Why I'm Rooting for the Religious Right
Secular liberals show open contempt for traditionalists.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, May 5, 2005
I am not a Christian, or even a religious believer, and my opinions on social issues are decidedly middle-of-the-road. So why do I find myself rooting for the "religious right"? I suppose it is because I am put off by self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and contempt for democracy and pluralism--all of which characterize the opposition to the religious right.
One can disagree with religious conservatives on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, creationism and any number of other issues, and still recognize that they have good reason to feel disfranchised. This isn't the same as the oft-heard complaint of "anti-Christian bigotry," which is at best imprecise, since American Christians are all over the map politically. But those who hold traditionalist views have been shut out of the democratic process by a series of court decisions that, based on constitutional reasoning ranging from plausible to ludicrous, declared the preferred policies of the secular left the law of the land.
For the most part, the religious right has responded in good civic-minded fashion: by organizing, becoming politically active, and supporting like-minded candidates. This has required exquisite discipline and patience, since changing court-imposed policies entails first changing the courts, a process that can take decades. Even then, "conservative" judges are not about to impose conservative policies; the best the religious right can hope for is the opportunity to make its case through ordinary democratic means.
In the past three elections, the religious right has helped to elect a conservative Republican president and a bigger, and increasingly conservative, Republican Senate majority. This should make it possible to move the courts in a conservative direction. But Senate Democrats, taking their cue from liberal interest groups, have responded by subverting the democratic process, using the filibuster to impose an unprecedented supermajority requirement on the confirmation of judges.
That's what prompted Christian conservatives to organize "Justice Sunday," last month's antifilibuster rally, at a church in Kentucky. After following long-established rules for at least a quarter-century, they can hardly be faulted for objecting when their opponents answer their success by effectively changing those rules.
This procedural high-handedness is of a piece with the arrogant attitude the secular left takes toward the religious right. Last week a Boston Globe columnist wrote that what he called "right-wing crackpots--excuse me, 'people of faith' " were promoting "knuckle-dragging judges." This contempt expresses itself in more refined ways as well, such as the idea that social conservatism is a form of "working class" false consciousness. Thomas Frank advanced this argument in last year's bestseller, "What's the Matter With Kansas?"
Liberal politicians have picked up the theme. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, in a January op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, mused on a postelection visit he made to Alabama, wondering why people from that state "say 'yes' when the increasingly powerful Republican Party asks them to be concerned about homosexuality but not about the security of their own health, about abortion but not about the economic futures of their own children."
Assuming for the sake of argument that Democratic economic policies really are better (or at least more politically attractive) than Republican ones, why don't politicians like Mr. Feingold adopt conservative positions on social issues so as to win over the voters whose economic interests they claim to care so much about? The answer seems obvious: Mr. Feingold would not support, say, the Human Life Amendment or the Federal Marriage Amendment because to do so would be against his principles. It's not that he sees the issues as unimportant, but that he does not respect the views of those who disagree. His views are thoughtful and enlightened; theirs are, as Mr. Frank describes them, a mindless "backlash."
This attitude is politically self-defeating, for voters know when politicians are insulting their intelligence. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, recently framed the abortion debate in this way: "What we want to debate is who gets to choose: Tom DeLay and the federal politicians? Or does a woman get to make up her own mind?" He also vowed that "we're going to use Terri Schiavo," promising to produce "an ad with a picture of Tom DeLay, saying, 'Do you want this guy to decide whether you die or not? Or is that going to be up to your loved ones?' " Many voters who aren't pro-life absolutists have misgivings about abortion on demand and about the death of Terri Schiavo. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility of thoughtful disagreement or ambivalence, Mr. Dean is giving these moderates an excellent reason to vote Republican.
Curiously, while secular liberals underestimate the intellectual seriousness of the religious right, they also overestimate its uniformity and ambition. The hysterical talk about an incipient "theocracy"--as if that is what America was before 1963, when the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools--is either utterly cynical or staggeringly naive.
Last week an article in The Nation, a left-wing weekly, described the motley collection of religious figures who gathered for Justice Sunday. A black minister stood next to a preacher with a six-degrees-of-separation connection to the Ku Klux Klan. A Catholic shared the stage with a Baptist theologian who had described Roman Catholicism as "a false church."
These folks may not be your cup of tea, but this was a highly ecumenical group, united on some issues of morality and politics but deeply divided on matters of faith. The thought that they could ever agree enough to impose a theocracy is laughable.
And the religious right includes not only Christians of various stripes but also Orthodox Jews and even conservative Muslims. Far from the sectarian movement its foes portray, it is in truth a manifestation of the religious pluralism that makes America great. Therein lies its strength.
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