Divided Loyalties?

Barry Hankins September/October 1997 Ever hear the one about the cowboy with multiple personalities? At sunset he rode off in all directions.

So it is with the Religious Right. Or almost, anyway.

Though the movement does have multiple constituencies and leaders, its two most powerful and high-profile groups are riding off in opposite directions.

On the one hand is the Christian Coalition, now a key player in the American political system; on the other are evangelical Protestant and traditional Catholic intellectuals who commune together in the pages of First Things, a journal of commentary edited by Father Richard John Neuhaus. While the Christian Coalition continues to march with the Republican Party, Neuhaus and some kindred "theo-cons" are toying with revolutionary ideas that have been called anti-American by allies of the Religious Right.

An issue of Christianity Today published earlier this year shows (perhaps inadvertently) the growing tension within the Christian Right. A review of the book With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America was titled "Outsiders No More," while on the last page of the same issue, New Right leader Chuck Colson's column was titled "Can We Still Pledge Allegiance?"

In short, the first article was a report on the extent to which evangelicals have become a fixture in the mainstream of American politics, while Colson's piece suggested that Christians need to rethink whether they can even still be loyal citizens without compromising their faith.

The question, then, is How can the Religious Right now be part of the mainstream (as it often insists it is) when some of its intellectual leaders are questioning the very legitimacy of the American government?

The contrast was blatant. With God on Our Side is the most thorough and up-to-date history of the Religious Right. Its author, William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University, was once a boy preacher in the Churches of Christ movement in Texas, a background that served Martin well in his attempt as a scholar to grasp the nuances of evangelical Protestantism. Having already written a balanced, sympathetic, and well-received biography of Billy Graham, Martin was well poised to take on the Religious Right. Thus far, reviews suggest that his latest effort has been a success.

The abiding theme of his book is about how a politically quiescent body of evangelicals and fundamentalists, outsiders essentially, became activists with access to real political power.

Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's Active Faith also carries this underlying theme. His first chapter is entitled "How We Got There," the "there" being the corridors of political power. Reed also tracks how the Religious Right of the 1980s, led by the Moral Majority, has given way to the Christian Right of the 1990s, led by his own Christian Coalition.

The difference is largely one of strategy. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority sought clout at the top of the political heap, attempting to influence presidents and elect to the House and Senate politicians sympathetic with the Religious Right's program. Reed and the Coalition, by contrast, are building a grassroots movement organized down to the precinct level. (Or perhaps one should say school-board level.) The approaches differ, but Falwell and the Moral Majority clearly laid a firm foundation on which the Christian Coalition was built, and Reed and the Coalition have by no means jettisoned the effort to be influential at the top. Rather, efforts to influence presidential politics continue with the addition of organized grassroots activity, the result being that Reed, the Christian Coalition, and the other Religious Right groups have become a fixed power constituency within the leadership ranks of the Republican Party. If Reed's April resignation from the Christian Coalition opens doors to even greater influence for him within the party, as is likely, the Christian Coalition may soon be viewed as a launching pad for Republican Party leadership.

No wonder Christianity Today can follow Martin's lead in classifying as insiders politically active evangelicals and others in the Religious Right. When leadership in the Religious Right's most visible organization equates with Republican Party influence on a large scale, the movement has arrived. In fact, one could say that the Religious Right now occupies a place in the Republican Party comparable to that held by labor unions in the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s.

But then there are Colson and Neuhaus. Together they represent the coming together of evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics. Neuhaus led the effort to craft the 1994 document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," while Colson played a key role in its creation, dissemination, and defense. The document is a theological justification for joint political and cultural activism on the part of Catholics and Protestants. Through these and other efforts, such as appearances at Christian Coalition rallies, Colson and Neuhaus are attempting to give direction and depth to the concerns of religious conservatives in America. In their efforts to shape the activism of the Religious Right, they have warned against the facile support the Christian Coalition has offered to the Republican Party, and they sometimes admonish believers to beware of getting too cozy with partisan political programs and platforms. (Not that Neuhaus and Colson eschew alliances with political operatives and thinkers. Both have trafficked fairly consistently with the ideas of men and women of conservatism-Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Bork, and a host of other conservatives and neoconservatives, some of whom place much less importance on religion than do evangelicals and traditional Catholics.)

The schism in the Religious Right was best revealed by the November 1996 issue of First Things. In a symposium entitled "The End of Democracy?" four authors (including Chuck Colson and Robert Bork) weighed in with articles critical of the perceived usurpation of power on the part of the American judiciary. Though all four pieces were forceful and impassioned critiques of the federal courts, it was the editorial introduction to the symposium that touched off a furor. The editors questioned "whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." Illusions to Nazi Germany and the repeated use of the word "regime" for the United States government struck many as extreme. The title itself appeared hyperbolic, but the editors insisted explicitly that it was not. Qualifiers stating that America had not yet reached the stage of illegitimacy did not mollify those who were offended by the language of the introduction. In response, some argued that the only thing illegitimate was the suggestion that Americans might soon have to withdraw support from the government.

Two months after the symposium, in the Correspondence section of the January issue of First Things, Robert Bork regretted that his contribution had been prefaced with the idea that the "regime" was illegitimate. "My criticism of the courts was not intended to support any such proposition," he wrote pointedly. "The necessity for reform, even drastic reform, does not call the legitimacy of the entire American 'regime' into question."

Unlike Bork, however, Colson could not distance himself from suggestions that the American "regime" may be illegitimate because he had raised that question himself. In his symposium essay, entitled "Kingdoms in Conflict," he had written that "a showdown between church and state may be inevitable." Speaking of the contract citizens share with their government, Colson wrote ominously, "If the terms of our contract have in fact been broken, Christian citizens may be compelled to force the government to return to its original understanding-as even Enlightenment rationalists have acknowledged." He spoke of revolution on more than one occasion, both from a Jeffersonian perspective and from the Calvinist tradition as mediated through theologians such as John Knox and Samuel Rutherford.

Colson did state that America had not yet reached the point where rebellion was necessary. "We dare not at present despair of America and advocate open rebellion," he warned. He did suggest, however, that American Christians should begin preparing for the possibility that such resistance may be necessary soon. "But we must-slowly, prayerfully, and with great deliberation and serious debate-prepare ourselves for what the future seems likely to bring under a regime in which the courts have usurped the democratic process by reckless exercise of naked power." Colson's "Can We Still Pledge Allegiance?" in Christianity Today was, in fact, his answer to the critics of the First Things symposium, and it shows the depth of the schism in the Religious Right.

Thus when one part of the Religious Right talks about being a fixed part of the Republican Party, and another talks about the possibility of rebellion against a corrupt "regime," the Religious Right is clearly a diverse entity that could splinter, moving in not only different, but opposite, directions.

The Christian Coalition, for now, appears so wedded to the GOP that only a switch in the party's position on abortion could dislodge it. By contrast, the intellectuals of the Religious Right are more clearly rooted in their faith commitment and attentive to transcendent realities that could easily clash with the GOP. However arguable or hyperbolic their analysis of the present situation in America may be, they know where ultimate allegiance must reside. The question is Can the same be said of the Christian Coalition?

Critics of conservatism have already begun to make much of this new bifurcation in the ranks of the Right. There now exists the possibility for schism within the Religious Right itself as Christian Coalition leaders continue to shape the Republican Party, while the intellectuals begin to distance themselves from the nation itself. The Christian Coalition seeks ever-closer relationships with mainstream politics, while the intellectuals are beginning to use words like regime, rebellion, and revolution. In short, as the Christian Coalition continues to be domesticated within the Republican Party, intellectuals like Colson and Neuhaus may become radicals calling for direct action that will transcend party politics.

Article Author: Barry Hankins