as a polemic and an exhortation to Christian progressives to "get back into the game." It makes a nice companion to Jim Wallis' recent God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It; Townsend cites several of Wallis' books, and is generous in giving Wallis credit for many of her ideas. Further, Townsend's description of the co-optation of the religious right and the abandonment of the public sphere by the religious left is simple, satisfying and plausible. However, her explanations for these trends strike me as simplistic, potentially ad hominem and of questionable accuracy.

Townsend is clearly correct when she notes that the church's position that life begins at conception is of relatively recent origin. However, the question of the humanity of the fetus is a complex, important, and fascinating one, with all sorts of ramifications. It does little to advance the debate to reduce Catholic opposition to abortion to misogyny, or to question, if only by implication, the intellectual honesty of those church leaders with whom Townsend disagrees. Similarly, my research has suggested that racial attitudes are poor predictors of support for the Christian right. Although the civil rights movement may have provided a template for the political mobilization of the religious right and the impetus for political action on the part of some previously apolitical citizens, it does not follow that the Christian right represents a negative reaction to demands for racial equality. One can easily imagine devout people of faith being shocked and mobilized by visible drug use, sexual promiscuity and public demonstrations against the Vietnam War without reference to racial politics. Again, it serves no useful purpose to oversimplify the roots of a very complex social movement.

Failing America's Faithful is not, and does not pretend to be, a work of dispassionate scholarship. Rather, it is a polemic and a work of propaganda, in the best sense of those terms. This work is an acutely perceptive description of the current state of religious politics in the United States, as well as an inspiring call to action to those of us who occupy the political left. It does not detract from the value of this book to note that the explanations offered for our current condition are less than complete.

By Ted G. Jelen, Ph.D.

TED JELEN is a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His main research interests are public opinion, religion and politics, feminism, and the politics of abortion. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and serves as associate editor of Social Science Quarterly, Women and Politics, and the Review of Religious Research. He is the author and editor of several books, including To Serve God and Mammon: Church-State Relations in the United States (Westview, 2000).
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Author:Jelen, Ted G.
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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