The editors of this intriguing collection of essays have asked prominent social scientists, pastors, mayors, activists, and theologians to address the question of the proper relation between religion and politics. The collection grew out of meetings (initially sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts) at the Brookings Institution that discussed religion and civic life, and poverty-fighting partnerships between government and faith-based organizations (FBOs).
To many Americans, of course—especially intellectuals—inquiry into a possible partnership between the federal government and religious organizations will seem either unnecessary or suspicious. Few things appear more fundamental to our liberal democracy than the strict separation of church and state.
But as James Q. Wilson notes, there has never been an easy answer to the question of the proper relation between the two. Neither the framers of the First Amendment nor the courts that have later issued (mostly incoherent) interpretations of it suggest it bans “nondiscriminatory government aid to all religions generally.” Nor has our political practice—from daily congressional prayers to army chaplains to federal grants for students in religious colleges—been one of strict separation.
As these essays make clear, moreover, it is not altogether surprising that our political order has never been able to resolve the question of the proper relation between religion and political life. To preserve what Jean Bethke Elshtain calls the “trustworthiness and legitimacy” upon which democracy relies, we need institutions that cultivate moral virtue. The contributors to this collection explain why faith-based organizations are “infinitely” more effective as “value shaping organizations” than their secular equivalents. As Jim Wallis suggests, while religious faith does not lead to the moral life, the moral life leads to or “undergirds” faith.
Yet precisely this political use of revealed religion points to a great and longstanding divide in American life. Serious religious believers will object to having their faith reduced to a mere means to secular ends, recognizing that their opponents will assume (as did Thomas Jefferson) that if another, better means can be found to make citizens orderly, revealed religion, a leftover from the dark age of “monkish superstition and ignorance,” can and should be dispensed with.
Dionne and DiIulio are confident that this rift between secular progressives and religious believers can now be overcome. As Dionne presents it, an American “consensus on values” existed prior to the 1960s, but its destruction by liberals caused hitherto apolitical evangelicals to unite with conservative Catholics in a political fight against secular proponents of the new “culture of disbelief.” With the exhaustion of both parties in the resulting “culture wars,” however, a “third wave” is now emerging. The two old antagonists are becoming more accepting of one another.
The essays in this volume are intended to encourage this third wave, primarily in two ways. One way is to have religious conservatives (Cal Thomas, Ed Dobson, Peter Wehner) warn their brethren away from the siren song of political change; religious conservatives should aim at transforming individuals one at a time, not at reforming nations.
The other way is to have religious progressives inform their more secular comrades that many religious people are thoroughly “progressive,” and to argue that even evangelicals are progressive in deed if not always in word. The political threat from the religious right is fading; evangelicals are becoming part of mainstream America; and religious progressives—an overlooked part of that America—are still strongly engaged in it. It’s time for secular progressives to call a truce and allow the government to partner with FBOs for the sake of our disadvantaged citizens.
Significantly, the book doesn’t warn religious progressives to stay out of politics or invite conservative religious groups to remain involved in it. For behind the editors’ optimistic analysis of an emerging third wave is the fact that they themselves desire a synthesis of the culture war’s two antagonistic camps. As they put it, “Religion’s finest hours have been the times when intense belief led to social transformation.” The standard they use in judging religions is not the salvation of souls, but this-worldly “progress.”
How they, or any religious progressives, manage to synthesize a secular faith in progress with religious faith may be gleaned from Patrick Glynn’s essay. Glynn claims that there have been “great leaps of progress in Western politics,” a “progressive awakening of conscience,” due to the progressive application of “Christian moral standard[s] to political life.” On account of Christianity, the West has “sought to bring life in the earthly city more in line with values of the heavenly city.” Dionne and DiIulio wish to ensure that it continues to do so.
Odd as it may seem, the success of their attempt to call off the culture wars will depend in part on their ability to persuade secular progressives and religious conservatives that Glynn’s thesis is correct. Yet there is considerable reason to doubt that they will be able to do so. For while there is no denying a Christian influence on Western political life, Glynn’s thesis is far less evidently true. To many, in fact, modern liberalism is emphatically not Christian, but part of a broad Enlightenment design to bring about the quiet atrophy of religious faith.
The arguments of other contributors, like Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland, help us to see the breadth of such secularization and hence why the division between religious conservatives and secular progressives is not so easily overcome. Sider and Rolland suggest that the only way in which the editors’ third wave might be brought about is through the capitulation of the secular Enlightenment. They argue that secularists have an implicitly religious or “quasi-religious perspective,” and that strictly secular social programs “are not religiously neutral.” A belief that “nothing exists except the natural order” and “that nonreligious technical knowledge and skills are sufficient to address social problems” underlie both secular progressivism and the secular social services that the courts have required churches to adopt.
The alternative way for Dionne and DiIulio’s “third wave” to emerge would be for religious conservatives to become “progressive” through secularization. This prospect is limned in W. Bradford Wilcox and John P. Bartkowski’s study of the recent egalitarian, “progressive” tendencies of evangelical families.
In this rather unlikely vision of the future, religious conservatives would be proud to have the mayor of Baltimore explain how he turned the clergy of his city into lobbyists for a needle exchange program. They would beam when the mayor of Indianapolis explains how his city “outsources” its poverty programs to their churches. They will at long last have become important players in the modern, progressive project.
Whether we will all be better off when this occurs is another question. It is the great virtue of this collection to have made that question, which lies at the heart of the culture wars, clear to its readers.
Timothy W. Burns is assistant professor of government at Skidmore College.