of religious left
culture is always a contested matter, with different groups
striving to make their vision of life prevail. Within recent
weeks, analysts in the US have spoken of the quickening
pulse of the religious left. An awakening
is underway from being overshadowed by the religious right.
religious people, were offended by the idea that if
youre not with the religious right, youre not
moral, youre not religious, says Linda Gustitus,
founder of the Washington Region Religious Campaign against
Torture. Views like that of Ms Gustitus are becoming standard.
The pendulum was destined to swing, I suppose. The left got
badly knocked about, the right crowed and ruled the day, the
left awakens from their coma.
It is said that the French regard the influence of evangelicals
in Mr Bushs administration with amazed bemusement. They
should look more closely at American history. President Bushs
outlook is no novelty.
In the 1950s, President Eisenhower assured the nation that
belief in God was the first principle of Americanism. Before
him, Theodore Roosevelt had advised that the President should
go to church regularly to set an example for the nation. And
long before either, Thomas Jefferson had to fight off allegations
during his presidential campaign that he was an atheist. He
was a deist, which was really no improvement, but it was an
I have never agreed with the tendency of the religious right
to move directly from the Bible to moral or political prescriptions
for everyone. In America, unlike France, religion may still
be a matter of importance to significant numbers of people,
but there is no theocracy in the West, and one cannot make
biblical injunctions (or for that matter, injunctions from
the Koran or the Gita) normative for everybody in a secular
What the left has misunderstood, what they keep misunderstanding,
however, in the US, as elsewhere, is that not everybody has
bought into a view of life dominated by the rationality of
the Enlightenment. A prevailing legacy of the Enlightenment
is that only the scientific is rational and real. All other
views are essentially pre-modern and backward. In this light,
as former Governor Thompson of Minnesota once said, religion
remains an option for the weak-brained.
This is the kind of arroganceand follythat breeds
fundamentalism. It certainly worked to rally evangelicals.
Analysts in fact trace the resurgence of the Christian right
to the ridicule they experienced after the famous Scopes trial
in Tennessee in 1925.
Scopes is traditionally viewed as a clash between science
and religion (evolution pro and con), which science won. At
a deeper level, however, it was a clash, as it still is, between
differing visions of culture and society.
The religious right thought they could halt civilisational
decline in America, if they ensured that politicians after
their own mind were elected to office. With such politicians
at the helm, the national agenda would reflect their own religiously-inspired
programme, and the transformation would begin. Laws would
codify their vision.
It hasnt happened as the evangelicals wanted, and disillusion
has begun to set in. They feel used. When re-election comes
around, politicians make the appropriate noises. Everything
then is about values.
Mr Bush, for instance, on the ropes with the war in Iraq,
Iran, Katrina, rising gas prices, corruption, and wild spending,
has returned to pre-election strategy. These days its
the need to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Even the most blinkered values-voter sees through it.
Where did the right go wrong? For many people they were wrong
to bring religion into politics, to begin with. The separation
of church and state exists for a reasonto prevent just
this kind of improper intermeddling.
In fact, the separation of church and state, an idea with
original roots in Luther, not in Jefferson, was as much to
protect the church from state interference as to protect the
state from religious sectarianism. The idea was never to keep
religion out of politics, in the sense of keeping religious
people from expressing their views in the public square.
Its unjust, and in any case an impossible undertaking,
to try to prevent religious people from bringing to bear their
deeply held convictions upon major issues of any day.
As every serious student of religion knows, religion is not
amenable to being pent up. It sneaks through cracks, creeps
through half-open doors, and it flows over walls. No religion
preaches its allocation to a particular sphere. None of them
conceives of a world as divided into what God created and
rules, and what God did not create and therefore does not
Religion always loses its critical freedom, however, when
its political alliances are conformist, or when it becomes
too settled in the political sphere, amassing and securing
influence. It becomes likely then not simply to lose its vitality
but its very soul. Theres nothing new about this possibility.
We are always warned about what results from preferring to
gain the whole world.
The left in the pride of their day often suffers a diminishment
on the other side. Their cultural sympathies often tend to
be so much against traditional culture, that they lose the
ability to be critical of anything new. About that, too, there
is the correlate warning about what happens when salt loses
Religion, at its best, is subversive. This is not its only
but certainly its wisest political intervention. It gives
the believer a transcendent reason to question the power of
the state and the messages of the culture. As theologian David
Tracy put it:
their own sin and ignorance, the religions, at their best,
always bear extraordinary powers of resistance. When not domesticated
as sacred canopies for the status quo nor wasted by their
own self-contradictory grasps at power, the religions live
Which means, of course, that they die by conforming. And therein
lies the cautionary tale for the religious rightand