Putting Their Faith in the Ballot Box
By John Hubner
Sunday, October 27, 1996
It seems strange to apply a Buddhist term to the Christian right, but that movement's entry into mainstream politics presents democracy with a koan, a kind of spiritual puzzle. How does a process of governing based on compromise, on trading off competing interests, accommodate a massive antinomian movement whose followers are not just suspicious of compromise but view it as a betrayal of the Lord? And how do true believers, intent upon living Biblical commands and answering only to God, accept that millions of others, who have not taken Jesus as their personal savior and who will never spend a night in a motel curled up with a Gideon Bible, nonetheless want a society that is just and moral and less toxic to children and a government that is a more accurate reflection of its Constitution?
The sad events that have accompanied the religious right's emergence as a unified political force have been well chronicled. There have been murders outside abortion clinics in Florida and Massachusetts. The demonization of gays and lesbians has been outrageous -- in a 1987 fund-raising letter, Moral Majority founder Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that gay men were donating blood "because they know they are going to die -- and they are going to take as many with them as they can." There has also been the occasional sideshow: Pat Robertson reaching out to cure someone in TV land of hemorrhoids, Robertson using the power of prayer to divert a hurricane that was bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard.
Two fine new books -- one written by a professor of religion at Rice University to accompany a PBS series on the rise of the religious right, the other by two correspondents for the Advocate, the national gay newsmagazine -- cut through the finger-pointing and lazy stereotyping. Beneath the Sturm und Drang, the authors discover something that will surprise those who believe that the religious right is the antithesis of a free society. The authors see democracy at work. The political battles being fought by the religious right are very messy, full of wild and willful distortions and naked appeals to fear and other primal instincts. That, of course, is the point: Democracy is at work.
To say that an academic writes well is like saying an elephant can do the macarena, but William Martin, author of With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, can indeed write, with style and incisiveness. The distinctions among Christian belief systems that Martin makes are particularly useful, especially to mainstream journalists, who tend to lump the Christian right together as the "Not Me." There is, for example, a major difference between believers in "post-millennialism," which holds that society is improving so rapidly that a thousand years of peace are coming, after which Christ will return to reign on earth; and believers in "dispensationalist premillennialism," a very influential doctrine that holds that the world is getting so much worse that the only hope is for Christ to come back and usher in the millennium himself (hence the "pre" in premillennialism).
Martin can also wield a rapier. After Jerry Falwell relates a heart-warming story about bucking local prejudice and welcoming a black family into his Lynchburg, Va., church in "1960 or '61," Martin says, "This inspiring story has one significant flaw: it is almost certainly inaccurate." (The first African-American baptism at Thomas Road Baptist appears to have occurred in 1971.)
Martin, who is also the author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, begins his account of the rise of the modern religious right with that famous evangelist. Before Billy Graham, the religious right was dominated by figures like Carl McIntire, a warhorse who was good at many things but best at spreading hate. "Kill a Commie for Christ" made sense to McIntire, who believed the National Council of Churches was a communist front and preached that the United States had "a moral responsibility to strike Russia first." With leaders like this, plus a doctrine that stressed that the evil world was beyond redemption, not to mention endless sectarian warfare, it was easy to dismiss conservative Christians of that time as paranoid kooks.
The New Evangelical movement that produced Graham was -- dare the word be used? -- liberal by comparison. Instead of casting out the impure, it embraced theological differences. Instead of turning their backs on the world and concentrating on personal salvation, movement leaders in the 1950s believed that "it is wrong to abdicate responsibility for society under the impetus of a theology which overemphasizes the eschatological." Graham emerges here as a particularly fair and decent man who truly believed that the Anti-Christ was alive and well in the Soviet Union and who, despite being closer to power than any other post-World War II religious figure, comes across as rather naive. He was devastated by what the Watergate tapes revealed about his close friend Richard Nixon.
Next, Martin traces the religious right's arduous struggle to translate its convictions into social action and political power. All the familiar names are here -- Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Richard Viguerie, Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant -- along with names that, because of their power and influence, should be more familiar to secular readers: Paul Weyrich, the Heritage Foundation founder, who emerges as a brilliant political thinker; Francis Schaeffer, a philosopher based in Switzerland who in secular humanism provided the right with an enemy to replace communism; James Dobson, whose Colorado group, Focus on the Family, has employed high-tech sophistication to build a communications empire.
All the familiar issues are here, too: prayer in schools and sex education; abortion; evolution and creationism; the campaign against homosexuals. Some of this is well-trodden turf, and Martin's narrative occasionally bogs down. He is at his best when interpreting events, not relating them. The book also lacks narrative flow at times, stopping one story and starting another, perhaps because it was written around a television series which relies on images rather than words to connect events. But these minor defects fall by the wayside in Martin's astute and evenhanded summaries of events like the Goldwater "victory" in 1964 -- a victory because it turned people like Phyllis Schlafly into political activists determined to save America from godless liberals -- and in his explanation of why the religious right adopted Ronald Reagan, to all outward appearances a sinner from Hollywood, as one of their own.
Perhaps the most riveting chapter is Martin's account of the Kanawha County War, a truly terrifying event that occurred in West Virginia in the early 1970s. The school board there attempted to ban certain textbooks on the grounds that they undermined traditional Judeo-Christian values and led to the spread of everything from random violence to drugs to pornography and homosexuality. The central question, "What is indoctrination and what is education?", was forgotten as schools were dynamited and firebombed. One of the bombers testified later "that he and others had considered bombing carloads of children as a way to stop people that was sending their kids to school, letting them learn out of books they knew was wrong." This one chapter is more than enough to thank God for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who, Martin writes convincingly in an epilogue, were intent upon "building a wall of separation between church and state."
In Perfect Enemies Chris Bull and John Gallagher focus on the battle the religious right has been waging against gay rights. The authors are as fair and even-handed as they are penetrating, only rarely permitting themselves a sneer. Their book is a nuts-and-bolts account of political battles ranging from President Clinton's pledge to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military to the clash over Colorado's Amendment 2, which gays believed was a rather innocuous anti-discrimination measure but which the religious right was able to defeat by portraying it as an attempt to extend civil rights to sexual orientation. As the subtitle promises, the reader learns much about "the politics of the 1990s," most of it disturbing.
Over and over again, Bull and Gallagher show that politics has been debased because "it is easier to nauseate than educate" and because "the shriller you are, the easier it is to raise money." This kind of politics is part of the problem, not the solution, a point the authors make when discussing the suicide rate among gay teens. Religious conservatives kept bashing gays but "took no steps to address the suicide problem itself . . . Gay activists, meanwhile, often bandied the numbers about uncritically to make points . . . Lost in the middle of the fight were the fates of gay and lesbian youths themselves."
It comes as something of a surprise to learn that the religious right almost always wins these battles, not because it is better organized, more unified and has more money to spend, but because it is also more politically sophisticated. Instead of learning from a defeat and moving on, as leaders of the religious right pride themselves on doing, after the defeat in Colorado gay activists "formed a circle and began shooting at each other." After an election loss in West Hollywood, a gay activist was astonished to find that the campaign office had been shut down. "It was a phone bank and database of volunteers that could be mobilized when the movement required," he said. "It was from exactly such an operation that the Christian Coalition sprang."
In their closing chapter, "From Arms to Armistice," a fine example of open-hearted writing, Bull and Gallagher call for both sides to stop the demonization and come to the realization that there is no Us or Them, there is only Us. Like Martin, the authors believe that the man who may lead the religious right in this direction is Ralph Reed Jr., the executive director of the Christian Coalition. Reed appears to be growing more accommodating, more consensus-seeking, the longer he stays on the job.
It is at this point that the authors of both books express a hope that the battles we have witnessed will in the end produce a kinder, more understanding nation. If there is a spiritual famine in America, isn't it healthy that millions are proclaiming their faith? If we need to build more community, isn't it good that conservative Christians and gays are building their own communities? If citizens must get involved in politics to take back power from the PACs and the lobbyists who can buy it, isn't it fine that Christians and gays are learning the political process at the grassroots level all across America? If we have problems with wrath, greed and lust, don't the Christians have something to teach us about priorities, limits and accountability? Does not the gay movement have something to teach us about freedom, personal choice and the right to be different and, in the wake of AIDS, something to teach us about courage and suffering?
Something like this happened to the evangelist James Robison, a speaker so fiery in the early `80s that "he could blister paint." Robison emerged from a spiritual transformation wishing that "we could [just] be Americans and really love each other. I wish the Houses of Congress could sit down and really talk about positive things that could be done, and that Christians would do the same thing . . . I want to see this country better."
John Hubner is a writer for West magazine at the San Jose Mercury-News and the author of many books, including the forthcoming "Other People's Children."
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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