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The right question about religion...maybe

It's only been two days, and I feel like I've already been through way too many discussions among seculars on the "Religious Problem." I'm tired of the cartoon about "Jesusland," of arguments about whether religion just has too much influence, about how we can encourage low-income whites to vote "their interests" rather than what they consider moral values, or whether we should "encourage moderate religious voices," whatever that would entail.

I think the right way to frame the question about the role of religion in current American life is as follows:

We are clearly in the middle of one of the great periods of Christian revival in American history, the third or fourth of the "Great Awakenings" in American Protestantism. Each such period has begun with a change in the nature of worship itself, essentially a private phase, and moved onto a public phase where it engaged with the political process. These have been significant moments of progress for this country. The Second Great Awakening led in it public phase to the Abolitionist movement. What some historians consider the Third Great Awakening beginning in the 1890s led to the Social Gospel movement, settlement houses, and the beginnings of the progressive era idea of a public responsibility to ameliorate poverty.

The right question, I think, is not whether religion has an undue influence, but why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the factors that might cause it to change.

I need some reading suggestions here. If you've read Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism you'll probably recognize that my question comes from there. Here's a chart that summarizes Fogel's basic view of the Great Awakenings, which I believe is idiosyncratic compared to that of most historians of religion (Fogel is an economic historian) Fogel helped me understand the question, but not to answer it. I'd appreciate any thoughts or advice.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 5, 2004 | Permalink


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This is exactly the right question, although I am not sure that there is an answer.

I have been baffled by the public theology of the politically active evangelical movement. I keep asking why as well. Why does the "culture of life" refer only to abortion and not to war or the death penalty? Why does returning traditional mores to marriage refer only to homosexuality and not to divorce? Most pressing to me, did the evangelicals forget that what distinguishes them from Jews is the New Testament, the contents of which I cannot find anywhere in their politics?

Nobody has been able to answer me, but I am not sure that there is an answer. It would not be the first time that religious expression took an unpredictable, inexplicable path.

Posted by: wcw | Nov 5, 2004 4:51:10 PM

Great point. I have been asking it in slightly different ways, but putting it in that context it really jumps out.


Posted by: Brad | Nov 5, 2004 5:23:21 PM

Why does "the current flourishing of religious faith [which] has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice" not include the religious beliefs of progressive religious folk?

Are these more tolerant of the faithful not part of this latest of the Great Awakenings? If not, then it seems that a new branch of intolerant, homophobic Christianity is flowering above and beyond the rest of the tree.

Posted by: HaroldHardcore | Nov 5, 2004 5:45:27 PM

I should say first that I'm a non-believer so that no one thinks I'm an expert on this subject. That said, I haven't completely forgotten the religious training I received as a child in a rural Southern Baptist church 50 years ago. It may not be relevant to Mark's question but I am struck by how little emphasis is placed today on Jesus' teachings. The focus seems now to be on the Old Testament and on the eschatology in Revelations. The Beatitudes seem to be practically ignored in our society these days as a guide to living or government.

I'm not a theologian or historian but hasn't the teaching/interpretation of the scriptures frequently shifted throughout history, mainly in response to the social issues of the time? Indeed that seemed to have begun happening immediately after Jesus' passing from this life. Jesus said He came not to replace the Law but to complete it. But St. Paul, not many years afterward, refuted Jesus and said that Jesus came to replace the Law. So, if one wants to know where the evangelical movement is going and why, one needs to look as the social drivers underlying it.

The malleability of religion is one of my chief complaints about it. Although the religious argue their morality is absolute (in comparison to the relative morality of the godless liberals), religion has changed and evolved in response to man's needs for it rather than by the hand of an omnipotent God. Indeed, it has been used to justify some of the revolting actions taken by mankind. It seems to me the pious ought to be very careful in tossing stones.

Posted by: Mushinronsha | Nov 5, 2004 6:37:37 PM

Oh, maybe I should have said something about what I think the social drivers underlying the evangelical movement are. These are just layman observations of course. The one thing I notice about the nation today is there is much less optimism about the future. Coming out of WWII, Americans were very confident in themselves, their role in the world and in our future. It helped of course that our homeland suffered no large-scale damage and we were able to help Europe and Japan recover from the devastation of the war. The world has changed greatly since then and we're no longer a giant among midgets. The world has caught up with us and we're having trouble adjusting to that fact. Life is tougher for the middle class and the poor than it used to be and there are few signs of improvement. In times like this, I believe people tend to seek solace in religion. If they can't have an easy time of it in this life, maybe the afterlife will bring them the rewards they want.

Posted by: Mushinronsha | Nov 5, 2004 7:12:30 PM

It seems to me that the social justice aspect is absent and the emphasis is on private and public behavior because it is in many ways a response to the rapid loosening of traditional social mores.

What was fully accepted as immoral (or at very least inappropriate public behavior) just forty years ago is now acceptable. Note the cultural changes that have occurred since the advent of the Pill; changes in what is deemed appropriate in film, television and radio; increases in divorce rates. These (and others) are pretty bread-and-butter issues for many social conservatives and cause them great discomfort, if not anger.

I think that a great many socially traditional/conservative individuals who are also devoutly religious retreated from society for a number of years (especially in the '70s and '80s). In the '90s, those groups and individuals found a public political voice that sought to roll back what they felt were the pernicious and corrosive changes in American society.

Of course, I have no data to back this up. I'm just speculating, but it seems a plausible explanation.

Posted by: jack | Nov 5, 2004 7:17:12 PM

I'm sorry to have to point this out, but, for those of us who oppose the practice, abortion is a matter of social justice. It isn't merely a matter of private morality--that's the whole point of the argument, which apparently hasn't been made as clearly as it needs to be.

Posted by: Thomas | Nov 5, 2004 9:05:26 PM

I think a few things are important to note here:

1. Many, many devout Christians see the fight against abortion through the lens of social justice. Unlike the gay marriage and abstinence-only issues, abortion isn't a clear-cut matter of regulating private sexual behavior. For many of the most devout, it is about "rescuing" unborn babies--the ultimate noble and just action. (This isn't my position, but it more accurately reflects the terms of the debate as many Christians perceive it.) I think abortion, rather than gay marriage, is an issue that Democrats must revisit. Even today, moderate Republican Christians bemoan the fact that there are no more Bob Caseys in the world--proud, pro-life Democrats. Being pro-life doesn't mean overturning Roe. It means making abortion "safe legal and rare" and adopting a pro-natal platform that covers everything from effective sex-ed and widely available/affordable contraception to available/affordable child care: All with the end goal of reducing the number of abortions. But as long as we Dems frame abortion in the language of civil rights, we'll never, ever neutralize that issue and go about the hard business of really supporting women backed into dangerous and difficult choices.

This matters now because of judicial reshuffling, and the inevitable abortion arguments that will stem from that. We should be ready sooner than later.

2. Megachurch evangelicalism in America came of age alongside a culture of therapeutic self-help. The relationship there cannot be overstated. At the same time, you can track a dumbing down of Christian scholarship to accommodate this feel-good mentality. Worship became first and foremost about healing thyself, rather than taking the message of the Gospels to the streets. The concurrent rise in Christian media (also starting in the early 1980s) reinforced this individualistic Christian experience. (See also Mark Noll's scholarship on this: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.)

3. Matt Yglesias is right about the increasing internationalization of Christian social justice work. Christian missionaries of all stripes have been in Africa for many years--even liberals like Nick Kristof begrudgingly admit that many, many terrible problems would be left unaddressed if not for the work of Jesus people. (Fistulas, famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Sudan, AIDS orphanages in Ethiopia, etc.) World Vision and the Mennonite Relief Committee are standout examples of (evangelical) Christian aid organizations whose efforts often best those of secular NGOs. They've simply been there longer.

4. There are the tiniest stirrings in evangelical Christendom indicating a realignment of theology with social justice and action--and away from politics. On October 8th the National Association of Evangelicals released a very important working memo declaring as much:


And apparently Rick Warren, the author and founder of the Purpose-Centered juggernaut has come under fire for the insular individualism that characterizes his teaching. He is working on a book that he considers an atonement for his error in judgment—a book that encourages believers to back their faith up with actions. Though I’m not at all a Warren fan, by many accounts his regret is sincere. I can appreciate that.

Lastly, keep an eye on Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, for excellent and informed commentary on the interplay between an honest Bible-based faith and social justice. Sider is a brilliant guy, and has written blisteringly about the Bush tax cuts and economic policy from a Biblical perspective. He is also the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger--the #1 bestselling Chrisitan social justice book ever. Check out this interview with him from Christianity Today a few years back:


Sider is a much cooler head than Jim Wallis, who tends toward theatrics and partisanship a bit too often. (A great guy, but a bit of a showman.) Sider is much more the humble and bumbling—but genius—college professor.

Posted by: Ayelish | Nov 5, 2004 9:11:02 PM

A few comments:

The Red Counties map is primarily exurban and rural. Where does someone living 40 miles from a center city go to "do" social justice?

Home schooling.

Many evangelical churches are entrepreneurial, stand-alone entities with little contact with other churches even those with similar dogmas. No critical mass except when mobilized by outside politicians.

The red map, the evangelical map and the meth map of the United States are remarkably similar. Economically stagnant. Little future for many white communities that only a generation ago were quite stable. Result:Hopelessness. Some find solace in the certainties of the Bible. Others in crank.

Any politician who shows a sincere interest in solving the social and economic crises of Red America will be rewarded. Interestingly Republicans haven't been put to task for failing to help these people in the last twenty years because they have had no competition from Democrats.

Posted by: Wren | Nov 5, 2004 10:22:44 PM

Revisiting the abortion issue in light of guaranteed access to pre and post-natal care, birth control, etc., might be one way to go. But I frequently see the "pregnancy is a punishment for immorality" response from hard-line pro-lifers, and that core is very, very unlikely to foster a society in which the pregnancy itself is not considered such a fundamental difficulty that risking death by illegal abortion is preferable to carrying to term.

I can clearly see how it is a social justice issue for a given group -- but given your cogent response to the question in the first place, I'm hoping you can you tell me how the social ground could be laid in which the necessary birth-control, education, and medical care would be available. Because even now, these things are not evenly available; in a purely financial way, it's much cheaper for some people to have an abortion than it is to have a baby with proper medical care.

Posted by: Michelle Sagara | Nov 5, 2004 11:18:24 PM

I think there is some connection to the necessities of the TV age. Following up on the entrepreneurial theme, these guys are hawking a product in the face of stiff competition from both secular entertainment and a vast array of other hawkers of religion. As in most other phases of life things have a way of sliding to the lowest common denominator (local energy minimum if you like). In mass marketing, the message must be simple and directly appealing to the core emotional centers. Jesus wants you to have a good life necessarily becomes the key message. It simply too complicated to talk about complicated themes of the social responsibility consequences of your new self. The competition will quickly eat your market share. This remains true past the initial phase. Modern churches are in intense competition for parishioners.

Posted by: david C. mace | Nov 6, 2004 12:35:58 AM

To get back to your original question, I've read a couple of things recently that have begun to help me get my head around the Evangelical movement and its current political activism: Susan Friend Harding's "The Book of Jerry Falwell" and Eli Zaretsky's "The Culture Wars of the 1960s and the Assault on the Presidency: The Meaning of the Clinton Impeachment." (The latter appears in "Our Monica, Ourselves.") Mind you, this is not an unequivocal endorsement of either, but there are interesting thoughts in both.

Posted by: Scott | Nov 6, 2004 1:10:30 AM

Good answers so far; I'll reinforce some and add a few more.

Abortion is a social-justice issue for most who oppose it. Almost all Crisis Pregnancy Centers are funded by evangelicals. (Crisis Pregnancy Centers try to provide women with unexpected pregnancies with support and advice so they will carry the baby to term rather than having an abortion.)

A good deal of action of 3rd-world issues is driven by Christians-this has been well-covered above. I would add two more issues to the list; slavery (esp in Sudan) and religious freedom (esp in the Muslim world and China).

On more traditional social-justice issues, I think that Christians have moved toward a more libertarian understanding of the problem. I see a trememdous amount of volunteer work, donations, service organizations, and so forth coming from the Christian community; what I don't see is any advocacy for the government to do more. I believe this has a great deal to do with the fact most devoutly religious people find the government to be actively and pervasively hostile to religion.

Posted by: Sam | Nov 6, 2004 7:26:07 AM

I think that your comment about Old vs New Testaments shows ignorance about the respective contributions of Judaism and Christianity. Christianity doesn't really have a social justice tradition. All of that is from the prophetic tradition in what Christians call the Old Testament. *Not* the end-times stuff, the early prophets. The New Testament tells people to ignore the problems of this world, and that while the poor may well be rewarded in Heaven, they are always going to be with us. That is not a social justice tradition.

So you shouldn't be surprised that Jews are stubbornly Democratic, while evangelical Christians show no real care for their fellow people. Even the Christian charities are always focused on gaining credit for their good works for Christianity and on conversion.

Posted by: Rich Puchalsky | Nov 6, 2004 10:22:20 AM

I like the idea that there is something greater than simply a reactionary tide rolling over us--defining it (correctly) as a religious revival makes me feel better. I became reconciled to the outcome of the election when I realized on Wednesday (and before I found confirmation in Garry Wills et al.) that I am simply living in a theocracy, in which I am a minority because it's not my theo (no theo is my theo). But I'm used to that--being in the minority is the status quo for many of us of a certain age.

And I suddenly remembered of the time when I first lived in the US, in 1939-41 (before Pearl Harbor). Though the Roosevelt revolution was establishing itself, we still felt very nervous about the midwest and the south. Father Coughlin's radio show was still immensely popular. The isolationists (with their covert anti-Semitism, anti-culture agenda)still dominated much of the national discourse.

I'm not sure that there wasn't some European snobbism implicit in this fear, there was some validity in the understanding that the Eastern seaboard liberalism was an embattled enclave, not at all defining the country as a whole.

The Second World War modified all that. The GIs returned not only sobered (war will do that to you) but also somewhat enlightened, their horizons expanded, their minds stimulated by what they saw, primarily in Europe but also in the Pacific.

But Korea and Vietnam added little to our understanding, and now we have regressed to the 1930s model. You are surprised (and so am I) by a religious revival that is so lacking in compassion and a sense of social justice. But my sense is that this revival is less a descendant of Jonathan Edwards, the Chatauqua movements, and other nineteenth-century impulses to do good, than it is allied with the 1930s fear-induced expression of rejection fed by segregationism, nativism, etc.

Your posts this week have been a great comfort to me. Both light and heat.

Posted by: Ruth Hein | Nov 6, 2004 10:51:45 AM

I guess I'm a little late to this discussion but I wanted to add another historical factor: anti-Communism. I posted this comment over at Crooked Timber:

"I think you might be able to find some historical literature on this as well. There’s an argument (sorry, I can’t seem to find the citation) that post-1950s evangelicalism has been greatly influenced by the culture of the Cold War, specifically the fight against “godless” Communism. It’s no coincidence that the “under God” part of the pledge of allegiance was added in the 1950s, along with other references to God in American public life.

Some kind of social justice ideals may actually still be a part of the current religious revival - but state-sponsored social welfare programs may be associated with the insidious creep of atheistic communism. Communists provided everyone with jobs. Communists confiscated property (i.e. taxed) in the name of the central state. Communists engaged in family planning. Even publicly operated day care programs could seem a threat to the family. Who wants their children raised by the secular state (or prevented from praying in its public schools)?

At the same time, aggregate standards of living certainly have risen since last century, even if statistics on real wages don’t always look so good. Coupled with this is the erroneous belief - not just among religious conservatives, mind you - that only leftists/Marxists/tenured radicals ever speak, or have ever spoken in the terms of class conflict. But guess who wrote the following passage?:

“The employer is no longer a workman with his employees; his work is mental, not manual; it tasks and strengthens all his powers; his faculties are developed, while those of the men who tend his machines are cramped. He has little personal acquaintance with his employees, and, with noble exceptions, has little personal interest in them. Thus these classes grow apart…And not only are these classes becoming further removed from each other, they are also becoming organized against each other. Capital is combining in powerful corporations and “pools”, and labor is combining in powerful trades unions. And these opposing organizations make trials of strength, offer terms and conditions of surrender, like two hostile armies.”

I suspect that many people would guess that these are the words of a labor agitator. In fact they are the words of Josiah Strong, one of the key figures of the social gospel movement - and they appear in a chapter of his bestselling work, _Our Country, Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis_ (1886). The chapter is dedicated to outlining the rising _peril_ of socialism. Strong hoped for an alternative to both socialism and the kind of capitalism that seemed to be producing it. Today America’s particular capitalism is defended at all costs; alternative capitalisms are denounced as socialism in disguise. Some may even see the idea of these alternatives as an affront to God.

Strong’s chapter has been posted here; there you can find other passages not unlike those you might come across in the works of Marx and Engels."

In other words, a big part of the reason you hear so few calls for social justice along these lines coming out of the religious revivals is because many of the faithful would consider even the type of social _analysis_ that could generate such calls as hopelessly tainted by the specter of godless Communism.

Posted by: aj | Nov 6, 2004 6:00:33 PM


Excellent question and, as usual a remarkably thoughtful post. I agree with you that it is important to get away from the Red state/Blue state dichotomy. It is misleading in the way that steroetypes typically are, but also buys into the right wing analysis of what the people who voted for Bush were voting for and, on top of that, invites a kind of smug condescencion on our part taht makes us look jsut the way the right paints us.

Matt Yglesias was right to point out that Christian organizations do a lot of good works, mostly abroad. But I think it is misleading to cite this as a concern with social justice. At its best, it is admirable humanitarianism. But a concern with justice is not merely a concern ith alleviating suffering but a concern with changing unjust social institutions. There is little or none of this concern even at the level of rhetoric in the Christian movements. Your question asks, rightly, why this is so. In answering, we should distinguish between what may be true of the Christian revival you mention and what is true of the use that is made of it in our current politics. As far as the latter is concerned, it is noteworthy that the appeals to moral values almost never require any sacrifice on the part of those to whom these appeals are addressed. They are invited to feel good about their superiority to gays, righteous about their opposition to abortion, satisfied about their devotion to family and so on. Appeals to justice, on the other hand would have two quite different effects. First, achieving justice is likely to involve sacrifice, such as, shudder, paying higher taxes, changing one's life-style, or accepting greater risks of attack rather than violating other people's rights. These demands are the sort that liberals make. Second, when you raise questions of justice you raise quesitons about the legitimacy of our institutions and policies. As another commentor on your site recently observed many of the people to whom this religious revival appeals are people who feel their status and way of life to be threatened. Religion offers reassurance that they and their lives are in fact good and pure. This reassurance would be undermined by raising questions of justice, which suggest that American policies and instutions are open to moral criticism. Those questions, they are told, are raised only by people who "hate America." It is safer, then, to keep duties to the poor, focused mainly on the poor abroad, and to keep them in the realm of voluntary, admirable charity.


Posted by: Tim Scanlon | Nov 6, 2004 6:05:55 PM


I would suggest that the “current flourishing” has lacked a social justice element because it has been largely driven by individuals---like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson---who have strongly identified with the Republican Party’s economic agenda. In other words, Christianity---in the hands of Republicans---has developed a “moral focus” that selectively ignores the teachings of Jesus that they find...well, a bit unwelcome.

After all, Jesus urged his followers to not concern themselves with their wealth (“...sell all you have...”) and to be wimps when confronting bullies. Republicans find themselves not wanting to follow such teachings because they sense that obeying them could end up threatening their privileged positions in society. So they've tended to focus attention on moral “issues” that do not threaten their economic fortunes in any way, like abortion and homosexuality. Republican strategists who have felt some identification with Christianity have simply turned this intuitively sensed "interest" into a weapon that they've been able to use in the political arena to advance their economic agenda.

The time has come for Democrats to put Republican Christians on the defensive. The first thing we need to do is accuse them of wrongly suggesting that Jesus would be a Republican if he were a United States citizen today, instead of a Democrat. It is easy to point to specific teachings by Jesus that would clearly define him as a bleeding-heart liberal. Indeed, most Republicans would be quick to describe him as "far to the left" of the majority of Democrats. Did he not teach his followers to give freely of their possessions to others, and to respond to any attack by an enemy from another country with acts of loving kindness? Can there be any doubt that Arnold Schwarzenegger would call him a "Girly Man?"

When the arguments start, Democrats need to point out that it is only logical for us to conclude that Jesus told us which moral issues were the most important to him by the amount of time he spent commenting on them. Which moral issues did he emphasize the most? There is little doubt that he thought it was especially important for his followers to be willing to deny themselves materially if that was what was required in order to obtain the benefit others. He repeated this theme more than once.

We might then want to point out that neither abortion nor homosexuality were addressed by Jesus. Does that omission mean that neither of those practices is wrong? Of course not. But it does strongly suggest that even if it seems obvious to us that Jesus thought homosexuality and abortion were sinful practices, it should also be obvious to us that he didn’t perceive them to be as alarming as the other imperfections he saw within human souls.

If he did think that abortion and homosexuality were more serious “crimes” than failing to love your enemy, then why did he not mention them when he had the chance?

If one examines closely the words that were attributed to Jesus by the authors of the Gospels, there is no evidence that he believed abortion and homosexuality were more offensive than the failure of a rich man to deny himself for the benefit of others. Democrats are clearly justified in believing that they have a stronger claim to a true identification with Jesus than Republicans do.

Doing this would immediately put Republican Christians on the defensive. Whenever they try to defend themselves from the charge of hypocrisy, all Democrats need to do is ask them why it is that they can’t follow Jesus’ teaching re: social justice? Why is it that they are concerning themselves with the motes they see in the eyes of others when they have beams in their own?

Is it because they like to willfully ignore Jesus’ teaching? We need to start publicly pressuring Republican Christians to agree with us that Jesus’ specific teachings on moral issues should be taken more seriously than any advice on other moral topics that followers or predecessors might have expressed at other times.

If we do this in good faith, we will be able to bleed away some of the support that Republican Christians have enjoyed because we will have made it safe for many devout followers to see that one can be a good Christian and also a Good Democrat at the same time. After all, Jesus was just such a man.


Posted by: James J. Kroeger | Nov 6, 2004 7:00:41 PM

I think an equally interesting (and not unrelated) is why do we have a left in America today that is so little interested in social justice. Post-election, the reaction I have seen from a wide variety of left/liberal sources, such as Thomas Friedman, Crooked Timber, Mark Kleiman, is: "Of course, we can't compromise on basic moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. . . ." From which I infer that on social justice issues such as expanding access to affordable health care, reducing income disparities in America etc., these people would definitely compromise.

In fact, I believe, in line with what some commentators here and at Crooked Timber have said, that many devout Christians take their faith, including the admonitions about caring for the poor, seriously, as evidenced by their high levels of charitable giving and volunteer work. A left/liberal movement that accepted Christian sexual morality and a moderate amount of religiosity in public life could recruit these people easily. But I don't expect such a movement in the foreseeable future. Sexual liberation and militant secularism--not social justice--are constitutive of the left/liberal identity. This is a vast and unexplained historical change in American political and intellectual life.

Posted by: y81 | Nov 6, 2004 7:48:15 PM

Prof. Scanlon:

A few points in response to your comment.

First, your claim that Christian movements do not show a concern in rhetoric or practice for reform of social institutions may be true of evangelicals; I don't know. It certainly isn't true of Catholic Christians -- not even of conservative Catholics who share the views of evangelicals on abortion and homosexuality. Catholic thought, writing, and praxis has been chock full of concern about reforming social institutions, from the early papal encyclicals regarding labor movements down to the U.S. bishops' statements on social justice. And, of course, before the Democratic party adopted its vehement support for abortion rights, Catholic voters tended to vote Democrat.

Second, your claim isn't even entirely true of evangelical, born-again Christian movements. Witness the fight over taxes in Alabama, in which the Republican governor loudly proclaimed that a tax increase was the citizens' Christian duty. (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-07-29-alabama-tax-hike_x.htm). (On the other hand, if I recall correctly the measure failed.)

Third, it's a bit unfair to argue that "the appeals to moral values almost never require any sacrifice on the part of those to whom these appeals are addressed." Lots of the Christians (and others) who oppose abortion will be in a position at some point in their lives when they will be tempted to end a pregnancy (or to encourage a wife or girlfriend to do so). The anti-gay-sex message is part and parcel of an ethical belief that sex outside of marriage is wrong -- hardly an easy rule to follow.

Nonetheless, I agree with the general thrust of your comment, and I think you're absolutely right that the evangelical Christian movement is oddly tied up with a strong belief in the superiority of American political and social institutions. It all goes back to the "city on a hill," I suppose. Watching the Republican convention on television this year, I thought it resembled nothing so much as a religious revival meeting in which America took the place of the deity. To paraphrase a Catholic prayer: "Glory to the United States of America, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end; amen." This myopia is extremely troubling.

Posted by: Aurochs & Angels | Nov 6, 2004 9:44:43 PM

I criticize the accuracy of one of Mr. Scanlon's assertions here.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Nov 6, 2004 10:57:44 PM

There is a single, revealing reference to justice in Bush's post-election victory speech: "Our military has brought justice to the enemy and honor to America." Such retributive justice requires sacrifice, but mainly of innocent civilian lives overseas and of those Americans who, unlike Bush and Cheney, haven't got so many options apart from military service.

Posted by: Michael Otsuka | Nov 7, 2004 12:59:40 AM

To clarify my comment above: I was unclear in criticizing evangelical belief in the "superiority" of American institutions. Probably some American institutions are superior to those of other nations; at the very least that's a debate about which reasonable people can differ. What I really meant to criticize was the belief, not uncommon among evangelicals, that America is a nation somehow uniquely chosen by God as a beacon unto the nations, and that Americans are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, who can do almost no wrong.

Posted by: Aurochs & Angels | Nov 7, 2004 1:39:37 AM

To repeat a cliche, history is written by the winners. It wasn't always obvious that slavery was immoral. It only became obvious after the abolitionist movement succeeded. If the movement had failed, today we might view it in much the same light as we do the prohibition movement - a fundamentally misguided attempt to change the mores of society.

As someone pointed out, Christians do see abortion as very much an issue of social justice. We don't agree with them because they haven't "won" their struggle yet. Their perspective has not become our perspective. Whether or not they do win will determine if, in 80 years time, religious historians look back and say that the current "Great Awakening" of American Protestantism did in fact have a social justice component. But I don't think that's something that can be decided today.

Posted by: Alex | Nov 7, 2004 3:00:12 AM

Chris Monsour is certainly right about the Catholics, and I was aware of this. The
American Bishop's statement on social justice was admirable. (Ditto for what
they said about war.) I was thinking mainly of Evangelicals, and mainly, of
what we *hear* in public discourse, from the voices of religion. Unfortunately, the Bishops statement on justice is, as far as I can see, never mentioned. Mainline
Protestant denominations, also have had much to say about these matters. But again,
they are not who we are hearing from.

He is also, of course, quite right that the Republican governor of Alabama appealed to Christian principles in support of higher taxes. But wasn't this regarded, when it occurred, as a courageous but surprising departure from the norm? And look where it got him.

It is also true, as Monsour says, that “Lots of the Christians (and others) who
oppose abortion will be in a position at some point in their lives when they will be tempted to end a pregnancy (or to encourage a wife or girlfriend to do so).” But although they may need abortions some time, I don't think this is much before their minds when they are campaigning for it to be made illegal, and I somehow doubt that those who see abortion as murder regard losing the option of legal abortion as a sacrifice. (I don’t take this view of laws against murder, even though I might find myself in a position in which it would be handy to eliminate a rival.) (Stem-cell research is another example that I have thought of in this connection, perhaps a better one to make Monsour’s point.)

It may also be true that “the anti-gay-sex message is part and parcel of an ethical belief that sex outside of marriage is wrong.” But the denunciations we hear are directed specifically at homosexuals, and at depriving them of the opportunity to get married.

For the record: I think that the Christian conservatives
are correct in thinking that our society suffers from an excessive and corrupting
emphasis on sex. I think that in principle there ought to be common ground here
between (some) conservatives (some) feminists and egalitarians. But to realize
it one would have to get away from the idea that the way to deal with the
problem is through legal enforcement, and to put together a position that
combined the goals of liberating women (and men) from the burden of this overemphasis on
sex and liberating them in other ways as well (from a one-size-fits-all picture
of the patriarchial family.)

To wander yet further from the topic, insofar as there is any hope here for broader agreement, I think there is probably more hope for agreement between liberals and secular conservatives than between them and the religious movement. This is because it seems to me that the way forward lies in seeing that the objection to the excessive concern with sex that fills advertising and popular culture is not that it involves violating moral prohibitions but rather in the fact that after a certain point it is simply a waste of time and that valuing sex and sexual attractiveness sop much more than other things distorts our relations with each other. Putting this in terms of prohibitions is a mistake: It puts the reformers into repressors and gives exaggerated concern with sex the aura of the forbidden and of liberation. Better to see it as a question of “values” in the proper sense of the term, that is to say of what is worth placing value on. But to take this view is to move away from the idea of sin. Probably not a move that the Christian revival is about to recommend.


Posted by: Tim Scanlon | Nov 7, 2004 9:55:21 AM