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Assessing the Concerns of the Religious Right

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 14, 1981, pp. 1018-1022. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There has always been a ‘religious right." Perhaps the first Christian instance of this phenomenon was the resistance of the Jerusalem Christians to Paul’s liberal tendencies, as recorded in Acts. Though Paul provided many proof texts for future conservatives, on the greatest issue of his time he was adventurously liberal, opening the church to the gentiles and traveling over half the known world to gather them.

Of course, some of the reasons for the emergence of a religious right are to be found in the secular political choices that religious people must make, but there are also several aspects of Christian teaching which, when emphasized to the neglect of other aspects, lend themselves to political and social rightwing interpretations.

For example, there is the common emphasis on otherworldly salvation for individual souls, with no corresponding emphasis on the social conditions that oppress and distort those souls and with no concern for justice in this world. Larger structural social problems, it is felt, can wait for the Second Coming. One recalls the recent occasion on which Secretary of the Interior James Watt dismissed the idea that it might be important to conserve resources for future generations -- because there may not be many generations before the Second Coming of Christ.

Another emphasis is the notion that divine providence supports the dominant powers in society and sanctions the alliance of the church with those powers. For centuries the idea of the "divine right of kings" was dominant; eventually there evolved the belief, common among 19th century Protestants, that divine providence was to be identified with the laws and practices of a free-enterprise economy. This latter teaching characterizes the religious right of today, and the policies of the Reagan administration are based on a secularized version of that belief.

There has also been a one-sided emphasis on sin -- an emphasis that has led many Christians to believe that, though existing conditions may be bad, a change would probably be worse. Understandably, this doctrine has been popular among those who benefit from the status quo. It is often thought that change would open the door to control by crude and godless people, perhaps by "secular humanists," perhaps by individuals influenced by some revolution abroad. That last fear began early in our history. The Congregational clergy in New England charged Jefferson and his followers with being Jacobins influenced by the French Revolution.

Finally, there is an authoritarian tendency in religion which meshes well with authoritarian secular structures and with rigid prescriptions for living. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, says in his recent book Listen America that "the Bible is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc." That "etc." is his, and it covers a lot of ground. I have seen a Falwell quotation that takes back a little of that, but in interviews he has a way of bending.

Both modern Protestantism and Catholicism have correctives for each of those tendencies, which keep coming to life and making connections with the secular political right.

Considerable debate is going on as to how much influence the religious right has, the extent to which it influenced the results of the 1980 election, and how many people listen regularly to right-wing preachers on television. This is a subject in itself, and I shall offer only a few suggestions to help counteract the tendency to exaggerate this influence. Last year’s national election was not won by a large popular majority, and almost half of those eligible failed to vote. People felt frustrated over the economy and over what they believed to be signs of American weakness in the world. These feelings could have determined the election results without much help from the religious right and without a strong new right-wing direction among the voters. The use of single issues -- different ones in different states -- by the Moral Majority had a great deal to do with the defeat of liberal senators.

The June issue of the Atlantic carried a study by sociologist William Martin of Rice University about the number of listeners who tune in regularly to politically right-wing preachers. Based on Nielson-type ratings, it shows that the nonpolitical though rather conservative preachers such as Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller have many more listeners than does Jerry Falwell. Between them they have nearly 4.5 million listeners, whereas Falwell has only 1,440,000 who hear him regularly. I must admit that Falwell is very successful each month in raking in millions of dollars. Not that I want to play down the influence of the right-wing preachers, but it is well for those of us who disagree with them not to be overawed by what we believe to be their power.

As I see today’s religious right, especially the very vocal Moral Majority, it involves the merging of four concerns. The coalescing of these interests may be somewhat accidental, and a few years from now we may see a weakening of the right-wing coalition that now seems so strong. At least three of these concerns reflect anxieties and frustrations now common in our country.

The first concern which makes the religious right’s backing somewhat different from the religious support accorded right-wing politics when Barry Goldwater was its chief symbol is anxiety over signs of moral breakdown in society, especially those that are believed to threaten the family -- abortion, homosexuality, pornography. Frequently there are attacks on what many of us would regard as signs of moral advance: the ERA and movements for the liberation of women, which rightists perceive as undermining the family.

The second area of concern is the rightists’ view that American morals are being eroded by what they call "secular humanism." They engage in caricatures of this type of humanism, and their attacks indicate no realization that Christian humanism has long been a significant expression of Christianity. Christian humanism, the humanism of some other faiths (especially Judaism), nontheistic religious humanism, and secular humanism have much in common in their commitment to moral values. Usually one finds among all four humanisms greater moral sensitivity about problems of justice and peace, about reconciliation between races and nations, than one finds in the Moral Majority.

The third area of concern has to do with the widespread feeling that America is weak and being pushed around and that Soviet power and communism threaten its freedom or its very existence. In a call for military superiority to the Soviet Union and for victory over communism -- rather than containment -- Falwell pulls out all stops in his superpatriotism. He sees the Soviet Union and communism as almost supernaturally evil entities in an apocalyptic drama. Among political issues this seems to be the one that arouses him most, partly because of the atheistic orientation of communism.

The fourth area of concern is a prevalent frustration over the economy. The religious right strongly supports the secular right and advocates pure free-market capitalism liberated from big government. Its adherents are extreme in their opposition to socialism, and I doubt that they see very clearly the difference between democratic socialism and communism. Their celebration of free-market capitalism seems to be part of their uncritical Americanism. It is my impression that economic issues do not for them involve the kind of emotional commitment that they express in the other three areas.

Before discussing these areas of concern, I would like to make two clarifying points.

First, we must not suppose that the religious right is representative of the very large community of evangelicals. A minority among the evangelicals -- represented by such journals as Sojourners and the Other Side -- is so radical in its criticism of the American economy and of our foreign policies that it gives up on liberal politics; nonetheless, its witness is an important corrective to what many of us regard as the Moral Majority’s distortions of Christian faith.

In September 1980 a Gallup poll published in Newsweek -- one which Jerry Falwell repudiated in an interview -- indicated that the evangelical community is divided in this way: left of center, 20 per cent; at center, 31 per cent; right of center, 37 per cent. At that time 52 per cent of evangelicals were for Carter and 31 per cent for Reagan. Many changed their preference before November, but such a change could hardly reflect strong commitment to the politics of the religious right. On the important symbolic issue of the ERA, 53 per cent were in favor.

Second, the critics of the religious right cannot, in my opinion, claim that its political activities involve a violation of the separation of church and state. That principle has never meant the separation of religion and politics. Liberal Christians have a long history of political action, most recently in connection with civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Also, the Moral Majority is not a church but an example of the unofficial religious movements that have long been an aspect of religion in this country -- and often a highly creative one. Those who disagree with the Moral Majority people should attack the substance of their commitments rather than their right to be political. There are, however, some issues that do raise the establishment-of-religion question, such as (1) legislative action, prescribing the teaching of "creationism" as science and (2) prayer in the public schools. Some critics would include abortion among these issues, but I would not, for reasons I shall cite later.

Most Americans share the Moral Majority’s anxiety about signs of moral breakdown, including the weakening of the family. But the Moral Majority confronts these problems with a sledgehammer, and its proposed solutions would threaten other values. This is seen most clearly in its attacks on women’s liberation. A patriarchal society can by sheer authority preserve the appearance of stability in the family, but often this stability disguises the fact that the family can constitute a trap for women. There is no going back to male supremacy.

The right-wing moralists make scapegoats of homosexuals, who are now aboveground and who claim the full rights of human beings and citizens. Though in interviews Falwell appears more moderate on this subject than his book would suggest, we can expect the religious right to harass homosexuals and to try to deny them their civil rights.

I do not know what the rightists intend to do about pornography. I have heard Falwell say that he does not believe in censorship. On the, other hand, he cheers parents who try to censor schoolbooks. This problem has proved to be too much for the courts; it is a serious one, and I would not want to see the religious right in a position to determine what is pornography.

The issue that will have the highest priority for the religious right in the near future is a constitutional amendment that would outlaw almost all abortion. We can expect the struggle for such an amendment to produce bitter conflicts in American politics nationally and in every state. I used to think that abortion was chiefly an issue dividing Catholics and Protestants, but this is not the case -- though the top Catholic authorities are today more adamant on the subject than are the leaders of other denominations. In poll after poll the Catholic community has shown that it is very much divided; there is even disagreement among Catholic moral theologians, partly on the morality of abortion and even more so on the use of law to regulate it.

The Moral Majority is mostly Protestant. Even the Republican platform in 1980 supported such an antiabortion amendment, as does President Reagan. The issue of the establishment of religion would be involved if the only basis for the absolutistic opposition to abortion were theological, but actually it is more metaphysical than theological. That is true of the debate in Congress concerning legislative determination of when human life begins. The debate is not really about that but rather about when a human being begins who has claims equal to the claims of those who are born.

The adoption of such a constitutional amendment would be an act of repression for a large part of the community, and would actually go against the moral and religious convictions of most Protestants and Jews and many Catholics. It is significant that the following denominations have, in official statements, endorsed the view that abortion should be legally permitted in several situations: the United Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America.

Very restrictive abortion laws go against the consciences of many, but the lack of such laws does not require behavior that goes against the consciences of others. Also, enforcement of those laws would be limited, and hundreds of thousands of women would have abortions under unsafe conditions. Life for them would be distorted by secretiveness. I know of no moral issue involving personal behavior that is more agonizingly puzzling. In the conflict concerning the use of public funds to pay for abortions for poor women, both sides are governed by moral outrage. One side is outraged by almost all abortions; the other is outraged by the injustice to poor women. The two sides pass in the night; no helpful communication is possible.

The tirades of the Moral Majority against "humanists" are misdirected. The various kinds of humanists I have mentioned usually are morally sensitive about a number of issues, including those related to justice and peace, personal integrity, poverty, hunger and oppression in many parts of the world. Very few American secular humanists are polemical atheists. The respect for religion and for the Christian and Jewish traditions in this country is widespread indeed, as shown in polls about beliefs and about church attendance. The culture is highly secular, but the problem is not one of an intellectually aggressive secularism orchestrated by humanists. It is true that there are probably more people today without either religious or moral moorings than was the case of a generation ago, but this situation is partly a consequence of disillusioning events and loss of roots and hopes that give direction and meaning to life. Humanists at least do have moral moorings.

The vocal insistence of the religious right on biblical "creationism" and such doctrines as the inerrancy of the Bible is likely to create a one-sided impression of the Christian faith and to turn away people who are not aware of other Christian views. The effort to secure action by state legislatures to require the teaching of creationism as science along with evolutionary theories has already succeeded in two states. The textbooks will have to include this teaching, but teachers will often feel bound to correct those textbooks. How many more Scopes trials can Americans take? It is an intolerable intrusion for legislatures to determine the content of science to be taught in schools.

The support, of the. Moral Majority and other groups for what they call "voluntary prayer" in the public schools threatens the religious liberty of the minority that will oppose prayer in general or particular prayers. Private voluntary prayer is constitutional now. A serious issue is raised only when prayer involves the use of words in a public event. Who is it that is expected to make the voluntary choice? Is it a teacher, a faculty, a superintendent, a class, a school board? In any of those cases there would be social pressure to conform, and those who may have sincere reasons for absenting themselves would often be subject to prejudice or even scorn. Who is to determine the content of prayers? If the content is Christian or more broadly biblical to be meaningful for Jews, the problem of the objector would be intensified. If the content is vague and without important meaning, prayer itself would be discredited. This country does not need an increase in empty religious observances.

The greatest moral error of the Moral Majority is its tendency toward a narrow, chauvinistic nationalism. It has opposed the Panama Canal treaties -- a sign of nationalism in relation to the sensitivities of all of Latin America. It has been against SALT II, and its enthusiasm for the present military buildup is not tempered by a desire to control the arms race. It shows no concern about nuclear war and would only encourage the provocative elements in foreign policy that make nuclear war more likely. Jerry Falwell regards foreign aid as another case of "welfare" for which he has no respect.

The distinctiveness of this Moral Majority position on international affairs becomes evident when it is compared with what Billy Graham is now saying. We are dealing not with a contrast between theological conservatives and liberals but with a much deeper level of difference. Writing in Sojourners ("A Change of Heart," August 12, 1978), Graham renounces what he admits was a tendency to confuse the Kingdom of God with the American way of life. He asks: "Is it the will of God that resources be used for massive armaments which could otherwise be used to alleviate human suffering and hunger?" He supports the SALT disarmament efforts and says that he does not think "that present differences are worth a nuclear war." Graham’s visits to Hungary and Poland changed his emphasis in regard to the communist nations, and he states in a public letter in the Other Side (January 1981): "It is out of a deepening sense of Christian responsibility, therefore, that I have sought after my visit to Hungary in 1977 to make whatever contribution I can to building bridges of understanding and peace. . . . The issue of peace is not a political issue; it is a moral and spiritual issue." That stance is in marked contrast to the militaristic nationalism of the Moral Majority. I hope that many who have responded favorably to the Moral Majority will hear this other view. They are more likely to pay attention to Billy Graham than to me!

As I have said, economic policies are not in the Moral Majority’s area of greatest interest. But what it does say in applying moral doctrine to economics gives complete Christian sanction to the economic doctrine and policies of the secular right, for which economic policies are a major interest. It gives unqualified support to the economic doctrine and policies of the present administration. In his Listen America Falwell contends that "the free enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs" and that "Jesus Christ made it clear that the work ethic was a part of His plan for man," that ownership of property is Biblical."

The work ethic is generally a great good, but it needs to be under the criticism of the words of Jesus: "You cannot serve God and Mammon." How anyone who claims to be thoroughly biblical can be so little impressed by the passion of the prophets for social justice or by the identification of Jesus with the poor and in general with the victims of society is beyond my understanding. I think that in Falwell’s case it may be partly a naïve view of what society would be like if there were no limits on free enterprise. He says that there are jobs enough for people if they are willing to work, and he would like the federal government to get rid of "welfare," leaving that to the states and private charity. How callous he is about these matters I do not know, but he gives much religious aid and comfort to those who are callous, and he provides political support for those who seek to solve our national problems at the expense of our most vulnerable people.

On all sides we hear that people in power believe in equal opportunity for all, and that they distinguish between equal opportunity and equality of results. What they neglect is the fact that inequalities in the conditions with which people start can be so extreme that equal opportunity is nonexistent. The victims whom our systems are most certain to neglect are the deserving children of those, believed by authorities to be the "undeserving poor." There are other people who also need attention, but if policies have in view these neglected people, including the young people in our cities who have never had hope for a job with a future, they are likely to be more just in relation to others in need.

The economic doctrine of the Moral Majority is in absolute contradiction to the economic teachings of ecumenical Protestantism in most of this century and to the economic teaching of Roman Catholicism in many centuries. This is especially true of Catholic teachings concerning limits on the use of private property. Proof texts from Proverbs are not sufficient to make a view of private property biblical.

On May 15 the National Council of Churches’ Governing Board, which consists of 266 delegates from 32 denominations, made one of the most courageous statements that I can remember coming from such a representative church body. It is clearly ahead of present public opinion, but I regard it as an early presentation of what will soon be widely recognized as true. The statement declared that the Reagan administration is trying to remake America, that it threatens "the vision of America as the model and embodiment of a just and, humane society" After many specific criticisms of policies, it says of the administration’s vision of America that "the fittest survive and prosper, and there is little room for public purpose since it interferes with private gain, . . . and government is at best a necessary evil which must be strong enough to protect privilege from assault but kept too weak to impose public responsibility on private prerogative." This is also a description of the vision of America held by the Moral Majority and the religious right.

These rightists appeal to the real anxieties of a great many Americans about some serious moral issues, but their prescriptions are not likely to help in dealing with those issues; moreover, they threaten other moral values. What is more serious, they either neglect or respond inappropriately to the most fateful moral problems facing all humanity: the problem of economic justice in this country and in others, and the struggle for peace -- especially the struggle to prevent nuclear war.


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