One would have to be blind not to be struck by the potency and durability of the double standard applied against self-identified evangelical Christians seeking to participate in American public life. I am regularly invited to appear before Jewish social-action organizations that quite properly insist that their goal and political passions derive from Jewish teachings, indeed from their very Jewishness. While evangelical participation in our public life is said to pose clear dangers, Jews and Catholics are said to add much to American public life by reason of their participation in it as Jews and Catholics. Another example of the double standard: People for the American Way can call itself that without a whit of criticism — as if its agenda represented the sole means of achieving and strengthening the American ethos. At the same time, the Christian Coalition is angrily charged with being arrogant, and more ominously, dangerous, when it engages in the same sort of member-enrolling organizational hype.
There are reasons, good ones, that explain and even justify today’s double standard against would-be Christian political activists. Still, I think evangelical Christians have a right to resent the hypocrisy of an American elite that now actively seeks to caricature and de-legitimize them and in general to deny them a place in the American mainstream.
Let me begin with my central point: I believe that the elites’ campaign to discredit evangelical Christians’ participation in the American public square is opportunistic, venal, and downright wrong — that efforts to deny or intimidate such participation are profoundly anti-democratic and run counter to the sweep and spirit of American history. Further, I believe that evangelicals’ actual participation in our public life — not merely their right to do so — represents an essential chapter in America’s continuing saga of democratization. Finally, my view of the here and now of America’s politics leads me to welcome the participation of evangelicals in our political life as a means of helping to restore once-vibrant common sense and moral perspectives to our public-policy debates.
My views on the need to ensure evangelical activism in American public life — both as a right (in the interest of process) and as a reality (in the interest of better public policy) — are well expressed by two writers, writing in entirely different contexts.
First, I commend to you Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson, a glorious treatment of a turning point in American history. Witnessing the fear and loathing now directed at evangelicals who seek to reverse their historic passivity towards politics, I am reminded of nothing so much as Schlesinger’s description of the horror felt by nineteenth-century New England elites as they watched Western frontiersmen participate in Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. Seeing farmers and settlers in Washington, not as awed spectators but as men and women exuberantly celebrating at a White House now felt to be operating in their interests and led by one of them, the Whig elites could only describe the phenomenon as — gasp — the triumph of “KING MOB” (they even spelled it with capital letters). I’m close enough to my immigrant grandparents, to their first-generation American lives, and to their formative influences on me, to feel the sting of being thought of as part of a Lower East Side tenement dwelling MOB. It’s for that reason that I take deep pride in having been part of a MOB of our times; so should evangelical Christians, for we MOB members almost always become — after a few fits and starts and with a few rough edges rounded — the real People for the American Way.
The next publication, which didn’t win The Age of Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize but which deserves equally wide dissemination, is Joshua Haberman’s powerful Policy Review article, “The Bible Belt Is America’s Safety Belt.” Haberman, a distinguished American rabbi and a survivor of Hitler’s Germany, turned on its head the caricature of religious Middle Americans, who now are often, shamefully, portrayed as close-minded and inherently bigoted. What Haberman wrote about is what most casual travelers through the American South, Midwest, and Far West can readily find, and have from Tocqueville’s time on: an open, decent people who are responsive to underdog appeals and moral claims, and instinctively hostile to unearned privilege. What Haberman wrote is what history also tells us: family-oriented, community-minded, and religiously motivated Americans have fought the wars and paid the taxes and supported the laws and in general have been the source and secret of America’s role as the “last, best hope of mankind.” (The phrase is said to be that of Lincoln, our ultimate commoner.)
Of course, Haberman’s people and communities are not perfectly captured by him or by film director Frank Capra’s idealized versions of decent “little guys” confounding wrong-doing and wrongdoers while still maintaining their integrity. But Capra’s Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart characters are much closer to the truth of who we are as a nation than are such examples as the invariably bigoted leaders of religious and small-town communities who are the routine fare of today’s network series and standard movies. Haberman saw the corruptibility of elites caught up in their own rhetoric and ambitions, saw the sturdy but quiet virtues of America’s salt-of-the-earth citizens and communities, and rightly understood that our heartland and our religious faith are today’s best guarantors of a civil and decent America.
Two brief and related personal tales: One of the most stunning “discoveries” I made when I first came into the Reagan administration was the large number of low-key, politically conservative young people who were also — shockingly — Rhodes Scholars, law-review editors, Supreme Court law clerks, and members of similarly elite clubs and networks. But what was really amazing—nearly unbelievable to a consumer of establishment media like me — was the high proportion of such young people who were also committed Christians. Having been politically and morally formed when student apathy seemed the central problem of campus life (and indeed often was), and when a protesting activism was the only proper antidote, I was unprepared for moral virtue and political courage in the shape of reflective, caring young people who had been formed against the noisy, self-centered anarchies that were their campuses.
Moving to the present: I recently helped host a Washington luncheon for Bret Schundler, the remarkable Jersey City mayor. Schundler is a man who, although rich, Republican, young, and white, had just swept the elections of a poor, largely minority city — and had done so on the seemingly suburban platform of lower taxes, more police, deregulation, and reduced city payrolls. Early in his luncheon talk he spoke of poor people’s need for an earned dignity that only work and attachment to family and community could bring. This was all it took for me to know that the source of his views was a deep religious commitment, in his case as a Christian. My guess is that voters sensed that commitment and saw no proselytization in the message. My certainty is that the religiously rooted views of leaders like Schundler offer ways out of the traps now set for poor Americans by the ensnaring, perverse programs that the political system now, tragically, almost always offers.
Some Ineffectual Responses
What can be done to reduce the hostility to more active political participation by committed Christians?
First, and obviously, whining isn’t the answer. Complaining about double standards and lamenting the system’s bias won’t do the trick. Politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley noted, and there are still many utopians of the left who want the status quo maintained in the form of a redistributionist state and a culture of radical, anti-communitarian individualism. They work very hard, they are very articulate, and they are dominant members (at times by default) of the universe of people — brilliantly described by Michael Novak as the “moral-cultural sector” — who shape American ideas and values. These tough moralists know the threat posed to their politics by the entry of “conservative” religionists into American political life, and they can be expected to continue to de-legitimize and caricature the views of Christian activists. But grumbling about this won’t accomplish much.
Nor will the John Kennedy analogy be useful, except to persuade evangelicals to complain even more about their lot. Kennedy’s famous speech to Texas preachers was that of a man who reassured us not to worry about his Catholicism because it would have no impact on his politics or public policy views. Don’t worry about my Catholicism, Kennedy pretty nearly said, because it stops at the church door; the Pope’s teaching on ritual, on which ring to kiss on what finger, represents the sole area of his authority or influence over me. Evangelicals are involved in politics precisely so that their religiously based moral views can achieve political resonance. The Kennedy analogy would therefore be apt only if evangelicals were merely pleading for the right to argue all sides of every public issue, despite the fact that some of their churches engage in, what are to others, discomforting ritual practices.
To try again, what promise is offered by what can fairly be called the “rhetorical approach”? Some, I think, but much less, I fear, than what many seem to believe.
Of course it is terribly important not to alienate others unduly through the use of words and phrases that convey more (or less) than one means. Of course everyone can profit from techniques and strategies that help us better communicate what we want to say, that generate “warm,” not frightening, auras to the intended audiences.
I remember talking with James Watt, the lightning-rod Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, a man I knew to be deeply affected, indeed scarred, by the Holocaust. (I had seen this in a variety of private, non-political moments.) With considerable pride, Watt had sent me an advance copy of a speech he was to give to the annual assembly of his evangelical church. The speech began with moving references to the Holocaust and the need to remember its victims and causes and to ensure that it never happened again. I was much taken with what I was reading, and couldn’t wait to show it to friends whose demonized view of Watt, I thought, would be much shaken by his manifest conviction on a subject they never dreamed he cared about.
So I thought, that is, until I came to the lines that directly followed the speech’s discussion of the Nazi era. “But the Holocaust still continues,” read the segue line. “I refer, of course, to the abortions now routinely taking place in America.” I called Watt and urged him at least to separate his discussions of Hitler and Roe v. Wade by a few pages or so. I told him that he was about to lose non-church audiences he might otherwise reach, and that he could avoid doing this without moderating his views on abortion. I told him that there were deeply caring people (my wife, for example) who grieved over people lost in concentration camps and supported the right to abortion, and that they would never accept the genuineness of his views about the former if he acted as if it were no different from the latter. Just separate the two segments of your speech, I pleaded, out of sensitivity to people who disagree with you on the abortion question. I failed, because what to Jim Watt were the horrors of abortion were no less vividly felt by him than the horrors of the Holocaust. In making the speech, however, Watt thus forfeited the chance to persuade people outside his church that he cared about much beside abortion, and wound up, ironically, confirming for many the false view of him as insensitive if not anti-Semitic.
There are other buzzword traps to avoid in Christian communication with non-believing and non-Christian audiences, and avoiding them can do much good. But the larger point to be made is that mere rhetorical techniques will not significantly abate the antipathy and suspicion now confronted by even the best of good, caring Christians. What, then, to do? Is there anything beside bias and politically manipulated elite scheming that explains why Ralph Reed is so regularly asked the “but what do you really believe” question after he gives sensible, caring speeches to secular audiences? In fact, I believe that there are legitimate bases for concerns, rooted in sad, inescapable historical truths about would-be political actors who are both conservative and Christian. These bases are, in my view, ignored only at the peril of groups like the Christian Coalition that seek mainstream political status. As they struggle for a place on the moral high ground that (happily for America) all groups must occupy if they are to be taken seriously in our politics, those who are both conservative and Christian need to realize that critical historical facts subject them to a powerful double whammy.
The Conservative Handicap
Let’s take the conservative handicap first. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition has written about what he takes to be the modest and unexceptionable desire of religious conservatives to return to an American many of us grew up in — a post-World War II country that, was proud of itself, was militarily strong, and had a clear moral compass. The breakpoint in this once-American reality, Reed notes, not incorrectly, was the mid-196os. His lament is thus a reasonable one. And yet! The mid-sixties were precisely the time when we embarked on our great, critical, necessary-for-our-very-decency-as-a-nation struggle to end racial injustice in America. And this was a struggle in which conservatives as a whole were at best indifferent and for the most part were on the wrong side. One reason why you’ll find no liberals more committed than Southern liberals is that, as they lived through the civil-rights revolution, the label “conservative” was a common descriptor of people who wanted to maintain separate drinking fountains, to keep segregation alive, to defend racism. Whatever the depredations that liberals may have committed over the past 25 years against the interests of poor people and racial minorities — and they have been many and profound — liberals were at least on the right side, on the side of the Constitution, on the just and moral side, when the critical Brown v. Board of Education battles were fought.
Overcoming such a real burden of history will take much effort, however decent we may now believe ourselves as conservatives to be (and however decent we may in fact be). It may require us to acknowledge — and not in the form of debaters’ devices, either — that it was good for the American left to have succeeded, and good for the American right to have lost, in the historic struggles that gave black Americans the right to vote and freed them from state-imposed racism.
In my view, conservatism’s past compels us not merely to tolerate but to insist on the liberals’ preferred frame of reference for public-policy debates: that policies should be judged by the measure of hope and opportunity they offer the poorest and most needful Americans, by the extent to which they successfully complete Abraham Lincoln’s revolution, and not by how much more comfortable they make those of us who are already so. (This is a standard that should not be hard for Christians to adopt!) Given the record of the past 25 years or so, these are also debates we are sure to win. It should not be hard to make clear, as Myron Magnet and Michael Novak, among others, have done: (1) that free markets offer the best if not the only real means of escape from poverty and from feudal entrapment in the status of our parents; and (2) that anything-goes radical individualism, whatever mixed blessings it may bring to middle-class and wealthy Americans, creates and destroys poor and underclass Americans who lack private resources, families, and value systems to fall back on.
That an American left, which professes to speak for the poor, has supported values and policies that have decimated their would-be beneficiaries thus opens the door for a debate that should establish the clear bona fides of conservatives and conservative policies. But this is not a debate we can win merely by being right. We conservatives must first show that we understand how we are seen by others and, given much of our history, why this is so.
The Christian Handicap
If the conservative handicap is great, however, the Christian one is greater — by orders of magnitude.
I say this as one who has watched Christians explode with anger, shake their heads in puzzlement, or think that nothing is in play save double standards and vicious politics when their public professions of Christian belief lead to veiled (and often unveiled) charges of anti-Semitism. Why is it, I have heard conservative politicians from presidents on down ask, that my attendance at a prayer breakfast leads to public rumblings that concentration camps are on the way? After all, people with active, living Christian faiths know who they are and what they feel, know the profound untruth, the preposterousness of such charges. They also see so-called Third World leaders (and others in America, such as Jesse Jackson) escape relatively unscathed after engaging in openly anti-Semitic conduct that would have forever destroyed their public credibility. And they know how little credit they receive for their deep commitment on such issues as Israel’s strength and well-being, and for the active outreach efforts of many into ghetto slums that few politically correct social-service organizations would even think of entering. They think that all this should make a difference, wonder why it so often doesn’t, and finally give up trying to figure it all out except to think of themselves as slandered victims.
How, then, can charges that are so untrue ring so loudly and with such political force? Here again I believe the critical answers are to be found through an examination of history. It is a history of Christian norms and conduct that, if unknown, misunderstood, or unacknowledged by evangelical leaders, will entrap them into permanent demonization by the media and their political adversaries.
At the heart of the legitimacy problem suffered by Christians seeking to engage in the political process, I believe, is their failure to understand the frightening conduct of past generations of committed Christians. Most American Jews are second- or third-generation Americans, and many have heard direct accounts from parents and grandparents of what it was like to hide in cellars from Easter Sunday pogroms, or barely to escape similar acts of terrorism that were religiously led or based. There are, moreover, fair numbers of American stories of religious and religiously inspired intolerance — from Salem witch trials to the Scopes trial, from the Leo Frank case to my experience of being beaten up on the way home from school with the charge that “you killed our Christ.” German evangelicals gave critical early support to Hitler — and did so, by the way, on the very restore-morality-to-government-and-society grounds that are the stated basis of the Christian Coalition’s involvement in politics. The Dietrich Bonhoeffers were a distinct minority, overwhelmed by those who aided Hitler in the very name of Christian renewal.
This, then, is the seamier historical side of Christian belief and of Christian action come to political power, and it is this history that more than anything else arms those who would keep conservative Christians forever illegitimate and out of power.
But what of the fact that past patterns no longer hold, that organized churches are today powerful bastions against such conduct and are no longer, save in fugitive, anecdotal cases, means of support for hatred and bigotry? Today’s Christians are right to say that this is so, and Joshua Haberman is right in making his Bible Belt-Safety Belt connection, but this is precisely why Christians must now deal with their past. Doing so would allow present-day Christian leaders to make the point that lessons have been learned, that Christianity has changed. It would allow Ralph Reed and his colleagues to say credibly to the American political community at large what I know to be true: that the committed Christian in a post-Holocaust world would be the one who is first to sew the yellow star on his sleeve. Such acknowledgment would take much of the sting out of elite attacks on the moral standing of evangelicals and would help open-minded Americans realize that evangelical participation in mainstream American political life will not involve threatening specters and hidden agendas. It would do even more by allowing dissemination of a powerful truth that also needs to be known: that in today’s world, anti-Semitism and most other comparable ideologies of bigotry are, in almost complete reversal of the pre-Holocaust fact of life, phenomena of the political left, not the “conservative” political right.
Three Liberating Steps
I believe there are three critical steps for Christian conservatives to take to demonstrate their liberation from the dybbuks of their past.
Step one: they need to lighten up a bit, to understand that while some of the barbs directed at them are venal, it is also in the nature of things for rookies breaking into the big leagues to be hazed and unfairly tested. Say what you will about the elites who dominate and run our media and politics, about their arrogance, the terrible mistakes they have made, the unjust and self-serving and hypocritical burdens they have imposed, but it’s also fair to say that it’s still a good country that they run. They won’t easily turn this country over to an untested MOB, and they will exploit every possible element of conservative Christians’ past, will try to get them to rise to the bait in ways that will show they are too easily rattled to take a major hand in running the country.
It’s hard to tell people not to take it personally when their integrity is routinely assaulted and their record routinely distorted, and I surely don’t mean to counsel a course of passive surrender for Christians in the public square. Rather, my suggestion is that they go about their business more coolly, less angrily, and with a confidence born of the fact that 25 percent of the American electorate must in the fullness of time have its place in the political sun, its chance to convert social needs into political realities. But the sooner conservative Christians play politics as Jackie Robinson first played with the Brooklyn Dodgers — regularly swallowing what later turned out to be a world-class pride, working harder than anyone else, competing with greater energy and fairness than his adversaries, getting even rather than getting mad — the sooner the general American public will cast aside the anti-evangelical bigots and actively welcome evangelical efforts to shape and change the political process.
Step two: I suggest that evangelicals seek a particularly intense dialogue with the American Jewish community — if only to help ensure that they can no longer be easily used as bloody-shirt symbols with which increasing numbers of Jewish waverers from liberal orthodoxy can be frightened into a return to the fold. Moreover, as Jews have been the key historic targets of Christian bigotry (or, as some would put it, litmus indicators of the extent to which Christian beliefs are truly held by professing Christians), increased comfort levels between evangelicals and Jews would reassure others from outside the Jewish community about evangelicals. One caveat: Beware of philo-Semitism as a means of reassuring Jews of Christian good will. For Christians to say they seek fellowship with Jews because the Bible teaches them to do so is at best unpersuasive; being told by an evangelical that one is loved because one is a Jew is for most of us as spooky as being the object of good old-fashioned anti-Semitism. It’s more than enough for modern-day Christians to persuade Jews that lessons have been learned from the past, that Christian beliefs will never again be a route to hate; singling Jews out as special objects of Christian attention sends out troublesome signals to Jews, no matter how favorable the attention is meant to be.
Finally, and critically, step three: I urge evangelicals to resist the impulse to demonize those with whom they disagree over the moral and cultural issues that brought them into politics. It would, for example, be useful for them to look to James Q. Wilson, exquisitely fair and balanced as always, for a formulation of the issues in play in today’s politics. To Wilson, the battle is not (as some of us have occasionally put it) between philistines seeking to tear things down and those of us seeking to restore decency and basic values. Wilson instead talks of today’s central issue as a contest between competing cultures of self-expression and self-control. Precisely because we want our children to be both disciplined and expressive, Wilson’s formulation forces us to see today’s cultural and political wars not as wars between good and evil but as a more subtle business of choosing the side on which we most wish to err. People on the other side of us in today’s debates have morally and philosophically respectable claims, and recognition of this fact should inform evangelical participation in the political process.
Such benign detachment toward political adversaries will not always occur, of course, particularly in the white heat of battle and during election campaigns and legislative and litigation struggles. Nor should it. But the core virtues of today’s liberals, freedom and expressiveness, should almost always be visible, if at times from afar, as virtues. Such a view of their political adversaries can and should always be a perspective to which Christians in politics regularly return. To do so will serve to rebut the claims that they are dangerous, are intolerant of other views, and seek to impose their will (if not their religion) whenever they achieve political power. These claims are the chief means of de-legitimating Christians’ political participation and the chief present barrier to their entry into the political mainstream. Active, accepted, successful evangelical participation in American public life is proceeding apace; with relatively modest effort it can come faster, at a lower net political cost, and with far greater effectiveness. Such a development would profoundly and positively affect America’s increasingly value-based politics well into the twenty-first century.