Wonder-Working Power

The roots and the reach of the religious right.


In Defense of the Religious Right: Why Conservative Christians Are the Lifeblood of the Republican Party and Why That Terrifies the Democrats, by Patrick Hynes, Nashville: Nelson Current, 288 pages, $24.99

The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, by Damon Linker, New York: Doubleday, 304 pages, $26

The Christian Coalition was instrumental in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, but before long its power seemed to be waning. In 1996 Bill Clinton—the draft-dodging, pot-smoking, abortion-rights-supporting womanizer who embodied everything Christian conservatives abhorred—handily won re-election against Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Two years later, Republicans lost ground in Congress as they prepared to impeach Clinton, and Paul Weyrich, the man who had first suggested to Jerry Falwell the name "Moral Majority," adapted a phrase from Timothy Leary: It was time, he told Christian conservatives, to "turn off," "tune out," and "drop out."

Weyrich wasn't the only influential Christian conservative driven to rethink his movement's prospects in the late '90s. In the year of Clinton's re-election, a federal district court ruling to permit physician-assisted suicide shook the editors of the Catholic journal First Things so violently that they began to ask whether judicial tyranny had destroyed democracy itself. This led to the magazine's November 1996 symposium, "The End of Democracy?," in which contributors concluded that civil disobedience, even revolution, might soon be justified. "America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany," editor Richard John Neuhaus wrote, "but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here."

Times have changed. You won't find much sympathy at First Things for those who today use such language in the context of President Bush's war on civil liberties. And Christian conservatives no longer feel so despondent about democracy. The president has assiduously cultivated their support, an effort rewarded in 2004 when nearly 80 percent of evangelical Protestant voters and 52 percent of Catholics voters cast their ballots for Bush.

In the wake of that election we'veseen an avalanche of literature purporting to explain the revival of the religious right and its implications for the country. Patrick Hynes' In Defense of the Religious Right celebrates Christian conservatives' power, even while claiming Christian conservatives are harried and besieged, ever on the defensive against an encroaching liberalism. Damon Linker, on the other hand, argues in The Theocons that it's the religious right, and the First Things coterie in particular, that's doing the encroaching. Each gets only half the story right. Hynes fails to prove that Christian conservatives are the persecuted majority he thinks they are, while Linker is persuasive about the aggressive agenda of the religious right. But Hynes better explains where Christian conservatives' real power lies—not with a Catholic elite, as Linker would have it, but with the mass of evangelical voters loyal to the party of Lincoln.

Hynes is a campaign consultant—in the words of his dust jacket, "a hack with an impressive record of electing Republicans." According to his book, "the GOP is, perhaps, God's Own Party," not only because religious voters today prefer Republicans but because the party originally arose from the Second Great Awakening and the abolitionist movement. Abolition itself, he writes, "was the result of Christians imposing their moral values on their fellow Americans." Republican Christians, that is: Hynes emphasizes the typically Democratic affiliation of those Southern Christians who supported the peculiar institution, though he doesn't note that some of the denominations that once defended slavery have since become stalwarts of the GOP. To hear Hynes tell it, the modern religious right doesn't want to impose its values on anyone so much as it wants to defend those values against "a liberal Washington-Hollywood nexus that bookends American civilization." (He doesn't explain how Washington can remain part of that nexus when the party preferred by the Christian conservatives controls every branch of the federal government.)

Hynes is at his best discussing the demographics of the religious right and explaining its place in the Republican Party's base. By his calculations, churchgoing voters are as important to the Republicans as African-Americans and labor voters combined are to the Democrats. In 2004 Bush received "something close to 28 million conservative Christian" votes, almost half his total pull, while by Hynes' estimates approximately 11.8 million African-Americans and 16.7 million union members voted straight-ticket Democratic. (The "straight-ticket" qualification, of course, means Hynes isn't exactly comparing apples to apples.) "John Kerry destroyed Bush among the 15 percent of Americans who never attend church (62 percent for Kerry to 36 percent for Bush)," he writes, "Conversely, Bush (64 percent) beat Kerry (35 percent) by virtually the same margin among the 16 percent of the electorate who attends church more than once a week."

Hynes takes pride in this but doesn'tlook closely at all it entails. Just as the "gender gap" cuts both ways—men vote disproportionately for Republicans just as women go heavily for Democrats—the growing "God gap" also has two sides. What does it tell us that Americans who attend religious services as infrequently as Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan once did now overwhelmingly vote Democratic? And Hynes is evasive about whether today's Republican leadership is any closer to its followers' degree of devotion. Outraged by Bill Press' claim that President Bush doesn't attend church regularly, the most Hynes can say is, "President Bush reads the Bible and prays every morning at 6:00 AM."

He has other blind spots. Hynes shows that, contrary to stereotype, Christian conservatives are not overwhelmingly poor or Southern, and a majority of them are women. But while he professes surprise that the religious right is typecast as mostly male, his own book offers evidence of why that is: Almost every spokesman and leader Hynes talks to is indeed a spokesman or male leader. In this book, the women of the religious right are a silent majority.

The distaff side gets short shrift in his historical discussion, too. While claiming a common pedigree with abolitionists and even, to a lesser extent, the civil rights movement, Hynes neglects to mention another prominent example of religious involvement in American politics: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and its prohibitionist progeny. Which if any of these groups is the true forerunner of the modern religious right? A clue might be found in the persistence of "dry counties" in such bastions of the Christian conservative movement as Mississippi, Kansas, and Alabama—though Puritan-era blue laws keep many a heathen municipality in Massachusetts dry as well. As for abolitionism, readers might wonder whether doing away with the coercive institution of slavery is really "imposing values" in the same sense as most of the modern religious right's agenda.

"The Christian Right has donenothing to force its value on a helpless and unwitting public," Hynes insists. "The exact opposite is true." In support of his contention that "secular leftists are determined to remake American culture and society in their own warped image, to tear down traditional pillars of America's moral strength," Hynes cites a litany of court cases, legislative acts, and instances of civil disobedience: Griswold v. Connecticut (which effectively legalized contraception nationwide), the Stonewall riots (which launched the modern gay rights movement), 1960s New York and California laws legalizing abortion (the California law was signed by Gov. Reagan), and more.

Notably, Hynes is not making a states' rights or federalist argument. He sees Culture War aggression both when states pass laws he dislikes and when federal courts strike down laws he does support. He also blurs the difference between persuasion and coercion: Most of his examples of secular leftist aggression involve loosening legal restraints. When he writes of "the radical Left's assault on longstanding and long-accepted cultural norms," what he means is that too much moral legislation is being repealed, overturned, or voided. Presumably Hynes and company would like to bring those laws back. If that isn't "imposing values" on people, what is?

A few of his examples strike home. It indeed is ridiculous to, say, ban a schoolgirl from singing "The First Noel" at a Christmas pageant. But even if the left is as bad as he says, that doesn't mean the religious right is any better. It would be interesting to see a forthright defense of the religious right's views on everything from regulating gambling to kicking competent people out of the armed forces for being homosexual. It would be interesting, too, to see a defense of the religious right's foreign-policy enthusiasms, from evangelical Christian support for the Iraq War ("evangelicals are among the only voter subgroups left in the country to still support the president's foreign policy," Hynes notes) to the drive by such Christian conservatives as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to intervene in Darfur. But little of this is in Hynes' book.

For Damon Linker, a former editor of First Things turned critic of that journal's political project, the danger of the religious right does not lie primarily with the evangelical Protestants Hynes describes but with a select group of Roman Catholic intellectuals whom Linker calls "theoconservatives." What these men lack in numbers they make up for in influence: "the overtly religious policies and rhetoric of the Bush administration have been inspired by an ideology derived from Roman Catholicism," Linker contends.

Who are these theocons? Three receive close scrutiny in Linker's first chapter—George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II and expositor of a take on Catholic "just war" theory tailored to support Bush's foreign policy; Michael Novak, the Catholic radical turned outspoken champion of "democratic capitalism"; and Linker's bête noire and former boss (for whom he insists he has no ill will), Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. If Neuhaus commands more of Linker's attention than the other two, it isn't just because he knows him better. Even Novak's transformation from advocate of a "revolution in consciousness" and "religionless Christianity" to thoroughly bourgeois democratic capitalist can hardly compare with Neuhaus' political odyssey.

Early in the 1960s, Neuhaus, then a Lutheran minister, was pastor at Brooklyn's inner city St. John the Evangelist church, which under his leadership was a center for civil rights and antiwar activism. In 1965, he founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam with Catholic Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Neuhaus grew more radical with the times, in one sermon describing the Vietnamese as "God's instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees."

He also, Linker writes, "began to reflect on whether he should advocate an armed insurrection to overthrow the government of the United States," reluctantly concluding that the time was not yet ripe. Thirty years later, he would again entertain the idea of revolution—only by then, he had become a Roman Catholic priest, and the causes stirring his passions were not Vietnam and segregation but abortion, euthanasia, and a lack of religiosity in public life—what Neuhaus terms "the naked public square."

Because of their left-wing backgrounds, Neuhaus and Novak, the latter now ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute and serving as the War Party's semi-official envoy to the Vatican, are often designated Catholic neocons. But Linker points out an important difference between his subjects and neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz: "In the late 1960s, the men who went on to become the first neocons were moderate liberals who opposed the revolutionary ambitions of the counterculture. The proto-theocons, on the other hand, were leftist revolutionaries who proposed (in the title of one of their books) 'a theology for radical politics.'?" Linker understates the radicalism of some of the original neoconservatives—some started their careers as Trotskyists—but he has a point. The theocons were the sort of people the neocons had fled the left to get away from.

In any event, as the theocons tacked right they soon found common interests with the neocons, who indeed became Neuhaus and Novak's patrons. "The theocons piggybacked on [the] neocon network; they also used neocon connections to begin the long and arduous process of building their own independent infrastructure of influence," Linker writes. His second chapter traces the history of this neo-theo alliance, which paved the way for the creation of First Things—the journal in part grew out of an earlier publication, This World, that Irving Kristol turned over to Neuhaus in the 1980s.

Relations with the neoconservatives soured temporarily over First Things' "End of Democracy?" symposium of 1996. Neuhaus' old revolutionary rhetoric and his invocation of the Nazis led neocon eminentos Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Walter Berns to sever ties with the magazine. Yet "political expediency eventually led that rift to be healed," and whatever strain the "End of Democracy?" placed on Neuhaus' relations with neoconservatives, the brouhaha only boosted his and First Things' standing with the Protestants of the religious right. Focus on the Family's James Dobson lauded the symposium in all its zeal.

But Neuhaus has had his differences with evangelicals as well. Indeed, Linker finds the genesis of Neuhaus' theoconservative project in his belief, formed while still a Lutheran,  "that Falwell and his followers were being unrealistic in supposing that their idiosyncratic faith, based on highly subjective 'born again' experiences, could serve as the religiously based public philosophy the country so desperately needed." Catholicism, on the other hand, had the natural law tradition, with its claims to objectivity and rationality. As well, in Linker's words, "there was the Church's long history of theological and political reflection, which made Catholics far more competent than evangelicals and other Protestants to take the lead in pressing religiously based moral arguments in the nation's life."

For Linker, these qualities make the theocon ideology more potent than that of the rest of the religious right. He points to the current or recent presence of several theocons on the President's Council on Bioethics as evidence of how respectable theocon arguments—against human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research, for example—are becoming. But Linker may be overestimating Neuhaus' success at shaping policy by shaping the world of ideas. The President's Council on Bioethics has had so little influence on the stem-cell debate, for example, that theocon arguments failed even to keep the Senate majority leader from the president's own party (Bill Frist, a bona fide religious rightist himself) from approving federal funding of stem-cell research. And Bush's use of vaguely Catholic rhetoric did not stop him from approving the "morning after" contraceptive pill (and potential abortifacient) Plan B for over-the-counter sale in the face of theocon objections. On the electoral level: Rick Santorum, the theocons' poster child on Capitol Hill, is the Senate's most endangered incumbent this year. Linker's book is an engaging and invaluably informative account of the roots of theoconservatism, but its author could stand to borrow some of Patrick Hynes' political acumen.

All that is not to say the theocons have had no effect on the nation's politics. Perhaps ironically, considering Neuhaus' background, where they have been most successful is in shoring up conservative Catholic support for President Bush's foreign policy. Linker devotes a chapter to the "distinctive theocon approach to just war reasoning—ridiculing antiwar clerics for having forgotten the Catholic tradition and praising Republican administrations for keeping it alive." After the initial success of the Iraq invasion, Neuhaus wondered in print whether in the future it might be possible to consider "military action in terms not of the last resort but of the best resort." There's a curiously Jacobin streak in this now-conservative priest. In the '60s, in the '90s, and in Iraq today, Neuhaus has called for uprooting the established order in the name of justice and democracy. The results, as far as the rest of us can see, have not been encouraging.

So long as Catholics and Protestants were at odds, Linker concludes, both sides had a vested interest in minimizing the mixture of doctrine and state power. But now, "to the extent that they come to consider each other allies and to recognize their potential combined political clout, they will be tempted to view the separation of church and state as something less than a bargain—as an unacceptable sacrifice of their freedom to do everything they can to bring the country's public life into conformity with what they believe to be the truth proclaimed by Jesus Christ."

The religious right's ecumenical unity might not be as great as Linker, or Hynes, imagines. Bush lost the Catholic vote in 2000, and while much has been made of the fact that he won it in 2004—against a Catholic opponent—he did little better among Catholics than among the population at large. Churchgoing evangelicals are an overwhelmingly Republican bloc, but Catholics are only gradually being co-opted, beginning with those who attend services most often.

By themselves, the theocons may not be much of a threat to Americans' liberties. But together with the organized power of evangelical Protestants, they're a mighty force for the Republican Party, even if what they get in policy terms is not more morality in public life but merely more war.