The Common Good
September-October 1996

With Malice Toward None

by Harvey Cox | September-October 1996

Mixing religion with politics is nothing new.

A century and a half ago, a young congressman from Illinois became unpopular with his home constituency and was forced to leave office. It had been rumored that he had little respect for the church or religion; furthermore, he was obviously unpatriotic for opposing the U.S. war with Mexico.

A decade later the same man returned to political life, became a vociferous critic of slavery, and was eventually elected president of the nation. This is the man who in his second inaugural address made one of the most explicitly biblical statements in the annals of the American presidency:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God will that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psalm 19:9).

The life of Abraham Lincoln reminds us of two things about religion and American political life. First, they have always been mixed together. Second, church people do not have infallible political judgment.

As citizens of what the historian Sidney Mead called "the nation with the soul of a church," most Americans have thought from the colonial period on that their religious convictions had something very important to do with their political choices. The present highly visible involvement of Christian and other religious groups in political life, including presidential campaigns, is hardly novel.

But Christians have not always been right about their political judgments, or about the appropriate manner by which to relate faith to public life. Many of our Christian forebears were wrong about Lincoln. We have been wrong in the past and we could be wrong again.

This simply means we need to be vigilant and reflective about how we make political decisions as Christians. We need to be ready to change our minds if shown on the basis of plausible biblical evidence that we might have been wrong. Humility, not a virtue frequently found in American politics today, should be the hallmark of a Christian approach to politics.

Southern Baptists, for example, whose denomination began when they refused to continue in the same organization with Northern anti-slavery Baptists, recently publicly repented for their forebears' racism. American Methodists also issued a public repentance for the violence of one of their earlier leaders against Native Americans. These were both important statements, because for Christians who believe we are all finite, fallible, and sinful, public penitence should be a vital part of political participation.

BUT WHETHER HISTORY has eventually proved religious people right or wrong, from the first arrival of European settlers in North America the idea of shaping the public realm in the light of religious values and visions was widely operative. The Puritans and Separatists in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Catholics in Maryland, though they cherished quite different spiritual preferences, all believed that their religion should play a role in public life.

Among the most vociferous advocates of the American struggle for independence were the leaders of dissenting sects in New England, joined and supported at times (but just as often opposed) by the Puritan and Anglican elites. The abolitionist movement of the first half of the 19th century was fired by religious, largely evangelical and Quaker, energies. Charles Granison Finney, the famous 19th-century revivalist, preached that conversion to Christ and the gospel was tantamount to a conversion to the abolitionist cause.

The various ways Christians have read the Bible have sometimes placed them on opposite sides of vital public issues. During the decades leading up to the Civil War, Christians both condemned and supported slavery with biblical quotations. When the war finally came, it was seen–sadly, by both sides—as a religious struggle. One has only to recall the flaming words of Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to be reminded of the apocalyptic tones of the war's religious rhetoric. After the Civil War, the women's suffrage movement and the prohibitionist crusade were both led by cadres of religious people, many of whom saw these campaigns as a continuation of the work they had devoted to the abolition of slavery.

At the turn of the century, however, American Protestantism, which had been the main engine of these social reform movements, underwent a wrenching schism. The fundamentalist movement came to birth in reaction to what its founders saw as the cowardly retreat of the mainline churches in the face of Darwinian evolutionary theory, the historical-critical study of the Bible, and the liberal belief in progress. Fundamentalism also embraced, however, a reading of the Bible that convinced them that human history was entering its Last Days and therefore any effort to reform this present fallen world was useless and misguided.

The symbolic defeat of fundamentalism took place at the famous Scopes Trial of 1926, at which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan faced off over the issue of teaching evolution in the public schools. The fundamentalists won the battle (Scopes was convicted), but lost the cultural war. They appeared to the larger public to be silly and obscurantist. They retreated from public political involvement into a kind of religious enclave and have only quite recently returned with the appearance in the 1980s of the Moral Majority.

Most of the brouhaha about Christians in politics today results from the enormous amount of attention lavished by the media on the so-called "Religious Right." There is some reason for this attention, since politically conservative Christians do constitute a strong and increasingly significant voice in the shaping of American public policy discourse. Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed has claimed that his organization was the decisive force in winning both houses of Congress for the Republicans in 1994.

But just how big, how influential, and—especially—how representative is the Religious Right? Understandably, Christian Coalition leaders like Ralph Reed want people to believe the organization is huge, unified, and can "deliver" millions of votes. Its opponents, on the other hand, may also build up the threat of the Religious Right, in part to raise funds for their own organizations.

But as the current presidential campaign got under way, it became increasingly clear that the Religious Right was anything but monolithic. For example, the more the Christian Coalition moved into issues about which there is little consensus among Christians, the more fragile the coalition became. When Ralph Reed seemed to suggest early this spring that the Coalition might settle for some less restrictive wording of its opposition to abortion at the Republican National Convention, he was so severely criticized by other spokespeople on the Religious Right that he felt it necessary to issue a clarification.

Other obvious rifts appeared in what its leaders hoped to present as a united front. Three in particular emerged during the early months of 1996.

First, the Christian Coalition tried to organize a Roman Catholic branch, what Reed perhaps somewhat unfortunately referred to as a "wholly owned subsidiary." The opening meeting of this proposed "Catholic Alliance," held in the very Catholic and very Democratic city of Boston, was not a colossal success. Many of the Catholics attending were already affiliated with the Coalition, so it did not appear to offer a new recruitment pool. Also, most of the Roman Catholic bishops had an extremely cool reaction to the new organization. Some made it clear publicly that the Catholic Alliance was not empowered to speak for or to Catholics about social issues.

That the Christian Coalition-Roman Catholic political partnership has not gone well is not a surprise. When Coalition founder Pat Robertson sat behind Pope John Paul II on a platform in Central Park during the pope's visit to New York City, he seemed to be smiling broadly. But the points the pope made in his sermon can hardly have been welcomed by Robertson.

John Paul II pleaded with Americans not to turn our backs on our tradition of hospitality to newcomers by slamming the door on immigrants. He argued eloquently that destroying the welfare safety net would be cruel to the neediest. And he urged Americans to continue to participate wholeheartedly in the United Nations.

As Robertson's books and statements make clear, however, he and his allies are very skeptical of immigrants. (Some, like Arianna Huffington, wish to declare a complete "moratorium" on all immigration). Robertson's book The New World Order is a shrill warning against American involvement in any international organization, such as the United Nations, that might weaken American sovereignty. When it comes to welfare policy, the Christian Coalition and the pope (with the Catholic bishops) could scarcely be further apart.

A second fissure that began to appear in the Religious Right this year was between politically conservative white Christians on the one hand and black Christians on the other. In a curious and continuing lapse, when the American media refer to "conservative" or "evangelical" Christians and make generalizations about their alleged political preferences, it fails to recognize that almost all black Christians are theologically conservative and evangelical. For example, black churches have combined a fervent evangelical theology with a progressive political stance for more than a hundred years.

Recently the Christian Coalition leadership has sought to strengthen its generally weak links with the black church community. A politically conservative black pastor from Boston has been appointed as a liaison with black churches, and Ralph Reed—in a move that combined generosity with strategy—announced that his organization will seek to raise $1 million to help rebuild black churches destroyed by arsonists. Still, it is hard to conceive how much black church support could be developed for many items on the Christian Coalition's political agenda.

Finally, a serious chasm seems to have opened between the national leadership of the Christian Coalition and the grassroots organizations that constitute its real strength. It was the old inside-vs.-outside-the-beltway debate that plays out in so much political rhetoric today, and which—ironically—has been deployed so skillfully by the Christian Coalition itself.

This tension became evident in the early weeks of the Republican primary campaign when polls indicated that while large majorities of local Christian Coalition members and leaders strongly preferred Pat Buchanan, the more "realistic" national leadership did not. Robertson, Reed, and the other national leaders had, in fact, an equally strong preference for Dole. At one point Pat Robertson even issued a public statement stating that he had complete confidence in Dole, who, he claimed, was actually a very old friend. As usual the locals were less "realistic," less willing to compromise, more willing to vote their convictions rather than calculating the possible consequences.

In addition to the splits within the Religious Right, it has become ever more clear that the claim of the Christian Coalition to speak for all Christians in the political arena is simply not credible. Little by little neither the press nor the political establishment are ready to accept the sweeping claims of the Christian Coalition about how many people it speaks for.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US? Columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, who is a serious and thoughtful Catholic, has pointed out on more than one occasion that American voters have become skeptical of both parties and of all candidates. They dislike, even hate, politics. They do not see the political institutions of the country responding to their real needs.

What are those needs? Dionne, viewing the situation from his vantage point at one of America's leading news gathering organizations, believes voters feel there is both a moral and an economic crisis in the country, and they want the government to address both. Political positions that focus narrowly on economic issues ("It's the economy, stupid!") or solely on what some define as "moral issues" (teen-age pregnancy, drugs, divorce) will not be persuasive. People want a combination of both.

Can Christians come to some modicum of agreement about what we want and expect from the political process during a presidential election year? I think we can.

Although I am not a member of the Religious Right, I do not think the questions they raise can be ignored, though I would offer quite different answers. For example, I do not believe a democracy can function if there is not some basic moral consensus. We cannot even debate usefully about some of the most divisive issues we confront—abortion, welfare, race—unless we have some elemental agreement on the terms in which the argument will proceed. For this reason I believe that government at all levels does have some responsibility—along with churches and families and neighborhoods—for the moral nurturance of citizens, especially of young people.

I also share some of the concern of those on the Religious Right that the effort to expel all religious reference in public discourse is plainly wrong. Why in a country that prizes free speech should religious language be the only idiom banned? That is absurd. Further, since so many people link their moral insights and political preferences to their religiously shaped worldviews, to ban such language would discriminate against a very large proportion of the population. All religious people must take these points very seriously and make sure our public square is not turned into a religion-free space.

But I would also fondly hope that religiously and politically conservative Christians might pay much more attention to what appears in the Bible to be a clear and unmistakable "preferential option for the poor." Could we, for example, forge at least the core of a Christian political perspective simply by building on Jesus' announcement of the purpose of his own mission in the fourth chapter of Luke? There Jesus announces that his purpose is to bring good news to the poor and the sick and the captives.

In a society with over-filled prisons, a shabby health care system, and a widening gap between the wealthy at the top and the poor at the bottom, this messianic project could at least provide the basis for a Christian political presence. It is also important to notice that Jesus was beginning in his own home town. He did not begin the movement that was ultimately to reshape the world at the top. He started locally.

I believe that God wants Christians to express their faith in all the realms of life in which we live—family, neighborhood, political—but with the humble recognition that we are all sinners and that Jesus commands us to love even those with whom we vehemently disagree. It helps to remember that politics never holds any final answers.

As that young congressman, then president, said while a terrible and divisive war still raged, in one of the most luminously Christian phrases ever to fall from a president's lips, we should proceed, "with malice toward none, with charity for all." Not a bad rule for a presidential election year.

Harvey Cox was Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard University when this article appeared.

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