Religious Right and Wrong in America

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Religious Right and Wrong in America

McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic

Conservatives a liberals alike claim that America has lost the moral vision of its founders, but the reality is Americans are more religious than ever. Patrick McCormick argues that religion belongs in our political discussions, but the religious values many politicians tout aren't shaping our public practices.

If you have occasionally channel-surfed in the upper registers of cable's attic, then you've noticed that amid the wasteland of ab-flattening infomercials, advice-giving astrologers, and "Marcus Welby" reruns is a bumper crop of old-time religion. From Mother Angelica's pre-Vatican II Catholicism to Trinity Broadcasting Network's Jim and Tammy look-alikes, the miracle of TV beams us religion from a simpler, though not necessarily kinder, time.

Before dismissing these shows as theological doilies, it's important to note that conservative religious visions are thriving in America, both on television and in real life. On cable, religion is no longer reserved to Sundays or the channels north of American Movie Classics. The Eternal Word Television Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network have been joined by the Family Channel and the Faith and Values Network,along with more religious programming on other channels. And in politics, Jerry Falwell's stumbled Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's failed 1988 candidacy have resurfaced as Ralph Reed's polished and powerful Christian Coalition, a grassroots lobby of 1.6 million with a $25 million budget and what many pundits have described as a virtual veto on the Republican presidential candidacy. When added to James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Christian Action Network, and the Family Research Council, it certainly seems like conservative Christian visions are enjoying a media and political rebirth.

With some exceptions, much of this born-again choir is singing from the right side of the aisle, both in church and on Capitol Hill, blasting their coreligionist in the White House while lauding the Speaker of the House and wooing nearly every Republican presidential hopeful (Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania being the notable exception). As a result, it is becoming difficult to tell the difference between the constituency of the Christian Coalition and the membership rolls of the Republican Party. Not too surprisingly, then, Senators Robert Dole and Phil Gramm and Speaker Newt Gingrich are full of praise for such religious activists, while many liberal opponents claim that Reed and his compatriots are an assault on the separation of church and state.

The funny thing is that in the midst of all this religious rebirth and political activity, many conservatives and liberals alike are crying that America is locked in a deep spiritual crisis, arguing that in abandoning the moral and religious vision of its founders, the nation has lost its soul. The problem, supposedly, is that religion no longer has a voice in the public square. From the right, critics like William Bennett in his best-selling The Book of Virtues (Simon & Schuster, 1993) argue that most of our current problems with crime, drugs, divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, and pornography flow from America's abandonment of the moral vision of its Judeo-Christian heritage. Meanwhile, Yale law professor and liberal Stephen Carter argues in The Culture of Disbelief. How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (Basic Books, 1993) that contemporary trends undermining the politically subversive voice of religion threaten the very fabric of democracy. These complaints seem to have found a receptive audience among the majority of Americans.

While not denying that we may indeed be in a spiritual crisis, the fact remains that America is--at least on the surface--an extremely religious nation. Consider some of these statistics from a recent article in the Economist, "The Counter-Attack of God." Polls generally report that about 95 percent of Americans believe in God, while approximately 80 percent believe in miracles, life after death, and the virgin birth. …

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