Readers of a more traditionalist bent must have winced when they read the subhed of The Economist‘s “Special report” on the future of religious activism in the United States:
Christian America’s political arm is more complex and more dynamic than it first appears. And it will be hard to stop. (Italics added.)
I soldiered on and am happy to report that it’s not all bad. There’s the usual canned history about fundamentalists and the Scopes trial, and there’s the issue of scare quotes around “Congress’s last-minute intervention to ‘save’ the life of Terri Schiavo,” but the piece as a whole is more rigorous and insightful than one had reason to expect.
The author argues that “Religious America’s switch to the right is rooted in two things: liberal over-reach and conservative organization.” On the first point:
The consistent whinge from the Christian right about “liberal activist judges” exceeding their mandate contains a kernel of truth. In the 1960s and 1970s, judges changed America from a country where every school day began with a prayer, and abortion and pornography were frowned on, to a country where school prayer was banned and both abortion and pornography were protected by the constitution.
The fact that the courts were running so far ahead of public opinion in a generally religious country bolstered the religious right in two ways. It provoked white evangelicals to join the political fray. And it persuaded all religious types to bond together. Protestants and Catholics, who used to be at loggerheads, have now found common ground, especially on abortion.
On the organization front, the report finds that religious conservatives have gotten more flexible and improved their batting average when it comes to playing hardball.
[Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission head Richard] Land and [Focus on the Family founder James] Dobson both personally oppose gay civil unions; but their planned federal marriage amendment does not ban them because, in Mr Land’s words, “it could then become a civil-rights issue rather than a marriage issue.”
This year opened with a fairly typical dance. In a pre-inaugural interview in January, Mr Bush, citing political realities, said he would not push a federal gay-marriage amendment (which needs 60 votes in the Senate to pass). The Arlington Group [an umbrella religious right coalition group] then warned the White House that “this defeatist attitude” would make it impossible for the movement to unite on other difficult issues, such as privatizing Social Security. The White House promptly said it was a priority, though it did not appear on a list of ten legislative priorities put forward by Republicans in the Senate.