Saturday, August 16, 2008

Era of Religious Right is Over

So says E.J. Dionne at a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
Souled Out insists that religious faith does not lead ineluctably to conservative political conclusions. It argues that the era of the religious right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of a certain style of ideological conservatism that reached high points in 1980, 1994, and perhaps 2002, but suffered a series of decisive and, I believe, fatal setbacks during President Bush’s second term.

The end of the religious right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, it is a sign of a new reformation among Christians, if a Catholic may be permitted to use that term, who are disentangling their great movement from a political machine. This historic change will require liberals and conservatives alike to abandon their sometimes narrow views of who religious Americans are and what they believe.

In truth, as we all know, religious people hold a wide array of political views. Religion is not the enemy of reason or science. People of faith are not blind automatons who never question themselves or their deepest belief. At the heart of my argument is the view that religious faith, far from being inevitably on the side of the status quo – maybe it’s the influence of that eschatology and politics course – should on principle hold this world to higher standards. Religious people should always be wary of the ways in which political power is wielded, skeptical of how economic privileges are distributed. They should also be wary of how their own traditions have been used for narrow political purposes, and how religious figures have manipulated faith to aggrandize their own power. The doctrine of original sin, the idea of a fallen side of human nature, applies in principle to people who are religious no less than to those who are not.

Dione makes an interesting point about the narrowing of the public face of religion in America during the era of the religious right:

...I think what is striking is the so-called liberal media has often followed this portrait of religious people as being primarily people of the right. In the past, we paid attention to a broad range of religious figures from Reinhold Niebuhr , who is a real hero in my account, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, John Courtney Murray, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr.

Beginning in the late ’70s, the focus of interests narrowed, to be sure. Pope John Paul II, whom I write about a lot in a later portion of the book, earned his share of coverage. But in the U.S., the attention lavished on Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson suggested that to be religious was to cling to a narrow set of political views. The public face of religion was deeply inflected with the accents of a very particular form of Southern conservative evangelicalism. Just ask yourself, can you imagine a TV talk show booking Reinhold Niebuhr today? And that is one of the problems we face.

My own spiritual pilgrimage was deeply affected in the late 70's by reading Neibuhr, Tillich, Murray and King. They really were intellectual giants with a respected public presence who influenced the landscape of religious and political life in their era. What a decline it was to the likes of Falwell and Robertson. Even Billy Graham, who was never a personal favorite, was a deeper and far more gracious man.

Finally, I appreciated Dionne's take on the Catholic Church and guilt:
I also argue in the book, proving that I am Catholic, that I believe the Catholic Church’s job is to make every Catholic feel guilty about some public issue. I think when the church is doing its job, it actually makes liberal Catholics think twice about abortion, stem cell research, doctor-assisted suicide. And it makes more-conservative Catholics think twice about their stance on the unfettered market, the poor, the death penalty and a belligerent foreign policy. I think the church will continue to play that role.
But... I don't know if it is the church's job to make people feel guilty; I think it is the church's job to keep enough distance from the political powers - be they conservative or liberal - to have integrity and to have a prophetic voice that speaks truth to power.

Guilt may be part of the response to that voice. But the danger in trying to make people feel guilty is the way it easily leads to a never-ending cycle of manipulation and spiritual stagnation. We don't want people to perpetually feel guilty, or at least we shouldn't. We want people to be released from their guilt so they can mature spiritually and make a difference in the world because they want to, not because of guilt or fear.

In any case, the whole forum with Amy Sullivan, Ross Douthat, and Dionne is worth a look.

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