The debate over American politics in the 1990s is becoming increasingly spiritual. The left discusses the "politics of meaning"; the right quarrels over "family values." The reasons for this debate are grounded in the nature and limits of government.
The problems of the welfare state are primarily moral and cultural. Put the 50 best poverty fighters in America in a room and ask for a consensus, and they will likely tell you that someone who graduates from high school, gets a job (any job), and marries will not be poor.
But government has a very hard time dealing with moral issues. Government is all stick and no carrot; it is very good at beating the public with regulations, taxes, quotas, fines, and legalisms, but very bad at inspiring people to lead a just and decent life.
In welfare, for example, the state can generate volumes of regulations mandating workfare programs. It can create welfare offices that are hellish. But it cannot persuade troubled urban youth to postpone childbearing, or teach the underclass about the merits (and means) of joining the work force. In educational matters, the U.S. Department of Education can generate thousands of pages of national goals and regulations, but there is no evidence that any federal report ever inspired a child to study hard or to love learning.
So thoughtful Americans on the left and right have begun to wonder if the only tool government can use is a bludgeon. Can't the state persuade people to lead good lives? Is politics something better than an endless power struggle between special interests?
These questions are at the core of the debate over religion and politics. The left and the right choose to answer them in different ways.
The liberal debate over religion has been quietly going on for years, with the rise of the communitarians and with the endless editorials in Tikkun advocating therapeutic government. But the liberal debate was energized by Hillary Clinton's endorsement of the "politics of meaning."
We knew during the campaign that Hillary Clinton was a Methodist, but while there was extensive coverage of Bill Clinton's religion, no one thought that Hillary's churchgoing was very interesting. The story the press told us was that the Clintons were a modem couple—they went on separate vacations and went to separate churches.
But the First Lady had read Tillich and Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, and spent a good deal of time talking to theologians about the meaning of life. And as Michael Kelly reported in the May 23 New York Times Magazine, Hillary Clinton had begun to preach "the politics of do-goodism, flowing directly from a powerful and continual stream that runs through American history from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Jane Addams to Carry Nation to Dorothy Day….the world she wishes to restore [is] a place of community and clear moral values."
Certainly this interest in morality makes Hillary Clinton more interesting than she was in the campaign. And if she limits her role as moral mandarin to asking questions and promoting debate, she will be performing a useful task. But as Kelly observes, "if it is necessary to remake society, why should Hillary Clinton get the job? Can someone who helped lead the very generation who threw out the old ways of moral standards and societal standards now lead the charge back to the future?"
And while it is unclear what Hillary Clinton believes the "politics of meaning" to be, Tikkun Editor Michael Lemer thinks the phrase is a synonym for meddling, intrusive government. In the May/June issue of his journal, Lemer calls for such "reforms" as imposing government mandates "to ensure that the work that is available gets redistributed in such a way that everyone has employment, even though that may mean that each person only works thirty or thirty-five hours a week." Lemer also calls for banning corporations from moving or closing their plants unless they produce "a social-environmental impact report on the human consequences. Corporations would be fined, up to confiscatory levels, for those moves that negatively effect the health of the community."
But an America with German-style workplaces and Scandinavian unemployment benefits would be a society with European unemployment rates. It is hard to see how increasing unemployment would be caring or compassionate, but such are the consequences of Lemer's ideas.
While the religious left was redefining itself, their conservative counterparts were still recovering from the presidential elections. Last year, the religious right had more power in the Republican party than they have ever had, but their efforts certainly did not help George Bush and may have harmed him. In the February 17 Christian Century, Furman University political scientist James L. Guth and three collaborators calculated that evangelical Christians currently constitute 25 percent of the electorate, including 4 percent that are evangelical but do not belong to a particular church. Of this group, 62 percent of people who called themselves evangelical or fundamentalist Christians voted for Bush. "In short, Bush held evangelicals to a remarkable degree," said Guth and his associates, "Indeed, they were the core GOP vote."
But when exit pollsters asked voters what their primary concern was in the election, 15 percent said it was "family values," and 12 percent reported it was abortion (including pro-choice voters). However, 42 percent of those surveyed were most concerned about jobs and the economy, and 14 percent about taxes; a majority of these voters backed Clinton. Even among evangelicals, 28 percent said their primary concern was the economy, and this subgroup gave 40 percent of their votes to Bush and 40 percent to Clinton.
Moreover. Guth et al. argue, doctrinal differences among Christians matter, and "no one has yet created an organization attractive to all segments of the evangelical community. Charismatics distrusted Falwell, fundamentalists disliked Robertson, and mainstream evangelicals and Southern Baptists were skeptical of both." Mormons, Catholics, and orthodox mainline Protestants may be concerned about moral questions, but they are highly skeptical of the religious right.
And as Evan Gahr reports in the August 2 Insight. the opinions of Jewish conservatives also differ from those of their Christian counterparts. For example, there is debate on the Jewish right about methods and motives. While Boston Herald columnist Don Feder told Gahr that he believes in imposing his values on others because "all legislation is morality legislation," author Michael Medved said that "what the new Jewish right can accomplish is to depoliticize Judaism, not substitute one orthodoxy for another."
It is also unclear what effect these Jewish conservatives will have on their predominantly liberal brethren. American Enterprise Institute pundit William Schneider observes that the cliché that Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans is still true.
The more thoughtful Christian conservatives, however, are siding with Medved and reducing their emphasis on seizing Washington. In the summer Policy Review, Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed Jr. observes that if the religious right continues its course, it may end up as uninfluential and faction-ridden as other social-change movements after their charismatic leaders died or became disgraced. Cesar Chavez, Reed observes, was successful in the 1960s with his hunger strikes and grape boycotts. But because Chavez never modified his militant tactics, his United Farm Workers of America shrank and his influence fell.
Such a fate, warns Reed, awaits evangelical Christians if they continue to concentrate "disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality." Reed urges his colleagues to address economic issues that would ensure that two-parent families become secure and stable, including raising the standard tax deduction for dependents, adopting school choice, and fighting crime.
"The pro-family movement will realize many of its objectives if it can begin to speak to the issues that concern the voters," Reed writes. "Diversifying one's investments applies to political capital as well as financial capital."
It would be an equally salutary change if the members of the press who write about religious conservatives would realize that devout Jews and Christians are not villains or rednecks, but people whose concerns are a necessary and vital part of American life. "Don't treat leaders, activists, or members of religious right groups with condescension and don't stereotype them," warns New York Observer executive editor Joe Conason in the July Columbia Journalism Review. "No one likes to be treated as a stereotype, and to do so is bad reporting, which will cost the reporter useful information."
That such a statement is necessary says a great deal about the American press. I could not imagine Conason being compelled to make a similar remark about coverage of blacks, gays, or environmentalists.
A useful tool for journalists or anyone else interested in religious trends is Religion Watch. Editor Richard Cimino reads far more magazines than I do, and he summarizes articles in a manner so fair and objective that I cannot tell if he is a liberal or a conservative. This immensely interesting monthly newsletter is published at P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, New York 11710. One year's subscription is $19.95.
It would also be an advance if Americans concerned with ethical matters reduced their reliance on the state. If politics is to have any meaning, it will not be from "the politics of meaning," or from any speech by any politician living inside the Washington beltway, but from local efforts to make communities safe and decent places to live.
Moreover, the large national churches would improve themselves if they spent less money on lobbyists and more money on charity. The mainline Protestant churches could stand to slash the offices that pontificate on Central America and income redistribution; the Southern Baptists and their allies might try to reduce their statements on homosexuality and on school prayer.
As Danny Duncan Collum reminds us in the September/October Utne Reader, Jews and Christians of the left and right can find common ground. Those on the right are becoming more compassionate toward minorities and people with AIDS; those on the left are more worried about protecting their children from violence. But to learn to work together and like each other, religious Americans should retreat from a cutthroat political arena that will not, and cannot, address ethical or moral concerns.
Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Magazines: Faith, Hope, and Welfare".