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What the religious right can teach the New Democrats: extremists aside, America's evangelicals have a message we all need to hear.

Sneering at the Religious Right of his day--Tennessee Holy Rollers who campaigned to ban the teaching of evolution in the 1920s--H. L. Mencken famously called evangelical Christianity "a childish theology" "rounded upon hate" for "half-wits," "morons," "rustic ignoramuses," and "yokels from the hills." And that was just for starters.

In March, when Michael Frederick Griffin, a prolife activist, murdered a physician behind a Florida abortion clinic--try to reconstruct the logic of that--he could have walked straight out of Mencken's acidic dispatches from the Scopes Trial. A barbaric act, informed by twisted religious fervor: Griffin is the stereotypical Religious Right adherent brought to life. I happened to grow up near the Tennessee hills that Mencken skewered, but I'm neither an evangelical nor a fundamentalist; at best, I'm a desultory Episcopalian. And although I'm quick to roll my eyes at Tammy Faye Bakker and would never vote for Pat Robertson, the evangelicals I knew--Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, a few Roman Catholics--weren't exotic yokels or extremists. They were ordinary people, no different from anybody else except when religion came up.

In those moments, evangelicals would show theft colors and speak quite seriously of how they enjoyed "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." And if politics came up, they were generally, but not fanatically, Republican. There was nothing crazy about these people, nothing that suggested apocalyptic inclinations or theocratic ambitions. If anything, they were annoyingly nice, not threatening.

But the mainstream has so thoroughly accepted the Menckenite version of conservative Christianity that the Griffms of the world are taken to be the rule, not the exception. It's a caricature that's alive and flourishing even outside the usual liberal oped suspects: After all, it's not news when Anthony Lewis snipes at the Religious Right. These days, the caricature is more widespread than that. In a Washington Post news story about evangelical opposition to President Clinton's lifting the ban on gays in the military, reporter Michael Weisskopf tossed off an unattributed generalization that had none of Mencken's flair but all of his prejudice: He called followers of Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Co. "poor, uneducated, and easy to command."

When asked about his source, Weisskopf explained that though he had talked with several experts about the Religious Right, "I try not to have to attribute every point in the story if it appears to be universally accepted. You don't have to say, 'It's hot out, according to the weatherman."' The assumption is that you no more need an authority to tell you the Religious Right is witless than you need a weatherman to tell you a hot day is hot. Everyone, Weisskopf implies, knows these folks dwell at the bottom of the social and political food chains.

Such dismissive cultural assumptions, ill-rounded and blithely propagated, are keeping liberals, moderates, and even conservatives from realizing what the millions-strong movement is actually right about. Look past the obsession with homosexuals and abortion-what we might call pelvic sins--and there's a fairly sensible cultural vision and a not unreasonable policy agenda that's as neoliberal as it is fundamentalist.

Take crime, for example. Noting the backbreaking costs of large prisons, the National Association of Evangelicals suggests punishing nonviolent offenders through community service and restitution--an idea rooted in biblical law and neoliberal gospel. Democrats like Clinton and Sam Nunn have been working on this for years. In Georgia, first-time, nonviolent drug offenders are sent to boot camps for structured rehabilitation, an approach Clinton wants to make national. It's hard to argue, believer or atheist, that calisthenics, strict discipline, and stem sermons cloaked in the vocabulary of "self-esteem" wouldn't do malefactors some good.

Where the Religious Right is really fight, however, is on family issues. Discourage teen pregnancy, welfare dependency, and divorce? Force deadbeat dads to pay up? Make schools instill values? Encourage community service? These are Religious Right favorites--old-time moral causes that are now progressive causes.

Clinton and AI Gore, two Southern Baptists, campaigned as traditionalists. William Galston, who is now deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, defined traditionalism this way in 1991: "We cannot be indifferent to fundamental (and decidable) questions of fight and wrong, and we violate no one's rights by putting public authority in the service of what is fight." So, if the New Democrats have already picked up on these themes, why should anyone care about the Religious Right? Because the Right is far more comfortable with the conversation about families, hard work, and responsibility than the Democrats are. And where the Religious Right has the fight ideas, the neoliberals have the fight plan. Pursuing those plans in the face of an establishment with Mencken's reservations about religion will be difficult. Whenever the president feels reluctant to do moral battle, he ought to draw on both gospels--political and evangelical.

Take a right

There's a world of cultural baggage to conquer first. For years, the establishment has feared the Religious Right. The most recent terror began with the Moral Majority's rise with Reagan in 1980--a phenomenon that led the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) to declare that the movement had the "potential for [the] destruction of our political, religious, and legal institutions."

Here's a sketch of the people everybody's so hot about. Evangelicals--about 35 million Americans-believe that they have a personal, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ; that the Bible is the strict word of God; and that they have an obligation to share the "good news" of the gospel.

Across the board, 38 percent of Americans say they are born again or evangelical Christians, and 87 percent say religion is either very important or fairly important in their lives, according to Gallup Religious Research. The values that the Right holds dear--patriotism, integrity, traditional definitions of familial and sexual roles--are essentially the mainstream values of the thirties and forties and firties. They're the values that won World War II. The worst that can be said of the Religious Right is that it's dramatically out of step--not out of its mind.

In this sense, the Religious Right does not include the snakehandlers of southern Appalachia or truly extreme figures like David Koresh, the Waco, Texas, cult leader--the "Wacko of Waco," as he's come to be called. It is, instead, made up of those evangelicals who take anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and antifeminist positions on political questions. Not all are Protestants, of course: Some Catholics, most notably Patrick Buchanan, are allies. There are five million Religious Right activists: people who campaign, donate money, contact public officials, or attend political meetings. And while these activists are slightly less well-educated and well-off than non*evangelical political activists--a group that could include NARAL activists, for instance--the differences are hardly of, well, biblical proportions.

According to a 1992 University of Akron Survey Research Center poll, 17 percent of Christian activists had postgraduate degrees, compared to 15 percent for non-evangelical activists. While that's probably due to the number of ministers in the Religious Right's ranks, a more realistic picture emerges from other statistics. Nineteen percent of the Religious Right's activists are college graduates, compared to 24 percent of non-evangelical activists. And while 30 percent of non-evangelical activists didn't go beyond high school, 39 percent of Religious Right activists didn't make it that far. But "uneducated"? Doesn't look like it.

Financially, it's hard to say which of the activist camps does better. More non-evangelical activists than Religious Right activists are on the poorest end of the scale, making less than $25,000 a year. The Religious Right also leads in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. Then, in the $50,000 to $75,000 range, it's a dead heat, 21 percent to 21 percent. Over $75,000, non-evangelical activists have an edge, 14 percent to 11 percent. Because the Religious Right draws a majority of its activists from the South--fully 53 percent-even the differences are understandable. "Although it's changing, the South is a region with traditionally lower levels of income and education anyway," says Lyman Kellstedt, a director of the Akron survey and a political scientist at Wheaton College. "That accounts for some of the disparity, because the non-evangelical activists are evenly dispersed geographically."

Until about 1968, conservative Christians, assuming the world to be beyond temporal redemption, kept religious crusading and politics separate. In 1965, an obscure Baptist minister named Jerry Falwell said, "Believing in the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else--including fighting communism ... Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners." Spurred on by the social chaos of the late sixties, the old notion that a Christian's duty was to the private sphere of family and church not to the public sphere of politics and government--broke down. A similar sense of disorder from that era, incidentally, would turn some Democrats into Republicans and some liberals into neoliberals.

It didn't take long for the Religious Right's Holy Roller rhetoric to frighten those who professed to protect Jefferson's much-vaunted (and vaulted) "wall of separation between church and state." Says Robert Maddox, a Carter White House religious liaison and speechwriter who is also a former head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State: "Robertson, Falwell, and the other key players---including people you don't hear about--are angry and feel threatened by the culture. With them, there's no gray area, no toleration, and 1 find that very dangerous. I don't know that I could stay in the same room with most of them." That's true of many people, and it underscores the cultural divide between the unctuous preachers and the broad middle.

Bullying pulpit

Disappointed by the end of the Reagan-Bush dynasty and by the apparent invulnerability of abortion fights, the Religious Right has turned to what it calls "pro-family" issues. That shift in emphasis reassures none of the movement's old foes. "The Religious Right of the nineties is much stronger, more sophisticated, and will, as a result, probably be much more successful in its lobbying," says Arthur Kropp, executive director of People for the American Way. "The movement builds itself by dividing America. I think that's poisonous: The way they play the game is damaging, and their agenda is threatening." Robert Peck of the American Civil Liberties Union hastens to defend the movement's fight to participate, then homes in: "We think that much of their agenda is out of step with traditional American principles and liberties, and we feel an obligation to oppose them when they try to trample on those things."

Even Clinton worries about protecting his liberal credentials. He did hold one meeting with ministers in Little Rock during the transition, and Billy Graham gave the benediction at the inauguration. But when the five-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, as moderate a part of the Religious Right as there is, invited Clinton to speak to its national convention in March, the president didn't ac- knowledge the invitation. "I think those extreme forces on the Religious Right are going to find themselves irrelevant,'' the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, vice president of the National Council of Churches and a Clinton transition team member, told The Los Angeles Times. "It's not because anyone is shutting the door in their face, but because their ideology increasingly does not apply to the American condition."

But on family policy, can you tell the difference between what Marshall Wittmann, legislative director of the conservative Christian Coalition, says and what William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote in Mandate for Change, the Clinton policy blueprint?

"We want public policy in this country that is prothe one on the Mount. So wouldn't it make sense to make divorce for couples with children more difficult? The Galston/Kamarck plan would impose a nine-month cooling-off period between filing and going to court, giving parents the chance to ponder the implications of breaking up a household.

The plan, similar to one proposed by Britain's Law Cornmission, is on target: Since 1960, the U.S. divorce rate--the highest in the world--has increased 250 percent. "Unless you're in a radical state of denial, you simply have to acknowledge that kids raised where the marriage is intact grow up more confident, happier, and more stable," says James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist. According to the Census Bureau, the gross income of a child and the custodial parent drops 37 percent immediately after a divorce and rises only slightly 16 months later. To press for something as sweeping as divorce reform would require a revival not unlike the Great Awakening, and the Democrats, outside that one chapter in Mandate, have been silent about it. That's no surprise: Restricting divorce is restricting, from the left's point of view, an exercise of liberty. It's hard to imagine what, outside of a pro-life button, could be less fashionable among the professional baby boomer set.

In areas like family or divorce policy, the Religious Right helps bring the moral element of a problem into focus. Its agitation forces politicians of the left and the fight to address concerns--however large, however uncomfortable that traditional liberals think too intrusive. When liberals read the gloomy statistics and wonder why everything's faring apart, they don't make the obvious connection. "The Right does raise issues and forces us to talk about things we might otherwise not talk about," says Maddox, the former Carter aide. "They do serve a purpose, however heavy-handed and occasionally unpleasant: They're kind of like castor oil."

There are other potential points of contact. William Bennett, a conservative Republican, spoke out at the GOP convention against "rampant promiscuity." The Progressive Policy Institute, speaking through Galston and Kamarck, says, "The president should use the full force of his office to wage an all-out campaign against teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births." A good way to do that is to speak out against "rampant promiscuity," which is not a little relevant to the pregnancy rate. In 1989, a quarter of all infants in the United States were born out of wedlock. And while 60 percent of black babies were illegitimate, illegitimacy is rising fastest among white children. Teenage girls give birth to 500,000 babies a year, and those infants are four times as likely as children in other families to be poor.

Traditional liberals are caught in a curious irony on this. While they are terribly reluctant to condemn promiscuity for fear of appearing intolerant, they are equally reluctant to link personal behavior (promiscuity) and social ills (poverty, dropout rates, welfare dependency). At the same time, these reluctant liberals aren't encouraging their own children to act irresponsibly, and it's cynical not to discourage dangerous behavior in others.

As Mickey Kaus noted recently in The New Republic, Marian Wright Edelman, a Clinton intimate and president of the Children's Defense Fund, has cried out against "our obsession with the motivation and behavior of the poor--their sexual as well as their work behavior." That's precisely where part of the problem lies, though. Sexual and work behavior euphemisms for producing out-of-wedlock children and going on the dole instead of working--is what the Religious Right speaks to. Now, it's the president's turn.

Of course, much of the Religious Right's rhetoric can be simplistic and unrealistic. Its fascination with sex moves many of us in the middle to angry distraction and repels people like Edelman from hearing it out. "I have always believed that the center of gravity in American opinion is tolerant traditionalism," says Galston. "People really do embrace traditional values, but people are very, very wary of using the state apparatus to enforce those values. Both parties would do well to attend to that center of gravity."

One way to do that is to promote values-based education in public schools. The phrase terrifies liberals who fear responsive readings from the Psalter and endless kindergarten Passion plays. But the National Commission on Children, Senator Jay Rockefeller's bipartisan panel that included Clinton and every ideological type from evangelicals to Edelman, recommends promoting community service as a value. Maryland now requires 75 hours of such service to graduate from high school. That speaks powerfully to ancient religious concerns: It's as close as we will ever get to codifying the Golden Rule. Writing about teenagers the kids who could, alternatively, be out conceiving illegitimate children--Rockefeller's commission says: "They can staff soup kitchens, tutor their peers and younger children, visit shut-ins and the elderly, and improve their neighborhoods through construction and cleanup projects."

These are not ill-placed priorities: 61 percent of high school students confess to cheating on tests; assaults on teachers are up 700 percent since 1978; each month, 282,000 students are attacked in schools. Teaching values as broadly defined as not beating up your teacher seems to be in order. Civility and responsibility are consummately religious values. So are "compassion" and "truth," two of the values that a community council in Baltimore County, using the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, decided were nonsectarian and worthy of teaching. These aren't new ideas: St. Augustine had a good bit to say about charity and conduct; even a pagan like Aristotle meditated on the tension between rights and responsibilities.

Out in Colorado Springs, where Dr. James Dobson's vast Focus on the Family Christian organization is headquartered, 500 staffers field 200,000 calls a month from people bewildered by the brutal business of modernity. Mothers call for childrearing tips, others for a dissection of Clinton's tax plan. They worry about violence, about drugs, about what's on television, and they turn to the religious outfit for guidance. I personally wouldn't telephone a "Christian ministry" rounded on inspirational videotapes, direct mail, and Bible radio shows; most in the middle probably wouldn't, either. What brings others to do it is the same impulse that holds together inner-city churches, or Girls and Boys Clubs, or midnight basketball leagues: the impulse for community in a broken world. "We have our hands full with the problems of hurt and pain that are being heaped on the family by the culture and by the economy," says Rob Gregory, a Focus on the Family spokesman. They are words that could echo across the worst city street.

Rockefeller's commission confronted an uncomfortable truth that neoliberals and conservative Christians acknowledged long ago: "Today, too many young people seem adrift, without a steady moral compass to direct their daily behavior or to plot a thoughtful and responsible course for their lives." Speaking to that requires encouraging neoliberal favorites like community service and values education, and institutions like the draft and public schools to foster democratic instincts. These are practical matters that significantly overlap with the Religious Right's agenda, which is focused, too, on renewing a world where people appreciate and care for one another. "Evangelicals are not retreating from society," says Allan Carlson, president of the conservative Rockford Institute in Illinois. "We are trying to rebuild a sense of community block by block."

There are unhappy signs that the Democratic family revival won't come off: Already, Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services, has downplayed the work component of welfare reform. In 1991, as a gesture toward the Right's views, Rockefeller's commission called for funding abstinence-based sex education equally with teenage family planning (birth control); neither the Bush administration, nor the Congress, nor the Clinton administration responded. Thus far, there have been few wise words from the White House about responsibility and personal conduct--too few.

Praying for keeps

The culture wars between the left and the Religious Right sometimes have all the sophistication of a backyard dogfight. On public property in California, for example, the evergreens draped with colored lights and tinsel during December aren't "Christmas trees" anymore. Instead, they're called "community trees" or "city holiday trees" to avoid religious conflicts. In New York, a Queens school district provoked the latest fracas in the most enduring Religious Right cause: school prayer. The district's school board voted in a "moment of reflection" to let students, in the words of the school superintendent, "focus theft thoughts, calm down, and get ready for the day's learning activities." Nevertheless, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other organizations are squawking about the move.

Part of the cultural opposition to school prayer is based in liberal snobbery: Only reactionaries trapped by naive allegiance to religion, an old liberal argument goes, would really care about school prayer. Nobody ought to seriously suggest kicking off a public school day with the Lord's Prayer the courts have clearly held that to be unconstitutional. By the same token, there's nothing wrong with asking children to observe a moment of silence. In 26 states, there are laws on the books that would permit the ritual. A kid can worry about a baseball game or the Pauline accounts of the Resurrection--either way, the choice is the child's. The Religious Right would be pacified, and the establishment, by conceding a nonsectarian moment of silence, would demonstrate that it shares the same values and concerns. A moment of silence has never kept a family together or taught a kid to read, but resolving this would give us an idea of how to find common ground between the Religious Right, the left, and the broad middle.

There is a very great difference between the jingoism of the Religious Right and the tolerant traditionalism that most of us intuitively accept. Some conservatives are slowly recognizing that: "The Religious Right does have to learn to be more tolerant in their public rhetoric, and there's a theological reason for that," says Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Religious conservatives understand theft own essential brokenness; they should understand that everybody is fallen."

So when Pat Robertson next suggests that Clinton has "a radical plan to destroy the traditional family," get angry, roll your eyes, fulminate. That's reasonable, because Robertson's dead wrong. But remember to pause when Robertson or someone of his ilk suggests something quaint about keeping families together or minding one's manners. Pause, because from preachers and from presidents, those are words many people need to hear.
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Author:Meacham, Jon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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