Date: Wed, May 19, 1999 7:03:44 AM
Subj: The Religious Right Regroups
I found myself at the American Enterprise Institute last Thursday, in search of a free lunch and a panel discussion on religious conservatives and American politics. I was only half successful. I signed up too late for lunch, but there were plenty of seats for the lectures.
As I've noted before, Washington's religious conservatives are engaged in a bit of introspection, due to a widely circulated letter from Paul Weyrich calling for a retreat from politics and a book by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson that I gather does much the same. This is how "intellectual/political" movements sort themselves out here. Just as the William Kristol/David Brooks article on national great-ness spurred myriad followup articles and set conservative and libertarian big-think conference agendas for many months, these more recent documents are giving religious activists something to think and talk about. Hence the day's forum: "Terms of (Dis)engagement: Religious Conservatives and American Politics."
The event started out slow, as moderator Keith Pavlischek plodded--and I mean plodded--through his "brief" opening and speaker introductions. "This is the reason these events get bad raps," I wrote in my notebook, as I looked for an exit door.
Fortunately, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and Fox News Channel was soon up to speak. His remarks centered on twin theses: Christian conservatives have been widely successful, and politics hasn't pulled the faithful away from the churches and into black tie political receptions. His one caveat was that being on TV "is a narcotic," which he knows from personal experience. Jerry Falwell is on TV too much, he said, and "has become in some cases a patsy for politicians."
Next came Paul Marshall, a rather frigid-looking fellow who is currentlyworking on a "World Survey on Religious Freedom" for Freedom House. When he declared that, in the interest of time, he would simply read his remarks, I again started looking for the exit. But Marshall grabbed my attention with his witty, at times cutting, and insightful comments. He called Weyrich's letter "1,000 words in search of a thesis" and quoted a review of Dobson's book that advised: "This is not a book to be put aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
Like Barnes, Marshall denied everything. He claimed that even the high-profile leaders, such as James Dobson, James Kennedy, and Pat Robertson, put most of their energies into their churches, media outlets, universities, and other do-good projects--not politics. He then offered some historical perspective. "The call for separation is not the slightest bit new or the slightest bit unusual," said Marshall. "It is merely the repetition of pervasive, parochial, and pathological patterns which have afflicted American evangelicalism throughout most of history."
Marshall said that Christians become motivated only when they feel beleaguered by a hostile culture. They then set out on a crusade to right the wrongs of the world. The crusade is populist, cast as the "little guy, the decent, honest, hard-working American against distant elites who manipulate the country for their own selfish and nefarious ends." The campaigns are against, rather than for, something. "It can be anti-slavery, anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, anti-alcohol, anti-evolution, anti-secular, anti-communist--but it is very hard to know what it is for except for a general morality and decency."
The result, according to Marshall, is a burnout of leaders and troops who soon "head for the hills," exactly what he sees Weyrich, Thomas, and Dobson calling for today. This retreat is caused, he argued, by a failure to take government seriously as an ongoing pursuit requiring hard work, rather than a temporary tool to solve immediate and discrete problems.
Said Marshall, "Government and politics is an ongoing, necessary, unavoidable, inescapable, persistent feature of human life." Politics cannot create a utopia, but it is important. There is no final crusade to end all crusades. Just the day-in and day-out work of keeping an eye on our Washington overlords.
This may surprise some of you, but I am coming to see the religious right and libertarians as similarly situated vis-à-vis politics. Both groups are composed of people who distrust government, view it as inherently corrupt and verging on illegitimate, and would prefer not to see, touch, taste, or smell it--ever. The problem, of course, is that government tends to show up on one's doorstep, uninvited, like a slobbering St. Bernard or perhaps an elephant on the verge of a bowel movement. Just ask Microsoft, a company once famous for keeping its distance from D.C. The religious right was spurred to action when the IRS started poking around its schools.
The question, for Christians as well as libertarians, is whether Marshall's vision of eternally tedious vigilance is enough to keep the troops motivated, sending money, and bugging politicians. The left is perpetually engaged because it wants something desperately--your money and your children's minds.
All five panelists agreed that religious conservatives should stay engaged in politics, which of course is the status quo. No one wanted to defend, or flesh out, Weyrich's letter. AEI's Hillel Fradkin, on hand to offer comments on the main presentations, threw out one loopy idea. Noting that the left has been successful pushing its agenda in the courts, he suggested forming an "alliance between trial lawyers and the Christian Coalition" to sue purveyors of popular culture. Hollywood's product, he reasoned, is just as dangerous as secondhand smoke. If the public health nuts and lawyers can get big tobacco, cultural conservatives and lawyers ought to be able to get Hollywood.
On my way out, I passed through the secondhand smoke of Judge Robert Bork, who was enjoying a Kent at the back of the room. I introduced myself, telling him I'm a big fan largely because, as someone who is constantly smoking and wisecracking, he reminds me of my grandfather. I asked him what he thought of Fradkin's idea. It'll never work, he exhaled, adding that the cultural elite would never sign on. Thank God, I thought, as I headed for the hills.
Date: Fri, May 21, 1999 3:15:55 PM
Subj: Evening Beat