Impact of religion is not in politicization but in debate, panelists agree

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

NEW YORK — Has the Religious Right waned in political influence since the Reagan years? And if so, is maintaining its political platform worthwhile in promoting its values in America today?

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and Michigan pastor Ed Dobson deal with these issues in Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?, saying evidence of an agenda that is in trouble may be found in both the failure of the Religious Right to effect change and the damage to churches caused by politicizing them.

This thesis provided the basis for a discussion of “Religion and Politics 2000″ yesterday at Newseum/NY, representing several religious and political viewpoints and moderated by First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler.

“We’re not calling for withdrawal or retreat of religious people from their privileges of activism of whatever perspective in the public square,” Thomas argued. “We are saying, however, that people with a religious world view or sense of calling are limited in what they can do through the political system.

“They’re unlimited as to what they can do through the religious institutions,” Thomas continued. “In recreating a moral America or their concept of a moral America, when you have legislators who cannot even impose morality on themselves, it is arguable as to whether they will be able to impose it on the rest of the country.”

Dobson noted that the presence of religion in the political sphere can undermine the very essence of religious teaching.

There is “increasing pressure,” he explained, “for pastors and churches to become centers for political activism. And once the church becomes politically engaged in partisan politics, then the Gospel becomes a partisan issue. So that ultimately what it means to be a follower of Jesus is hurt. We tend to forget that when you wrap the flag and the Scripture and politicize the Gospel, you end up not hurting the state or the body politic. You end up hurting the church.”

However, Christian conservative radio talk show host Janet Parshall criticized what she called a “false hypothesis” of Thomas’ and Dobson’s thesis “that one either evangelizes or gets involved in public policy. And I would put before you that I believe that I’m called to do all of those things.”

Thomas expressed frustration over the limitations of advancing four key policy items of the religious right since the Reagan administration:

  • Eliminating “as much as possible” abortion on demand.
  • Reversing the advances in the 1980s of the gay rights movement.
  • Opposing the drug culture.
  • Stabilizing the American family.

By contrast, Parshall questioned Thomas’s notion of failure and presented her own more optimistic assessment of success: “I believe that we are victorious every single time we establish our booth in the marketplace of ideas. I think … if we speak in silence and don’t speak at all … the absence of [faith-based principles] will be very detrimental.”

She admitted that the post-Reagan era had witnessed a flattening of enthusiasm for the Christian morality movement. But this is not failure, she said. “People … are tired, a kind of cultural fatigue. This is going to be for the long haul.”

Representing a liberal religious viewpoint was Elizabeth Coleman, director of the Civil Rights Division of the Anti-Defamation League. Coleman interprets the book’s criticism as being of the potential to succumb to politicization, not as an indictment of religion’s participation in the “marketplace of ideas.”

“I agree so wholeheartedly,” Coleman said, “with what happens to religion when it becomes a tool of government.” But, she added, “I feel as passionately as you (Parshall) about the thrill of that participation. But the rules that we all have to obey are the ground rules of public debate in a democracy so that no one feels left out of that debate.

“I don’t believe people on the so-called religious right should be left out of the debate. I don’t believe homosexuals should be left out of the debate. No one should be left out of the debate,” she said. “And that’s what’s so great about our system, and that’s what’s so great about our First Amendment.”

Panelist Terry Eastland, publisher of The American Spectator, took issue with Thomas’s view that there was no scriptural mandate for using the secular political system to revive a nation — what he called “trickle-down morality.”

“I think that abortion (and other issues) are not the cause of our decadence,” Thomas said. “They’re a reflection of it.”

However, Eastland said, “There are passages in the book that suggest that we can’t change people through laws. That you have to change them through their hearts first. There’s a lot of truth to that, but … the law does (have) an educative value. Let us think back to the civil rights acts during the ’60s in particular. Those laws told us that there were certain ways in which you were supposed to behave … . There were penalties attached to you if you failed to obey the law. I think laws are extremely important. Therefore, I think it is possible to impose morality on people.”

Coleman agreed that laws “can educate and change people morally.”

“One of the reasons why black churches have been so significant is because they were in a wonderful sense subversive and they effected change,” she said. “And I think that when religion comes from and effects change, it’s very powerful.”

Dobson concurred, adding, “The African-American church became the only safe place not only to discuss God, but to discuss politics, to discuss voting rights, to discuss social issues.

“My observation is that in part what happened is the failure of the white church: that if white Christians had been authentically Christian and had broken down the walls of slavery and had served in genuine partnership decades, decades, decades ago, there probably would have been no need for the civil rights movement,” he said. “Issues of equality and opportunity would not be the perplexing issues that we have today.”

Seigenthaler asked Eastland, “Does Jefferson’s wall between separation of church and state exist? Is it just a line? Is it a line in the sand that can be erased or moved?”

“Jefferson’s famous line about the separation of church and state occurred in a letter in 1802,” Eastland said. “One of the truths about America is that it was founded on the proposition that there should be this kind of distinction … . The proposition is simply that there should be no one particular church.

“So it was that by the design of the Constitution that we would have a multiplicity of factions, of sects. That in this there would be freedom for all believers. That was the original Madisonian understanding. It was embodied, if you will, in the expression of the First Amendment. The question always has been, ‘Where do you draw this line?’ ”

Politics, Eastland said, is “a messy enterprise.”

Dobson echoed this belief, saying, “I can’t speak for politicians. This whole discussion hurts my brain. It’s so messy; it’s so complicated. I don’t know where the line is. … I can’t save America.”

But, he added, “I can love people with HIV in our own community. I can partner with African-Americans in our own community. I can preach about racism. We can empower people and help them off welfare. We can live out with radical acts of love in our own community. And create a movement that will do a whole lot more than all of the passionate political involvement that we could ever muster together.”

At the close of the program, an audience member criticized the First Amendment Center and The Freedom Forum for the makeup of the panel, noting that four of five panelists had ties to Christian conservatism. In response, moderator Seigenthaler noted that the discussion was intended to focus on the attack by Thomas and Dobson in Blinded by Might on tactics used by the Religious Right; that Eastland and Parshall disagreed with the attack; and that Coleman brought yet another view, from a Jewish organization, of the involvement of faith-based groups in political activity.