Religion on the Right & Left

Michael Gerson and E. J. Dionne have both commented recently on the religious aspect of the ideological wars afflicting the Republican Party in ways that are noteworthy but also deficient.

Gerson wrote about Mitch Daniels, the Governor of Indiana, who is catching some wind in establishment GOP circles but who has angered the religious right by calling for a “truce” on the social issues, such as abortion and stem cell research, to focus on the economic and fiscal plight facing the country. Says Daniels, “If there were a WMD attack, death would come to straights and gays, pro-life and pro-choice. If the country goes broke, it would ruin the American dream for everyone.” But, in certain social conservative circles, this is heresy because they believe country’s ills can be traced to the removal of God’s protection from America because of the national sin of abortion and/or the spread of homosexuality. What Daniels does not grasp is that there is no American dream, there are many American dreams, and many of them conflict and conflict so strongly that you cannot call a “truce.”

In a valiant but failing effort to rescue Daniels from the charge of being insensitive to moral concerns, Gerson writes that, “if Daniels de-emphasizes ideology, he elevates moral virtues such as thrift, realism and humility.” If Gerson and Daniels think that a revived Calvinism is the answer to the GOP’s woes, have at it. Me, I have always thought thrift was a vastly over-stated virtue and the last politician to speak honestly about humility was Golda Meir when she told a Cabinet minister: “Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great!” As for “realism,” as a Catholic, I would argue that virtually everything that is pernicious about American culture can be traced back directly or indirectly to John Calvin. I suppose I won’t get invited to many inter-religious dialogues with our Presbyterian or Dutch and Swiss Reformed brothers and sisters, but there it is.

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E.J. argues that the Tea Party’s focus on government over-reach and constitutional limitations is so different from the concerns of religious conservatives that it is difficult to see how they can come together in November. Certainly, there is a libertarian strain in the Tea Party crowd that is not found in the religious right. But, the pulpits of the South were filled with defenses of states’ rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and while the Prosperity Gospel of Joel Osteen and Co., may have supplanted Calvinistic thrift in the hearts and minds of many evangelicals and Pentecostals, it is also true that there is a slavish devotion to capitalism running through most contemporary evangelical theology, and that devotion goes back at least into the 1960s. E.J. is right about the cross-currents that are at odds beneath the surface, but think of how long it took the Democrats to understand that their hyper-libertarian approach to social issues was turning off swing voters. A crafty politician can find ways of keeping the Tea Party crowd and the religious right together, at least for an election cycle or two.

It is fascinating that at the start of the twenty-first century, the role of religion and morality in the political life of the nation remains at the center of the debate on both sides of the political aisle and across the denominational spectrum. Stay tuned.

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