Family Research Council
WT01D1 Religious Conservatives in American Politics 1980-2000: An Assessment 04/12/2001 08/21/2003 Michael Cromartie

The American public and the media seem to be of two minds concerning religious conservatives.[1] Depending on whom you talk to, religious conser-vatives are either on the verge of total collapse or they are about to take control of the entire political system in America. About ten years ago, a producer from Dan Rather's CBS News program 48 Hours came to my office to discuss the political influence of religious conservatives in American life. One of his first questions was: "Are these people about to take over America?" At the time I told him that it wasn't even clear how much influence they were having in the Republican Party, much less taking over the entire country. In fact, I suggested that he would have a right to be concerned about a takeover only when the halls of CBS News were filled with producers who were graduates of Liberty University's School of Communication.

This question was not as provocative as the one I received from a senior writer at New Republic magazine who was writing a cover story on religious conservatives. After we spent an hour in my office discussing the differences between fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic Christians, he put down his pen and said "Let's cut to the real issue: Aren't these people just sexually repressed?" "John," I said, "they all have six children! They got over their Platonic views of the human body thirty years ago. If you think restricting sexuality to monogamous relationships is repressive, then that is another discussion altogether."

The questions raised by these two journalists are not all that unusual. Many political pundits and observers believe religious conservatives represent a mass movement of cultural dinosaurs with religious views akin to what the journalist H. L. Mencken earlier in this century called a "childish theology" for "halfwits," "yokels," the "anthropoid rabble," or the "gaping primates of the upland valleys."[2] Only eight years ago, a writer for the Washington Post, while not as colorful as Mencken, described religious conservatives as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command."[3]

Well, to the bewilderment of many, the poor, uneducated and easy to command gaping primates from the upland valleys are still very much with us and have become a rather large voting bloc.[4] While there was a time when political involvement by conservative Christians was seen as a worldly or even sinful activity, now, political celibacy, if you will, is considered a dereliction of Christian responsibility.


To explain this shift, I would first like to provide some historical background and context. For several decades, from roughly 1925 until the end of World War Two, a large sector of conservative Protestant social thought was influenced by a pessimistic form of eschatology and a pietistic individualism that looked with disdain on efforts to improve social conditions and political structures. These conservative Protestants had originally believed that the process of secularization was simply irreversible; this pessimism was reinforced by their pre-millennial theology. Some simply suffered from over-heated eschatological expectations. Historian Joel Carpenter points out that for fundamentalists, "terrible times were descending upon the world, and the progression of evil was quickening. Only Christ's second coming could redeem and restore humanity and the creation."[5]

The 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, where a substitute teacher, John Scopes, challenged a Tennessee law that banned the teaching of Darwinism, cemented this orientation. At the trial, William Jennings Bryan defended the Tennessee law and won the legal case, but his embarrassing performance against ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow was so ridiculed in the press that he, and fundamentalism, lost in the court of public opinion. As historian George Marsden has pointed out, this made it increasingly difficult to take conservative Protestantism seriously. It caused many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to retreat from society and politics altogether. Marsden points out:

Within the span of one generation, between the 1890s and the 1930s, the extraordinary influence of evangelicalism in the public sphere of Ameri-can culture collapsed. Not only did the cultural opinion makers desert evangelicalism, even many leaders of major Protestant denominations attempted to tone down the offenses to modern sensibilities of a Bible filled with miracles and a gospel that proclaimed human salvation from eternal damnation only through Christ's atoning work on the cross.[6]

The pre-eminence of conservative Protestant Christianity was challenged from all sides. Theological liberalism was growing in influence as it attempted to accommodate modern scientific thought with theology. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy led to radically different understandings of salvation, evangelism, and the authority of Scripture. These disputes also produced opposing views concerning the proper Christian response to social action and political activity. As theological modernists began to interpret the entire Christian message in terms of its social implications, evangelicals and fundamentalists grew suspicious of social activism of any kind. Speaking at a World Christian Fundamentalist Association meeting in Philadelphia in 1919, the fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley labeled liberal understandings of the gospel a form of "social service Christianity."[7] It was this kind of reaction to the social gospel movement that would cause many fundamentalists to hold a view that Jerry Falwell expressed in 1965: "I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else--including fighting communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms."[8]

Therefore, making the connections between faith and politics in the late 1970s was quite novel at the time and controversial among conservative Protestants, especially fundamentalists. Their emergence on the political scene caught many journalists and public policy experts by surprise. What had caused their emergence into politics?


I would like to suggest that the revival of conservative Protestant political involvement, at least for its fundamentalist wing, began with a single phone call. Many conservative Christians initially had high hopes for the 1976 presidential candidacy of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. But in October 1976, candidate Carter gave a long interview to Playboy that received national media attention. Edward Dobson, former assistant to the Reverend Jerry Falwell and now pastor of a large congregation in Grand Rapids, said that Reverend Falwell first realized the potential to influence the political process in 1976, when, on his national television program, he criticized Carter for granting the Playboy interview. Much to his surprise, Falwell soon received a call from Carter's special assistant, Jody Powell, demanding that he refrain from making such comments. "Back off," Powell said to him. Falwell was startled to find that what he said had caused such concern from a presidential candidate. He came to perceive this incident as his "initial baptism" into the world of politics.[9] Many religious conservatives had similar triggering experiences, on a personal level, which left them obliged to become politically involved and to reject their theological and historical position of separatism.[10]

A standard sociological term used to explain new social movements is what has been called the "status defense" theory. This idea was developed in the 1950s by theorists such as Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Richard Hofstadter in their effort to explain the rise of McCarthyism and radical right groups like the John Birch Society. It argues that the loss of economic and social status causes many people on the right to become involved in social and political movements. Daniel Bell made this observation in 1962: "What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world--now overwhelmingly technical and complex--that has changed so drastically within a lifetime."[11] Similarly, social scientist Joseph Gusfield argues in his study of the American temperance movement that moral reform campaigns were the result of a cultural group engaging in political action as a clear form of "status defense." He argues that a moral reform movement can acquire public affirmation of its own status if it can persuade the state to affirm and endorse its values.[12]

Over and against status defense theories for the origins of social movements, I argue that it was from a concern for their conservative Protestant subculture which many religious conservatives felt to be in danger--not their loss of social and economic status--that caused them to organize politically.

The original priority of religiously conservative leaders was not so much to persuade others of their views as it was to sensitize other evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics to become involved in public issues that concerned them. It was not an easy task, since many had been taught for decades that such activity was irrelevant and, in fact, unbiblical.

But increasing pressures from a number of fronts caused them to feel, as sociologist Steve Bruce says in The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right, that "they were not getting their due and their due could be got[ten] if they organized to claim it."[13] Organize they did. Their effective use of television and direct mail, along with the declining membership of liberal denominations alongside the increasing numbers within conservative Protestant denominations bolstered their confidence and made political involvement appear to be a promising and worthwhile endeavor.


What stirred religious conservatives most was a sense that Supreme Court decisions were giving power to the opponents of traditional Christian values. The Court banned state sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962), legalized abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973), and allowed for more government regulation in private Christian schools (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971). As a result, they became engaged in what Harvard professor Nathan Glazer has called a "defensive offensive" against an aggressive imposition of secular views on American society and on their own private communities of faith.[14] They felt pressures from secular forces were bent on disrupting their private enclaves of conservative Protestant faith.

Ironically, religious conservatives were accused of "imposing their views" and "forcing their beliefs" on the public. But was this really the case? Nathan Glazer made this observation almost twenty years ago:

Abortion was not a national issue until the Supreme Court, in 1973, set national standards for state laws. It did not become an issue because evangelicals and fundamentalists wanted to strengthen prohibitions against abortion, but because liberals wanted to abolish them. . . . Pornography in the 1980's did not become an issue because evangelicals and fundamentalists wanted to ban D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, or even Henry Miller, but because in the 1960's and 1970's under-the-table pornography moved to the top of the newsstands. Prayer in the schools did not become an issue because evangelicals and fundamentalists wanted to introduce new prayers or sectarian prayers--but because the Supreme Court ruled against all prayers. Freedom for religious schools became an issue not because of any legal effort to expand their scope--but because the IRS and various state authorities tried to impose restrictions on them that private schools had not faced before.[15]

This imposition of a liberal ethos by what many social scientists call the "new class elites" (made up of newspaper journalists, television producers and commentators, and the "knowledge class" from the universities) aroused many previously apolitical and socially indifferent religious conservatives to action. While many of them have always found plenty to complain about in the wider culture, the rapid changes in American society during the sixties and seventies sent shock waves through their community. As sociologist Steve Bruce has pointed out, "Conservative Protestants of the 1950s were offended by girls smoking in public," but by the late 1960s, "girls were to be seen on newsfilm dancing naked at open-air rock concerts."[16] In short, the era of Eisenhower's America was far different than the America of the 1960s and 1970s.[17] Moreover, Bruce points out:

By the 1950s and the 1960s . . . the Supreme Court and the Congress were imposing cosmopolitan values on the South . . . in 1976, there were 77 federal regulatory bodies and 50 of them had been created since 1960 . . . at the same time the distinctiveness of regional culture had been threat-ened by the growth of national corporations, population movements caused by four wars, and the gradual concentration of the media. Putting it simply, the "Bible Belt" was penetrated by cosmopolitan culture.[18]

Or as political analyst Kevin Phillips has put it, "The world of Manhattan, Harvard, and Beverly Hills was being exported to Calhoun County, Alabama, and Calhoun County did not like it."[19]

Yet concern about secularized views of reality being promoted by cosmopolitan and elite culture was not only the concern of religious conservatives. The late social democrat Christopher Lasch made the following observation in his last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

Our public life is thoroughly secularized. The separation of church and state, nowadays interpreted as prohibiting any public recognition of religion at all, is more deeply entrenched in America than anywhere else. . . . Among elites [religion] is held in low esteem--something useful for weddings and funerals but otherwise dispensable. A skeptical, icon-oclastic state of mind is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the knowledge classes. Their commitment to the culture of criticism is understood to rule out religious commitments. The elites' attitude to religion ranges from indifference to active hostility.[20]

In her recent book, One Nation, Two Cultures, Gertrude Himmelfarb expresses similar concerns and highlights the disadvantages religious conser-vatives face against the values being promoted by the dominant culture:

As a minority, the traditionist culture labors under the disadvantage of being perennially on the defensive. Its elite-gospel preachers, radio talk-show hosts, some prominent columnists, and organizational leaders--cannot begin to match, in numbers or influence, those who occupy the commanding heights of the dominant culture. . . . An occasional boycott by religious conservatives (of the Disney enterprises, for example) can hardly counteract the cumulative, pervasive effect of the dominant culture.[21]

In this battle against moral decay, what has been accomplished? How successful are religious conservatives in shaping the urgent debates about the state of our culture? How much success has there been in the legislative and policy arena? Much will depend on our definition of the word "success." When we take stock, we find a mixed record.

Despite all its best efforts, has the religiously conservative agenda seen any advancement on the national or local levels? Has the American family been strengthened? Legal attempts to redefine the very meaning of marriage and what constitutes a family are being fought throughout the nation oftentimes with discouraging results. Have we seen the slightest change in the kinds of movies produced in Hollywood? Has the sale of pornography decreased? One can cite only a few successes and, as Bill Bennett keeps reminding us, the leading social and cultural indicators are not encouraging. Many of these seemingly intractable problems facing American society are cultural in nature and are not easily affected by political solutions.

But there have been some positive accomplishments. In the face of the strength and power of the dominant elite liberal culture, many public arguments about moral questions were kept alive by the efforts of religious conservatives. Many in the elite culture thought these disputes were settled. In 1973, after the Supreme Court wrote Roe v. Wade, the New York Times editorialized that the debate about abortion was finally settled. We now know it was not. One of the biggest reasons: religious conservatives marshaled volunteers and staffed pro-life organizations to ensure that the arguments be kept alive. Although many goals remain unmet, religious conservatives continue to shape the debate about many life issues, even in the face of enormous opposition from powerful institutions.

Religious conservatives, on the national and local levels, tapped many newly registered voters who contributed just enough to the percentage points to provide needed margins for victories. Efforts at curbing vulgarity, violence, and sexual promiscuity promoted by popular culture have been in no small way galvanized by religious conservative organizations. In their opposition to porn-ography, for example, religious conservatives have worked arm-in-arm with feminist organizations to discourage and stigmatize its use and publication. Public debates about and opposition to abortion, same sex marriage, and even the sexual exploitation of women and children through international sexual trafficing continue to be in the forefront of public attention in large measure because religious conservatives remind us of their importance.

Also, many thoughtful people have made important arguments for vouchers and school choice. The strongest support has come from organizations led by religious conservatives. Perhaps most importantly, religious conservatives have been in the forefront to pass landmark legislation to curb the persecution and brutal treatment of religious believers worldwide.

On these and many other moral, cultural, and political issues, religious conservatives, as Richard John Neuhaus argued in his book, The Naked Public Square, "kicked a trip wire" alerting other citizens that religious convictions could not, and should not, be ruled out of America's public policy disputes. They have kept issues of great moment on the national agenda, which might otherwise have been ignored. This is not an insignificant achievement.

To their credit, religious conservatives are now less likely to be demonized by the mainstream media. Although public antipathy has not entirely abated, two recent essays in traditionally liberal publications illustrate my point. Both the New Republic magazine and the New York Times Magazine recently carried cover stories that were largely sympathetic portraits of religious conservatives. It appears that outright disdain has at least begun to subside.

In the October 1998 New Republic, editor Peter Beinart argued that those involved in the politics of the Christian Right in Kansas feel they are living in an alien environment which is radically different than the world in which they grew up. He said they feel that the "cultural liberalization" and "cultural pluralism" of American society are undermining their schools and homes. "Time and again," wrote Beinart:

Christian conservatives . . . described the same epiphany: the day they realized that the schools were not teaching with them but against them. Sometimes the epiphany was not about the schools but about some other arm of the government . . . but the epiphany always involved an undermining of the home.[22]

In a remarkable cover story in the New York Times Magazine, Margaret Talbot told the story of a fundamentalist family that is no longer fighting against mainstream America. Instead, she points out that they are "dropping out" and creating their own private world. She described the life and beliefs of the Scheibners, who are fundamentalist Baptists that home school their children. While Talbot is respectful of their doctrinal beliefs, she notes that: "The way they practice their faith puts them so sharply and purposefully at odds with the larger culture that it is hard not to see the Scheibners, conservative and law-abiding though they are, as rebels." She discovers a historical paradox: "We have arrived, it seems, at a moment in our history when the most vigorous and coherent counterculture around is the one constructed by conservative Christians."[23]

These assessments are a far cry from books published in the mid-eighties and early nineties with titles like Holy Terror, The New Subversives, and Faith, Hope, No Charity, whose author warned that many intolerant bigoted evangelical Christians across North America today "could be your next door neighbors."[24]


Up to this point I have only surveyed the past. What are some of the issues and concerns for the future? I would like to suggest eight propositions.

Proposition 1: Religious conservatives need to decide the ultimate goals of the culture war.

Is the goal to totally destroy the opposition? Is it to achieve certain limited ends? Or is it to develop respect and tolerance for traditional Christian values?

An earlier goal expressed by some was to merely secure a place at the table so that the views of religious conservatives might respectfully be heard. Today, on many issues, religious conservatives are sitting at the table. But how are our table manners? Some need to be told that the pounding of the spoons must stop. This does not mean giving up, but it does mean pressing arguments with civility. What do I mean by civility? Contrary to the opinion of some, being civil does not mean being a wimp. It is true that some people feel that civility is a virtue prized by those who are uncertain about many things. And civility is not an excuse for being evasive. But this does not have to be the case; one does not have to be evasive to be a civil and decent person. The historian Martin Marty has observed that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, while the people who have strong convictions often lack civility. What we need are more people who demonstrate a "convicted civility."

Being civil does not and should not undermine the certainty of our convictions. But it does mean, as Richard John Neuhaus explains, that "it is the will of God for us not to kill each other over our differences about what the will of God is." Incivility is unbecoming and unworthy of those committed to Christian truth. It is a violation of the duty to love our neighbor. In today's culture wars, we must remember that we worship a God who commands us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. When we don't, we disobey a clear command of God. This leads right into my next proposition.

Proposition 2: Religious conservative leaders need to be reminded that what they say in public really matters.

Simply put: words matter. The public rhetoric of some religious conservative leaders has often been more than careless. Sometimes it has been self-righteousness, uncharitable, and irresponsible. Some religious conservatives have used unnecessarily strident language toward opponents and even toward natural allies. Here are a few examples:

One candidate for Congress in the 1980s sent a taped message to evangelical ministers in his district saying, "We need to break the back of Satan and the lies that are coming our way." When made public, the tape was interpreted that his opponent was a tool of Satan and gave a public relations advantage to his opponent, who ultimately won.

A prominent television evangelist once said: "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians."

In response to Gay Pride Day at Disney World, the same evangelist commented: "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you. This is not a message of hate; this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earth-quakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."

This kind of overheated self-righteous rhetoric must stop. We should remember that, but for the grace of God, we are all subject to the wrath of God. Perhaps recalling the words of Jonathan Edwards would keep us from such self-righteousness and instill humility. In one of his most famous sermons, Edwards said:

Your healthy constitution, and your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider's web would have to stop a falling rock. Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you for a moment.[25]

All Christian political activists should display more epistemological humility, public modesty, and charity toward even their strongest opponents. Taking positions in the public arena without being seen as self-righteous requires spiritual discipline and enormous effort. But it is an effort that must be made, for the realities of the work of redemption that have occurred in our own lives should be evident in the way we present ourselves in the public arena. Christian philosopher Richard Mouw reminds us that there are good theological reasons why this kind of effort is required:

The antithesis between godliness and ungodliness is very real; but it is discernible not only in the larger patterns of culture, but also in the inner battlegrounds of our own souls. How we speak and act faithfully in the larger public realm while working out our own salvation with the requisite fear and trembling--this challenge is of supreme importance for evangelicals as we think about the proper rhythms of the life of discipleship.[26]

Proposition 3: Religious conservatives must clearly distinguish between pluralism and relativism.

The reality of our politically pluralist society does not mean one has to concede to moral relativism. Pluralism and relativism are fundamentally different. Moral relativism asserts that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong. But pluralism is a political reality because we live in a fallen world where believers and nonbelievers will interact and disagree when they enter the public arena. Pluralism, properly understood, simply means that different viewpoints have an equal and legally protected right to free expression. However, some have suggested that pluralism means an acceptance of relativism. It means no such thing. Respecting and tolerating the viewpoints of others does not in turn imply that all viewpoints are true. Tolerating the viewpoints of others in our pluralistic society is not incompatible with firm disagreements and firm convictions. True tolerance does not require suspending one's moral or religious convictions, in private or in public.

Granted, today tolerance generally implies something else. This new form of false tolerance has become equated with a philosophical and moral relativism that suggests that all opinions should be considered equal. In this situation, no one is allowed to have universal and normative standards because "everyone has their own truth." Therefore, to make appeals in public to transcendent norms outside of the autonomous self is considered improper and even unconstitutional. As a result, a proper and true understanding of tolerance is simply not well tolerated.

In this kind of environment, people will differ on ultimate ends. Even the most orthodox of believers will disagree on how to prudently achieve the goals and ends they agree on. To achieve ends that will be pleasing to God, to advance the cause of justice, we will find ourselves working with people who see the world differently, but who might join with us for different reasons. We may discover--often only at the end of a struggle, after a legislative victory--that it was in the clash of different views that the providential outcome arose.

Proposition 4: Religious conservatives need to recover an appreciation of natural law.

Given that we live in a pluralistic society, we need to develop a public language that will appeal across different traditions and different worldviews. Protestant thinkers John Calvin, Emil Brunner, and C. S. Lewis held a high regard for natural law theory. According to this concept, people of all races, cultures, and religions have access to a universal law through their natural reason. Natural law provides ethical and moral standards that all persons can grasp without the aid of divine revelation. When moral concerns such as abortion are debated in the public arena, the debate is often hampered by the lack of a moral vocabulary acceptable to both religious and secular interlocutors. Natural law can provide what my colleague George Weigel calls a "public grammar" for making appeals in the public arena to people who hold diverse philosophical presuppositions.

Appeals to natural law closely parallel the Protestant Reformers' understanding of the doctrine of common grace. The Reformed doctrine of common grace teaches that those who are in rebellion against God still have the native capacity to do good and honorable deeds. According to Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof, common grace is the "light of God's revelation that shines in nature and lightens every man coming into the world."[27] The fruits of common grace include the ability to perform what has been called "civic righteousness," whereby God uses both believers and nonbelievers, through the power of the state, to restrain evil and sin. According to Berkhof, these deeds of civic righteousness can be explained "by an influence of God exercised on human beings without renewing their hearts."[28] Berkhof further argues that common grace is that general work of the Holy Spirit, "whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man through His general or special revelation, that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted."[29]

Why is this important? Many issues in political life pertain to the created and fallen order, not the redemptive order. The civil order, specifically the state, is an institution of God's common grace, not His special grace, which concerns His mercy and forgiveness. By virtue of common grace, believers and nonbelievers can work together on common political and cultural activities. Learning the language of natural law and common grace will do much to help master the two grammars: one for when we are addressing fellow believers and one for when we are speaking with nonbelievers about our public concerns.

These theological points are important because religious conservatives need to develop a public language, a public philosophy, and a public posture that communicates a loving concern for the common good of all, and not just the common good of fellow believers. Recovering a proper understanding of common grace through natural law will do much to diffuse polemical language that projects an "us versus them" approach to politics. Living our lives in the intersection between the City of Man and the City of God means religious conservatives must develop what sociologist John Murray Cuddihy calls an "esthetic for the interim," which encourages patience and "puts a ban on all ostentation and triumphalism for the time being."[30]

Proposition 5: Religious conservatives need to infiltrate the dominant culture.

America has become a nation divided by two opposing views of morality. Gertrude Himmelfarb argues brilliantly in One Nation, Two Cultures that one side of the culture originated in our conservative, Puritan heritage; the other grew out of the counterculture of the late 1960s. The latter generated the dominant culture of today as represented in our new class elites, particularly in the media, television, film, and the universities. The other culture, the "dissident culture," continues to promote the values of family, religion, civil society, and sexual morality.

Sociologist Peter Berger has described these two cultures in a memorable fashion. He says that the most religious country in the world, qua religion, is India. Empirically, the most secular country in the world is Sweden. He observes that, "America is a country of Indians ruled by Swedes."

Religious conservatives have formed strong organizations, institutions, magazines, and radio networks that are much a part of this "dissident culture." Religious conservatives have provided indispensable service for those trying to raise stable Christian families in the face of the dominant culture of the "Swedes." These services are commendable. Yet it is time for the evangelical "monks" to leave the monasteries and shelters of the dissent culture and become salt and light in the institutions of the dominant culture. I would hope that ten years from now a producer from a major television network will visit my office and say that several of his colleagues are graduates of the Witherspoon Fellowship.

Proposition 6: Religious conservatives must make moral distinctions when considering political realities in our fallen world.

For religious conservatives involved in politics, we must be reminded again and again that we are strangers and aliens in every temporal order, for we "do not have here an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:14). According to the prophet Jeremiah, we live in exile: We are to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:7).

While affirming our responsibilities and obligations for the City of Man, we constantly need to be reminded that our true home is the City of God, which is to come. This will put us in tension with the things of this world and with all political projects that seek any kind of earthly utopia.

We are still in exile. It is more than obvious that we are far short of the kingdom of God. On this side of the kingdom, we are called to be wise, faithful, loving, caring, just, and as prudent as we can be by God's grace. We are morally responsible for the choices we make in our fallen world, often having to choose between relative goods and lesser evils. Our duties in exile are shaped by the choices we have, not the choices we wish we had. We must reflect on our normative ideals in the face of real, concrete situations. Our ethical practice in politics must be applied, adapted, and compared to the existing alternatives that are available. This must be stressed for those religious conservatives for whom no political option is sufficiently pure or satisfactory. It is good to use discernment and to ask probing questions, but to evade the choices before us is a mistake. To insist on nothing less than the best can undermine the good and play into the hands of the worst. We should not withhold support from the available possibilities. Those who believe strongly in the doctrine of original sin must not be reluctant to see the realistic political implications that should be drawn from it.

Proposition 7: Religious conservatives must not allow words like "justice" and "compassion" to be the vocabulary of liberals only.

One need not become what P. J. O'Rourke has labeled a "compassion fascist" to realize that the Christian tradition has always taught that God has a special concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. Christian believers of every perspective no longer need convincing that social concern is an important part of Christian discipleship. It is a settled issue that "the least of these" among us are to be treated with both charity and justice. The debates now center around prudential questions about which policies are in fact most effective in meeting the needs of those who are most vulnerable. Many times these issues demand that we apply empirical rigor to past policies that require honest exploration and evaluation. Sometimes it will mean we have serious disagreements concerning how large, or small, the role of the state should be in meeting the normative standards of justice. But religious conservatives would do well to remember that their spiritual forebears had an impressive record when it came to expressing their concern for issues of justice and compassion. The compassion and fervor of William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury animated the campaigns against the slave trade and child labor in England. Such faith in action was the basis of many reform initiatives of the early nineteenth century.[31] We would do well to fellow their example.

Proposition 8: Some religious conservatives, after learning of their duties to be responsibly engaged public citizens, have sometimes over inflated the importance of politics.

So as not to be misunderstood here, my concern is with the people who make their political convictions just as important--or more important--than their theological convictions. They give the impression that some believers are not Christians unless they hold to certain political views and agendas. They would excommunicate people from Christian fellowship on the basis of political "doctrines." In this regard, some religious conservatives run the risk of imitating liberal Protestant denominations in so politicizing the Christian message that its core message is lost to issues of political urgency.

I once had a discussion outside the Heritage Foundation with a conservative Christian journalist who insisted that former President Jimmy Carter could not be a Christian because "no one could be a Christian who had his kind of foreign policy." Apparently, he considered having a conservative "politically correct" foreign policy a requirement for being an heir to the kingdom of God. And as we know all to well, this also happens on the religious left. The danger: Christian faith too closely tied to specific political agendas leads to a distortion of faith itself.

Peter Berger tells of an experience he once had that illustrates this problem well. Professor Berger was visiting a friend's church in Boston. His friend was slowly dying of cancer. That Sunday morning the minister preached a sermon on U.S. government policies in Central America, as the conflict was raging there. More disturbing to Berger than the misinformed views on Central America was how lonely his friend felt in his own church. The pastoral leadership there was so caught up in speaking out on the great political issues of the day that no one was available to minister to his friend in his fear of dying. How sad and how tragic! Berger makes this observation:

This false preaching denies ministry to those who desperately need it. Our congregations are full of individuals with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows, very few of which have anything to do with the allegedly great issues of history. These individuals come to receive the consolation and solace of the Gospel, and instead of which they get a lot of politics.[32]

Berger was speaking about his experience in a mainline Protestant church. Which of us, who have spent any time around newly aroused religiously conservative political activists, can deny that the warning given by Berger is a warning we need also to hear? Our unity in the faith is based on the fact that we are sinners saved by God's amazing grace, not by our politics. People look for the very Bread of Life and instead some Christian leaders, on the right and left, only give them a "political stone." We must be careful lest in the pursuit of political victories we lose our very souls.

In C. S. Lewis's classic, The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil, Screwtape, writes to a junior devil on how to trip up and distract his Christian patient. In letter 25 he writes:

My dear Wormwood: The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call 'Christianity and.' You know--Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and New Order, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart.[33]

The "Same Old Thing" is the core of the Christian gospel message. Lewis, through his fictional protagonist Screwtape, forcefully reminds us that our ultimate identity is to be found in that message.

Does this mean that involvement of religious conservatives in politics is unimportant? No, of course not. Richard John Neuhaus makes this point eloquently when he reminds us it is our duty to strive:

To build a world in which the strong are just, and power is tempered by mercy, in which the weak are nurtured and the marginal embraced, and those at the entrance gates and those at the exit gates of life are protected both by law and love . . . of course Christians should be engaged in the public square. . . . The ministry of the church, however, is to equip the saints for their vocations in the world, and political action is not a large part of every Christian's vocation. . . . The church's vocation is to sustain many different vocations. And it is to keep those who are politically engaged, engaged with one another, especially when they are politically opposed. They are to be engaged with one another not only within the bond of civility but, much more importantly, within the bonds of the love of Christ. The truth of the gospel transcends our disagreements about all lesser truths. And it is by that truth that we are knit together in mutual dependence and accountability. By that truth, the church is enabled to be a zone of truth in a world of impassioned mendacities--not the least of all in the wo rld of impassioned political mendacities.[34]

And so we are called to love our neighbors and one way to do so is to be concerned with the shape of our public policies. Although politics is important, we must always remember, as the Dutch theologian H. M. Kuitert has said, "the dead are not raised by politics!"[35] Our personal salvation and the forgiveness of our sins do not and did not come by a political decree. At the end of the day, our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to God the Father. We should always be clear that our temporal concerns are not as urgent as our eternal ones.


That twentieth-century religious conservatives would have ever needed to be convinced that they have a duty to be concerned about social and political problems is both ironic and paradoxical. As I noted earlier, their spiritual forebears always were. The claim that the faith of American Christians should always be only an intensely private affair between the individual and God would have been surprising news to such diverse persons as John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Lincoln, the abolitionists of slavery, fifteen generations of the black church, civil rights leaders, and anti-war activists. According to American religious historian Grant Wacker, "evangelicals, seeking to be the moral custodians of the culture, have always known how to play political hardball when the prayer meeting let out."[36]

For this reason, religious values have always been a part of the American public debate. The argument should never have been whether religious conservatives ought to be involved in social and political issues. Rather, the argument should be on what matters should we be most concerned and what are the most prudent ways to express such convictions.

Working for social and political change often requires the patience of Job. Politics is, as Max Weber once said, "a strong and slow boring of hard boards."[37] It frequently requires prudent and principled compromise. It is the art of the possible and not the reign of the saints. Many of us learn through the hard knocks of battles fought, victories won, and disappointments beyond measure, that politics is, because of the effects of the Fall, "the method of finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems," as Reinhold Niebuhr put it.[38]

I would like to conclude by calling our attention to Job 29: 7-25. As Job looks back over his life he recalls the response he got from others when he entered the public square. We should note that the things he most counted as blessings in his former life were not his social honor and prosperity but, more importantly, the fact that he was able to do good to those in need.

When I went to the gate of the city and took my seat in the public square,
the young men saw me and stepped aside and the old men rose to their feet;
the chief men refrained from speaking and covered their mouths with their hands;
the voices of the nobles were hushed, and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths,
Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me,
because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him.
The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow's heart sing.
I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.
Men listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel.
After I had spoken, they spoke no more; my words fell gently on their ears.
They waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain.
When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it; the light of my face was precious to them.
I chose the way for them and sat as their chief; I dwelt as a king among his troops; I was like one who comforts mourners.

May this be a lesson and model for all of us as we ponder our own witness before the watching world. 

Mr. Cromartie is director of the evangelical studies projects at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

1. I am using the term religious conservatives to include evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics who identify themselves as theologically conservative Protestants. Not everyone who identifies themselves this way is politically conservative but survey data indicates that most of them vote that way. And there are differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists in style. George Marsden once described your typical fundamentalist as an "evangelical who is mad about something." Grant Wacker has said that "an evangelical is someone who really, really likes Billy Graham and a fundamentalist is someone who thinks Billy Graham is a liberal." Nevertheless, they share most of the same moral, social, and political concerns.

2. Quoted in James D. Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. ix. The very impressive work of evangelical historians, philosophers, and political scientists has since demolished the stereotypes Mencken so enjoyed promoting.

3. Michael Weisskopf, "Energized by Pulpit or Passion, the Public is Calling," The Washington Post, February 1, 1993, p. A1.

4. The most comprehensive recent studies are: Andrew Kohut et al., The Diminishing Divide: Religion's Changing Role in American Politics (Washington: The Brookings Institution Press, 2000); John C. Green et al., Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); God at the Grass Roots: The Christian Right in the 1994 Elections, edited by Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995); and Duane M. Oldfield, The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

5. Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 90. See especially chapter 5, "A Window on the World" for an illuminating description of how their eschatology lead to a pessimistic view of human progress.

6. George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 4.

7. Quoted in Robert D. Linder, "The Resurgence of Evangelical Social Concern," in The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing, edited by David Wells and John Woodbridge (New York: Abingdon Press, 1975), p. 198.

8. Quoted in George Marsden, "Preachers of Paradox: The Religious New Right in Historical Perspective," in Religion and America: Spirituality in a Secular Age, edited by Mary Douglas and Steven Tipton (Boston: Beacon, 1983), p. 155.

9. Edward Dobson recounted this story at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington on "The New Religious Right: Assessing the Past, Scouting the Future," in November 1990. He further observed: "The Religious New Right was a disenfranchised movement, a counter cultural movement not accepted by any of the cultural elites or the mainstream. When President Reagan embraced the evangelicals, leaders like Jerry Falwell assumed that this legitimized a movement that had been demeaned, ignored, and branded as 'double knit, Appalachian, pew-jumping, holy -roller, anachronistic, white-socks,' and all that. Once we got into the White House, we thought 'we are now legitimate because we are now equal partners.' But we never were. Many put on 100 percent wool suits and became politicized by the activist process but, as a consequence, lost some of their impact." See No Longer Exiles: The Religious New Right in American Politics, edited by Michael Cromartie (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993), p. 53.

10. John Green of the University of Akron and his colleagues have just completed a soon to be published survey for the Ethics and Public Policy Center of "evangelical elites." One striking finding is that calls to "separate from the world" are now essentially nonexistent among evangelicals.

11. Daniel Bell, "The Dispossessed," in The Radical Right, edited by Daniel Bell (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1964), p. 2.

12. Joseph Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963).

13. Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right (Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1988), p. 49.

14. Nathan Glazer, "Toward a New Concordat?" This World, Summer 1982, p. 113.

15. Ibid., p. 112

16. Bruce, The New Christian Right, p. 22.

17. Of course the liberalization of our cultural mores did not begin in the 1960s. For a brilliant analysis of this see Rochelle Gurstein's The Repeal of Reticence: A History of American's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996). She offers a fascinating history of the arguments for and against the forces that altered public discourse between the late ninteenth century, when they first appeared, and the 1960s, when new controversies erupted about mass culture, avant-garde art, and sexual liberation. She shows how the "party of exposure" successfully opened American public life to matters that had once been hidden away in private and looks at the unexpected consequences of their victory over the "party of reticence."

18. Bruce, The New Christian Right, p. 31.

19. Quoted Ibid., p. 68.

20. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995), p. 215.

21. Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Knopf, 1999), pp. 125, 26.

22. Peter Beinart, "Battle for the 'Burbs,'" The New Republic, October 19, 1998, pp. 25-29.

23. Margaret Talbot, "A Mighty Fortress," The New York Times Magazine, February 27, 2000, p. 36.

24. Cited in Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 93

25. Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1974), 2:9.

26. Richard J. Mouw, "Evangelical Ethics," in Where Shall My Wond'ring Soul Begin? The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 82.

27. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 440.

28. Quoted in John Bolt, "Common Grace, Theonomy, and Civic Good: The Temptations of Calvinist Politics," Calvin Theological Journal 35 (2000): 215.

29. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 436.

30. John Murray Cuddihy, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), p. 201.

31. See especially Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980; 1st edition 1957); Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); Garth Lean, God's Politician: William Wilberforce's Struggle (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1980); Ernest Marshall Howse, Saints in Politics: The Clapham Sect (Unwin, 1974); J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1939).

32. Peter L. Berger, "Different Gospels: The Social Sources of Apostasy," This World 17 (1987): 16.

33. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 115, 116.

34. Richard John Neuhaus, "The Christian and the Church," in Transforming Our World, edited by James M. Boice (Portland: Multnomah, 1988), pp. 120, 123.

35. H. M. Kuitert, Everything is Politics But Politics Is Not Everything (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 4.

36. Grant Wacker, "Uneasy in Zion: Evangelicals in Postmodern Society," in Evangelicalism and Modern America, edited by George Marsden (Eerdmans, 1984), p. 26.

37. Max Weber, "Politics as Vocation," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press 1958), p. 128.

38. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944), p. 118.