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With God on Our Side: Reflections on the Religious Right

by William Martin Chavanne

William Martin Chavanne is Professor of Religion and Public Policy, Department of Sociology, Rice University. The following is the transcription of a presentation made to the 1997 Annual Forum of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org For more information about With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, see http://wmartin.com/withgod.


When I was in Seminary in the 1960's studying with Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox -- one was at the end of a career and the other at the beginning-- and reading the works of Bishop John A. T. Robinson and others, we talked a lot about the death of God and the secular city and the world coming of age, a world on which formal religion would have less and less impact. That is one reason I became a sociologist. I don't think they are doing that anymore. Last fall I spoke at Harvard Divinity School and a couple of days later at the University of Chicago School of Theology. As it turns out, they are talking more and more about religious revival, about the rise of new religions, about the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism, about the enormous impact religion is having on world affairs and, in this country, about the increased prominence of the Religious Right, a movement which may already be the most powerful special interest group in America and which has given ample notice that it doesn't consider its job anywhere near done.

As has been mentioned, I have written a book: With God on Our Side, available at a book table near you. This serves as the companion volume to the PBS series of the same name. If they run out here, you can call up http://wmartin.com/withgod on the Internet and you should be able to find all the books you'll ever want.

Both the book and the TV series aim at being as objective and fair as possible, though not always neutral. In describing and accounting for the lives of the Religious Right, which we define simply as religious conservatives with a considerable involvement in political activity, the book and the series tell the story primarily by focusing on leading episodes in the movement's history, including, but not limited to, the groundwork laid by Billy Graham in his relationships with presidents and other prominent political leaders; the resistance of evangelical and other Protestants to the candidacy of the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy; the rise of what has been called the New Right out of the ashes of Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964; a battle over sex education in Anaheim, California, in the mid-1960's; a prolonged cultural war over textbooks in West Virginia in the early 1970's -- and that is a battle that has been fought less violently in community after community all over the country; the thrill conservative Christians felt over the election of a "born-again" Christian to the Presidency in 1976 and the subsequent disappointment they experienced when they found out that Jimmy Carter was, of all things, a Democrat; the rise of the Moral Majority and its infatuation with Ronald Reagan; the difficulty the Religious Right has had in dealing with abortion, homosexuality and AIDS; Pat Robertson's bid for the presidency and his subsequent launching of the Christian Coalition; efforts by Dr. James Dobson and Gary Bauer to win a "civil war of values" by changing the culture at a deeper level than is represented by winning elections; and, finally, by addressing crucial questions about the appropriate relationship between religion and politics or, as we usually put it, between church and state. We have told these stories with the aid of extensive interviews with more than a hundred people, most of them key participants. It isn't possible for me to go into these stories in any detail in such a short time, so I thought, instead of doing that, I would like to devote my time this morning to addressing some of the main questions people have asked me repeatedly over the course of the last two years, when I was working on the book, and after the book had come out.

First of all, "Who and how numerous are they, these folk who make up the Religious Right?" Most of them are White Evangelical Protestants. As a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center makes clear -- and this is supported by other studies including a significant study released last fall, "A Survey of American Political Culture," by Dr. James Davidson Hunter, who wrote the book Culture Wars -- White Evangelical Protestants are not, as the Washington Post famously called them in 1993, "less affluent, less educated, and more easily led than the average American." That, by the way, was not in an editorial, not in an op-ed piece, but in a front-page news story. It was arrogant and a mistake as well, and certain people mentioned that to the Washington Post. Contrary to that image, White Evangelical Protestants are mostly in the demographic mainstream, with only somewhat less formal education and a slightly larger proportion of poor people than the population as a whole. They are concentrated in the South, truer to the stereotype -- about half of their members live in these areas -- with large numbers, nearly seventy percent, living in small cities, towns, and rural areas. Their numbers are growing rapidly in the suburbs of Sunbelt cities where conservative cultural traditions are being challenged by waves of newcomers. They comprise twenty-five percent of all registered voters. This is similar to mainline or non-Evangelical Protestants and to Roman Catholics. It is three times the number of black Christians who are registered voters, four times the numbers of non-registered voters, and twelve times the numbers of Jewish voters -- and Episcopalian voters. This is not a fringe of American life. Now, of course, not all White Evangelical Protestants are members of the Religious Right or even regard themselves as Republicans. But forty-two percent do call themselves Republicans. That is up from twenty-six percent in 1976 and thirty-five percent in 1987. (There has been no comparable switch of parties in this century other than the switch among blacks from the Republican to the Democratic party during the Roosevelt era.)

And forty-two percent consider themselves Republicans compared to thirty percent of all registered voters. Moreover, the more highly committed they are to their region, the more likely they are to vote Republican. Furthermore, they are more likely actually to vote. In the 1996 election, about two-thirds of White Evangelical Protestants voted, compared to slightly less than half of the general population, and of course that "general population" includes them. So they have a power beyond their numbers. Now, as I said, not all White Evangelical Protestants are active members of the Religious Right. Perhaps one fourth to one third are. Interestingly, those who are differ somewhat from the group as a whole. Those who are in the Christian Right are disproportionately well educated, well paid, and members of the professional classes. For example, two thirds have some college, compared to one-half of all Americans. One third have bachelor's degrees, compared to one-fifth of all Americans of appropriate age. Forty-two percent belong to some kind of occupation that could be called professional compared to twenty percent of the general population. They are not, however, on the highest rungs of the occupational ladder, and that creates some tension for them, because they feel they have made it, but are still not in positions of power. They are also disproportionately well represented among Baby Boom Americans, with their greatest numbers in the thirty-five to forty-nine-year-old group. They make up slightly over one-third of the GOP, up from one-fourth in 1987. Again, this is a truly significant group within the Republican party. This upward trend is far more pronounced in the South than in other parts of the country. White Evangelicals are more conservative on abortion, homosexuality, and other so-called "family issues" than are most Americans. They are also more conservative on environmentalism and issues of international security. This holds true independent of income, Southern residence, and other factors. Religion seems to be the key factor here.

Professor Hunter's study uncovered another interesting finding. There is a quite surprising belief in conspiracy. We know, of course, that conspiracy ideas are floating around in American society and that about ten percent of all Americans believe there is some kind of conspiracy of the government against the people. Slightly over forty percent of the active members of the Religious Right believe there is some kind of conspiracy. They also regard Bill and Hillary Clinton as a kind of symbol of all that is wicked. They are cynical and pessimistic about major institutions, but they have not given up hope. That, of course, provides a great deal of their impetus for their activities. They do believe they can change things. They know it is difficult, but they think it is possible. So this provides us with some idea of who makes up the Religious Right. This is not the whole picture, but it is the dominant group.

Second question: "How much power and influence do they have?" It is easily possible to over- or underestimate the real impact of the Religious Right, but certain assertions seem reasonably safe. Thousands of Fundamentalist and Evangelical pastors and millions of their flocks who were previously not much involved in politics have become convinced it is their Christian duty to get involved. They often say that the duty of the Fundamentalist pastor is to get his folk saved, baptized, and registered to vote. And they have registered millions of voters in that belief. They represent millions of rather easily mobilizable votes and they are likely to vote in a particular way on a number of recognizable issues. They dominate the Republican party in eighteen states, including Texas. And they have substantial influence in thirteen other states' Republican organizations. In about half of each of those categories, moderate Republicans are offering strong resistance, but religious conservatives obviously play a major role at both the local and national levels. They have been phenomenally successful at getting their agenda on the record and they are trying to have their beliefs incorporated in public policy.

Though not a majority, their commitment to voting gives them a strength beyond their numbers. Even in a presidential year, only about fifty to sixty percent of eligible voters vote. (This last year we were at the low end of that -- about forty-nine percent.) Even in a high year, that means that thirty-one percent, perhaps significantly fewer, of the electorate can decide an election. Last year twenty-five percent could have decided the election. In school board or city council elections, to which they are giving a great deal more attention, five or six percent, or even fewer, may provide the winning margin. That is the membership of two or three large churches. They use the so-called "stealth" techniques less than they once did, but they still like to come in at the last minute and distribute voter guides, often putting them on cards at churches, or to conduct saturation telephone campaigns on the weekend before the election. If there are distortions in the voter guides, which there often are, if they are passed out on the Sunday before a Tuesday election, it is pretty hard for anybody to mount a substantial response. This last election, the Christian Coalition distributed forty-five million voter guides on the Sunday before the election. They once told their members to play down their Christian affiliations. They appear more open about their involvement these days, but there is still some disjunction between what is said in public and what is said in private.

As for their effectiveness, in 1992, 1994 and, it appears, in 1996, they won about forty percent of the elections they were involved in. A high percentage of those were elections in which the winning candidate got fifty-five percent of the votes or less. The significance of that is, these were situations in which their help may well have been decisive. They tend not to support candidates who have no chance of winning, nor do they waste money on "slam dunks." They are interested in participating only where they may make a difference. That is why the Christian Coalition didn't support Pat Buchanan. He might have been their favorite candidate, but they knew he didn't have a chance, and, when Bob Dole began to look like a lost cause, they backed away from him and paid more attention to state and local elections. (As a matter of fact, it seems like much of the Republican Party did much of the same thing.)

They don't expect to win them all, but neither do they expect to retire from the field. One of the closing quotes in the television series is from Ralph Reed, who says, "We want to be a permanent fixture on the American political landscape. We are going to stay and stay and stay. If it takes three Presidents and six Congresses to pass these items, we are going to be there in the morning and we're going to be there in the evening when the lights are out. We are going to be there as long as it takes to see that these issues are addressed."

Now how did this happen? In the book and in the series, we detail the evolution of this movement, but let me sketch some of the high points for you now. Before this current movement, there was an old Christian Right. It consisted of people like Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, Edgar G. Bundy, and Fred Schwarz. These were primarily interested in being anti-Communist. They weren't terribly well organized and they didn't have much impact electorally, though they did provide the seed bed from which some other aspects of the movement could grow. Some people who are currently active were active at that time. More important, the New Right arose in the mid-1960's and early 1970's and continues to be quite important. The key figures here are the direct mail expert Richard Viguerie, political organizer Paul Weyrich, and Howard Phillips. These men have been around for a long time, pushing an extremely conservative and economic agenda. Paul Weyrich -- if you are not familiar with that name, you really ought to be -- stays in the background to a good extent, but he's a terrifically important figure in American politics. He's the most important ideological figure of the New Right and also the Godfather of the Religious Right. In 1973 with aid from money from Joseph Coors, Weyrich helped establish the Heritage Foundation, which is the major philosophical and ideological organization behind the new Right. It publishes an avalanche of position papers from a wide range of issues. Also in the mid-1970's, Weyrich founded the Free Congress Foundation, which now serves as his main base, and he began assembling a coalition of single-issue groups around such things as abortion. In 1991, he founded "National Empowerment Television," which beams a full state of unfiltered programs to conservative groups who receive them by satellite dish all around the country. You know that Newt Gingrich had a television program, but you probably have never seen it. Well, Newt Gingrich's program was on NET, National Empowerment Television. And it went only to those people who could receive it by satellite dish. Weyrich says, "Our intention is to wire this country, to have groups in every congressional district constantly getting information and instructions about how to become more effective participants in the political arena." They aren't really interested in having a wider audience outside of their circle. In fact, until last year, they changed their dial periodically on the transponder, so that you couldn't get their program unless you knew where to find it. It was not advertised in the newspaper. If you wanted to have a satellite dish for your group and could not afford one, Pat Robertson would help you get one. Weyrich has said, "This alliance between religion and politics didn't just happen. I have been working on this for years." Weyrich plays hardball. He usually uses legitimate tactics. He is an extremely effective political figure, with astonishing impact.

The third phase of this movement is what we primarily want to talk about -- the New Christian Right or simply the Religious Right. The Religious Right was mobilized by the New Right. Beginning in 1976, Weyrich, Phillips and Morton Blackwell, who organizes young men and teaches them how to be political activists -- Ralph Reed is one of his graduates -- launched a concentrated effort to involve conservative churches in their cause. Morton Blackwell said that Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians represented the largest stand of uncut virgin timber on the American political landscape, and they set out to do some heavy logging to enlist Independent Baptist and numerous "Bible churches". They met with Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1979. And in the coffee shop of the Holiday Inn there, Weyrich was saying to Falwell, "There is a moral majority in this country that wants such and such," and Falwell said, "Back to where you started. What was that you said? You used a phrase." Weyrich said, "There is a moral majority . . . " Falwell says, "That's it. That's what we'll call it. We'll form an organization, and that is the name we'll give it." In the 1980 election, Falwell's Moral Majority was the most visible representative of what came to be called the Religious Right, just as the Christian Coalition is now the most visible representative. Other important groups included the Religious Roundtable, which appealed mainly to Southern Baptists. Christian Voice drew heavily from Pentecostal circles. Falwell has greatly reduced his role. He closed down the Moral Majority and its successor organization, the Liberty Federation, in the late 1980's. He now regards himself as an elder statesman. He still dabbles a little bit. Last year he was selling a scurrilous anti-Clinton video that accused the President of complicity in about 26 murders (I think he was the actual the trigger man in only a half a dozen or so.) One of Falwell's former associates says that Jerry is just one drink away from getting back into politics, that he is addicted to it and would like to get back in.

The religious right is largely a reactive movement. It has come out of a background of non-involvement, based on theological belief and general preference to win souls, not elections. Most Fundamentalists felt the task was insurmountable and non-elective. Millions of them didn't even vote. They claim, with some justification, to have been forced into the political arena. Over the last forty years a series of catalyzing events and developments --the Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading, the widespread introduction of sex education in public schools, feminism, abortion, gay rights, AIDS, soaring divorce rates, sex and violence in the media, and the like -- either generated a direct response or served as a continuing target for response from people for whom these developments were quite offensive and threatening. The critical event was Pat Robertson's candidacy in 1988. During the 1980's, Robertson had set up an effective grass roots organization in thirty states. He came in first or second in the first seven primaries. He defeated George Bush in Michigan. You might not know that because the newspapers reported it the other way. They said that Bush had defeated him. The reason they did that is because Lee Atwater and the Republican organization had computers and hors d'oeuvres and liquor, and they told the press, "We won." Pat Robertson's group had white notebooks and telephones, and they said, "It looks like we won." "No," Lee Atwater said, "we won," and the press reported it that way. We have a Bush aide saying on the video, "We lied." The Religious Right sometimes claims the press is biased against them, and that is partly true. But Robertson won, and he came in first or second in the early primaries. Now those were mostly caucus states, states in which organization and dedication were more important than having the raw numbers. He was ultimately defeated, of course, but just as Goldwater's defeat gave rise to a more powerful, more effective New Right, so out of the ashes of Pat Robertson's defeat came the more powerful and more effective Christian Right.

Now let me tell you a little bit about some of the main groups today. Not all of them, just enough to give you some sense of their scope and interests. Most of them stand together on their positions, and their leaders are in constant contact with each other. They have interlocking directorates. They appear at each other's functions and programs and publications. Key leaders participate in a group called the Coalition on Revival, which is a kind of high-level coordinating board. But there is some specialization. In electoral politics, Christian Coalition, founded in 1988 by Pat Robertson and led for a few months more by Ralph Reed, is the major player in the field. It claims to have one to seven million members and an annual budget of over $20 million. The membership may be exaggerated. Its magazine goes out to only a little over 300,000 people. There is also some talk that perhaps the increase in membership has leveled off, and that this may be one of the factors in Ralph Reed's decision to jump ship or leave the organization this past week, thinking that maybe it is time to leave the organization rather than preside over it in its plateau or perhaps its decline. Still, it is a significant organization. It has more than 120 chapters in this state alone. The Christian Coalition teaches people how to organize. Its stated aim is to train ten activists in every one of 175,000 Republican precincts in this country. If you go to precinct meetings, you know that ten people committed to changing things can make a difference. Its ultimate goal is to take over the Republican party, and it is making considerable inroads. It is also meeting with considerable resistance.

On family issues, more narrowly defined, Dr. James Dobson, the founder and head of "Focus on the Family", is clearly the major player. Dr. Dobson is less well known to the general public, but he may be fully as important as Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, maybe more so. Dobson's thirty-minute flagship radio program (and he has several others) is heard at least 18,000 times a week over 4,000 thousand stations. His audience is estimated at five million and his books sell in millions. Nobody has a radio audience like Dobson's other than Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey, and maybe Dr. Laura. He also has an elaborate set of materials available on the Internet. Republican candidates all come to visit him. Dobson can generate an amazing flood of mail and telephone calls. He is a powerful man and he comes across as much less scary and more reasonable than Robertson. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council is closely allied with Dobson. He has White House experience; he is often seen in the political discussion shows on the weekend. They write books together. The Family Research Council used to belong to Focus on the Family and is now essentially its political arm in Washington.

Beverly LaHaye's "Concerned Women for America" has 600,000 members and more than 800 chapters. It is the largest women's organization in the country. It is more than twice as large as the National Organization for Women, and its budget is thirty to fifty percent higher. It opposes everything NOW favors. It can generate a huge response immediately. Phyllis Schlafly's "Eagle Forum" was founded in the early 1970's to oppose the ERA and was crucial to its defeat. The ERA was sailing along toward ratification and was stopped in its tracks by members of the Religious Right. Along with Beverly LaHaye's husband Tim LaHaye, Schlafly pushed the idea that secular humanism is the established religion of U.S. public schools. Bill McCartney's "Promise Keepers" is the new and big kid on the block, drawing upwards of 50,000 men for two-day meetings around the country. Like Dr. Dobson, Promise Keepers stresses family responsibility with emphasis on male leadership. It is strongly anti-gay and anti-abortion. In the last year, it has added an additional component, overcoming racism. This seems to be a quite sincere effort, though not many blacks have been attracted so far. In some of its big meetings, it's more a case of about 50,000 white guys looking for ten black guys to hug. It could be a major instrument for recruiting African-Americans into the Religious Right.

Other organizations include the American Family Association, which is concerned mainly with sex and violence in the media. It uses threats and boycotts to persuade advertisers to drop their support of shows featuring offensive material. Obviously it has not been totally successful in that area. All of the groups are opposed to abortion, but none has been more outspoken or at times more outrageous than Operation Rescue, which was founded by Randall Terry and is now headed by the Reverend Flip Benham. Homosexuality is also an extremely significant rallying point. Several groups exploit it for fundraising purposes. The most focused is the Traditional Values Coalition, led by the Reverend Louis Sheldon. Members of the Religious Right, including Bill McCartney, were the primary sponsors of "Colorado's Amendment 2," which struck down the statute outlawing discrimination against gays, which was itself struck down by the Supreme Court last June.

In the field of education, where they are putting much emphasis, the key player is Citizens for Excellence in Education. This organization, led by Robert Simonds, claims to control 2,000 school boards already and seeks to control 5,000 by the end of the century, which is not all that far off. The Christian Right holds six of fifteen positions on the Texas State Board of Education. Nearly all members of the Religious Right favor vouchers that could be used in private religious schools, of which they operate thousands. Some advocate the dismantling of the public school system, which they typically refer to as "government schools." Short of that, they hope to have a decisive impact on curriculum and other basic school matters.

Finally, though they are not as numerous, but still quite important in their influence, there are Reconstructionists, who aspire to replace civil codes with biblical laws, even to the point, among hard-liners, of making homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, propagation of false doctrine, and incorrigible behavior by children punishable by death. Non-capital offenses could be punishable by slavery. Most Religious Right leaders distance themselves officially from Reconstructionism, but they have their informal ties. They acknowledge their debts and exchange speeches and so forth, as if this is what they would like to be, but they recognize that it is politically unfeasible and even damaging. Howard Phillips, who ran for President in the U.S. Taxpayers' Party, is an avowed Reconstructionist. Dr. D. James Kennedy of the Coral Ridge Ministries, who has a large television ministry, is strongly influenced by Reconstruction. It is not simply a fringe element.

At least part of the success of the new Right and the Religious Right, who often refer to themselves as "Movement Conservatives" and "Social Conservatives," stems from their skillful use of technology and organization. With indispensable assistance from computers, the movement has used direct mail to identify supporters, raise money, propagandize and inflame, generate outrageous amounts of mail to Congress, and get out the vote. Of at least equal importance is their emphasis on organization. Again and again they have identified their constituencies, established organization, set up networks for communication, provided programs and candidates to rally around, and pointed folk toward the voting booth. Once their candidates are elected, they provide an avalanche of position papers to support their causes. This, more than their actual numbers, accounts for their remarkable success. It is a formidable movement with a powerful set of resources, enmeshed in webs of churches and clergy, religious publications, other media, direct mail, and the intense personal networks that are common to church loyalists. Its members tend to rely heavily on a few sources dominated by a clear theological and political message. That is quite good for mobilization. In addition, they tend to have a missionary zeal that is seldom matched by those on the left, and almost never by those in the moderate middle. This is a powerful movement.

The final question I want to address is, "What are the strength and dangers, the weaknesses?" The Religious Right has some unique strengths, strength that need to be taken seriously by their critics. One of these is that they are concerned about important issues -- about abortion, about issues relating to sexuality, problems in public schools, the deterioration of stable family structures, the violent and sexual content in the popular media. Many of these problems, wherever you stand, and you might well stand a different place than members of the Religious Right, are issues of real deep, deep concern. If we are to participate in a common moral community, we need to acknowledge that there are, of course, a number of issues -- concern for the environment, issues of equality, and others -- which I think should be of concern to them but which are not high on their agenda.

As for the dangers, I think religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is ill served when leaders of the Religious Right proclaim what Christians as "people of faith" are going to do if a President or major party disagrees with them, as if they have been empowered to speak for all Christians or all people of faith. Religious people honestly disagree on many issues of public policy, and to pretend otherwise is neither realistic nor honest. And in the Jewish and Christian traditions, claiming to know the mind of God is no longer an original sin, but it is still a pretty big one. It is appropriate for Christians or other religious people to be involved in the political arena, but politics is a complex and ambiguous enterprise and they (or we) should recognize that fact and not be too quick to proclaim that we are right or that all Christians agree with us.

Public cynicism toward religion, and toward the Religious Right in particular, is exacerbated when an organization such as the Christian Coalition claims to be nonpartisan. That simply is not true, and everyone knows it's not true. And I would not be surprised if Ralph Reed's conscience will be much clearer when he doesn't have to pretend that anymore. A student of ours went to a Christian Coalition meeting a couple of weeks ago and one person stood up and said, "Now remember, we are nonpartisan," and everybody laughed. Everyone recognizes this is not true, and I think members of the Christian Coalition would be better served and more highly respected if they gave up that charade and acknowledged its patent partisanship. It is not wrong to be partisan. It's not even wrong to be a Republican. Or at least it is not illegal. To claim one is something, when one is not, is hurtful to the Christian witness. The same holds true for violating any kinds of laws regarding campaigns, elections, contributions, and so forth.

I am also concerned about the demonizing language that is common, not only among the leaders of Religious Right, but also among its critics. The hateful speech we hear so often does not contribute to the common good. Finally, I am particularly concerned about the Religious Right's lack of appreciation for, and even hostility toward, a pluralistic society and one of its crucial underpinnings, the separation of church and state. Without question, religious people have a right to be involved in political activity and they can't be expected to leave their religious convictions behind when they enter the political arena. They have a right to organize themselves to work effectively for the good of their country as they understand it, and to attempt to shape public policy within the limits of the Constitution which has served us so admirably in avoiding society rendering conflict. But there are reasonable and real limits to that shaping process. The most important of these is that a religious body doesn't have the right, simply because it may be in the majority or be better organized than other groups, to bind its specifically religious doctrines upon others or to require that others help pay for the propagation of those doctrines. Religious individuals and groups should respect and honor the valuable principle of pluralism, the essence of which is not that all values are equal, but that our society is one in which any number can play, and that a multiplicity of views contributes not to chaos, but to a rich and diverse republic. (It also contributes to the free-market environment in religion that helps account for the amazing vitality of religion in this country, a vitality unmatched by any other comparably modern society.) The Right seems sometimes to suggest that only one party has a legitimate claim on the American heritage. Our Founding Fathers saw that attitude as dangerous. The system of checks and balances they built in the Constitution was formed not only by the recognition that good citizens may differ over the proper course of action, but also, at least in part, by the Biblical understanding of humans as fallible and prone to wrong-doing, and therefore frequently in need of some healthy opposition from their fellows. Nobody, in their view, has a corner on truth, justice, and the American way.

America has been remarkably favored -- "blessed" if you prefer -- by a wise and constitutional policy of non-preferential protection for the free and responsible exercise of religion. For the good of the entire community, religious and secular alike, we should protect that policy from encroachment from whatever corner. Each generation must redraw the lines of separation between the rights of religion and the rights of civil authority. If those we disagree with, whatever side they are on, cheat or lie or deceive, then we have every right to complain, to oppose, to expose, to embarrass them. If they play by the rules, however, we shouldn't cry foul when they organize themselves into an effective political force. Rather, we should play by the same rules and see if we can organize ourselves into an effective countergroup and see who can persuade the most people. If we are the ones who prevail, whether we are from the Left or the Right, who gain power, we should exercise it with humility and fear, recognizing always its tendency to corrupt its possessors and the causes they represent. Worldly power in religious hands has hardened into many a tragic episode. Men and women convinced of the correctness of their conviction and the purity of their ideals need to be reminded of another truth: certainty also corrupts, and absolute certainty corrupts powerfully.

We cannot separate religion and politics. The question is how they are to be related in such a way as to maintain the pluralism that has served this country so well. Again, the core of that pluralism is not the dogma that no value is to be preferred over another, but the conviction that civility and public peace are important, that respect for opponents and minorities and their opinions is a crucial element of the democratic society, and that however persuaded I am of the rightness of my position, I may still, after all, be wrong.


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