Social conservatives have been in the news in recent days, calling upon the Republican Party not to forget social issues as they put together their new election platform for November. The reemergence of social conservatism strikes a discordant note in the widespread media claim that the 2008 election signaled the end of the Religious Right. After that election, pundits and journalists rolled out numerous stories with the assertion that George W. Bush, a man brought into power through the activities of social conservatives, had so discredited the connection of faith and politics that social conservatism was, for all intensive purposes, at a political end.
Yet the continued presence of the Religious Right in the news suggests that the predicted demise of the Christian Right as a political force was premature. I, for one, am not surprised that they have not gone away, and don’t believe that they will do so any time soon. The Religious Right taps into an old tension within the United States political community over the degree to which the laws of the U.S. government and the various states rely upon a religious foundation.
Consider the example of George Washington, a deist, if there ever was one, who cannot be made into an orthodox Christian or a particularly fervent believer. Washington was a moderate civic republican who first supported paying Christian teachers through the state in 1785 in Virginia before turning away from the plan. He continued, though, to believe that the public presence of religious institutions and believers formed the basis of national moral norms. As he explained in his farewell address, “Religion and morality are indispensable supports” to a system of “popular government.” Popular government rested upon public opinion, which needed to be enlightened if it was to be an effective guide to rule. Religion, in other words, provided the mechanism for inculcating moral norms in the populace, shaping public opinion to uphold a just rule. He was particularly skeptical of the idea that morality could exist without religion, noting, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Fortunately, Washington explained, the citizens of the United States shared “Religion, Manners, Habits and political Principles,” which allowed religious institutions to be present in public life without threat of tension or conflict.
Religious partisans in the present often invoke Washington as a justification for their own activities in the present. But Washington downplayed the real diversity of religious sentiment that existed even at the time and that has grown exponentially in the years sense. The problem that religious partisans ignore is that, given the diversity of American religious sentiment, how can we claim that religion provides some kind of foundation for national life?
I’m afraid that the answer of conservative Christians would too often be the same as that of the nineteenth-century Christian activist, Josiah Strong. Strong was the pastor of the Vine Street Congregational Church of Cincinnati and the secretary of the evangelical political organization, the Evangelical Alliance, which was founded first in 1846 in England and then replicated a year later in the United States. Strong elaborated on Washington’s belief that religion supports democracy, but admitted that he did not think that religion in general supported democracy. Protestant Christianity alone supported proper moral character necessary for a democracy, but other forms of religion did not. “Democracy,” he explained, “is the best form for those who have sufficient intelligence and moral character to be capable of self-government,” because “[w]ithout such qualifications . . . liberty lapses into license and ends in anarchy.” To keep society from breaking apart, the individual needed to possess internalized moral sensibilities that were sanctioned by the community. Without those sensibilities individual liberty would threaten the whole with its creep toward anarchic licentiousness.
To Strong, the moral sensibilities necessary for political self-preservation were essentially Christian. If a person did not possess them, that person could not be trusted to self-government. Strong particularly worried about Catholics and Mormons, who he thought possessed a degraded religious sensibility that could not sustain a proper moral orientation necessary for the perpetuation of American democracy. In our contemporary political environment, it appears that Muslims and secularists have taken the place of Catholics and Mormons in the conservative religious imagination, and the long genealogy of these claims suggests that they will not be going away any time soon.