God, sex and the blues

May 31, 1996

In contrast to the making of Thatcherism, the development and advance of the new right in the United States has depended greatly on the formation and energy of a new evangelical politics.

Whether the issue has been school prayer, abortion, gay rights, or cinematic sex and violence, religious arguments have been central to the American new right's "culture wars". And in the past few years the new Christian right has succeeded in returning to the public agenda the grand question of the role of religion in civic and public affairs.

Such things are not exactly new in America. As Ronald Thiemann, dean of Harvard's Divinity School, attests in his new book, Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy, since earliest colonial times the role of religion in government and the larger realm of civil society continually has been a contentious matter. In fact, as historians Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore ably remind us in their own new book, The Godless Constitution, to secure freedom of religious expression and the independence of both the state and the several churches from each other, the founding fathers not only composed a secular and irreligious document, they also opened the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights with the words "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". While it hardly resolved the issue, the intention of the founders - a good many of whom, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists - was clearly to provide for the separation of church and state.

Of course, the constitutional divorce of church and state did not mean that religion itself would cease to be an active presence in American public culture (nor was it intended to have such an effect). Thus that great observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, would write in 1835: "Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention." Visitors today probably have the same reaction and, if church membership and belief in a "supreme being" - whether Christian or non-Christian - mean anything, it is arguable that after 160 years Americans are not only more religious than they were, but more religious than most other peoples (which is not to say that we are more moral than we were, or more moral than other folks).

Originally mobilised for Reagan Republicanism by the Reverend Jerry Falwell's now-defunct Moral Majority, the foremost organisation of the overwhelmingly Protestant-fundamentalist religious right today is the Christian Coalition. Godfathered by televangelist and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson (whose key writings are both apocalyptic and reminiscent of the anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"), the Christian Coalition is led by the boyish looking, but politically astute, Ralph Reed who, notably, holds a PhD in history (and thus apparently feels entitled to do with and to the past what he wishes).

Learning from the failures of his mentor (Robertson was blatantly too ready to bury the First Amendment and officially declare America a "Christian nation"), Reed's group trains "stealth" candidates for public office and downplays the specifically Protestant-fundamentalist character of the organisation by promoting it as an ecumenical "pro-family" movement.

Reed's own writings, his book Politically Incorrect (1994) and the Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family (1995), repeat the litany of new-right politicos: reduce taxes, shrink government, privatise public broadcasting and the national endowments for the arts and humanities, and allow public dollars to fund private, religious and parochial schools! But Reed puts a special religious spin on it.

Ignoring the power of capital and its subordination of social relations and morality to the values of the market, Reed insists that, since the 1960s, government, education and the media have been taken over by left-liberal forces whose policies and programmes have been both anti-religious and anti-family. Dressing himself in the language of the Constitution, and calling for passage of a "religious freedom amendment", Reed claims that liberals have been persecuting "people of faith" by perverting the founders' intentions and using the constitutional principle of separation of church and state to drive religion and the faithful from "the public square".

Reed's supporters include not only Republican candidates like Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan, but also leading conservative public intellectuals like William Bennett (practising Catholic, PhD in philosophy, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, former secretary of education and, now, cultural policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, co-director of the Empower America organisation, and editor of the bestselling volumes, The Book of Virtues and Children's Book of Virtues).

While God only knows if they will ultimately succeed in their ambitions to subject public policy to fundamentalist religion, Reed and his cohorts clearly have reshaped public debate. Of course, they may get more than they bargained for.

Reflecting fresh thinking on the political left, the liberal Washington Monthly ran a feature by Amy Waldman outlining "Why we need a religious left"; and the progressive magazine, The Nation, ran a similar piece by renowned Harvard theologian Harvey Cox. Moreover, in works like Jewish Renewal by Michael Lerner, The Soul of Politics by Catholic activist Jim Wallis, and Keeping Faith by African-American theologian Cornel West, liberals, progressive-populists and radicals have begun to redeem a prophetic politics of the left. Addressing the upcoming presidential and congressional campaigns, what promises to be an impressive "National Summit on Ethics and Meaning" will be held this spring in Washington DC, organised by Lerner's magazine, Tikkun, Wallis's sojourners, and a host of other progressive religious groups.

Universities themselves, whether religious or secular, have not been immune to the resurgence of religious politics. So far, it appears that conservative religious fervour and organising, at least at the major public universities, have been limited to evangelical students and the likes of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (whose athletic members can regularly be seen huddling in prayer before and after sporting events).

However, courses on religion are reportedly growing in popularity nationwide; scholarly presses are searching eagerly for religious studies (W. B. Eerdmans, a leading publisher of such works, is thriving like never before); and, in books like The Soul of the American University, Religion and American Education, and Exiles from Eden, there have been serious calls to reintroduce faith into American intellectual and academic life. As Alan Wolfe writes in a recent issue of the critical magazine of academe, Lingua Franca: "Intellectual fashions being what they are, the next major issue facing higher education may well be the revival of religious faith."

Finally, however much Reed and his ilk would disavow having had any influence, I note that the feature story in the recent "College Issue" of Rolling Stone magazine also reflected the new attention being accorded to matters of faith. Treating the singer of the hit-single, "One of Us", which hypothesises God being just an everyday guy - with the singer herself smiling broadly and displaying proudly her ring-pierced nose on the magazine's front cover - the banner lines read: "Joan Osborne: Saved by God, Sex and the Blues". Now, that is a religion I imagine a lot of students could subscribe to.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History? and Other Questions.

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