American Taliban: It Is Happening Here

What was emerging from this and similar meetings was a political force — the so-called Religious Right — that injected into the Republican Party a new emphasis on the promotion of religious morality (an area of concern which most early Goldwater activists thought belonged in the private, not public, and not political, arena). The focus of this new religion-centered “conservatism” was not on liberty and limited government but on what Russell Kirk had called the “transcendent moral order.”

By 1989, the Moral Majority, the late Jerry Falwell’s organization which had emphasized religious values across sectarian lines and often shared a common purpose with many conservatives and orthodox Jews, had all but disappeared. In his place rose the Christian Coalition, led by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. The Religious Right had become the overtly Christian Right. (Edwards 2008: 40-41)

(….) Through aggressive grassroots activism the movement’s members and supporters won elections, took over party organizations, and dominated party conventions. Later, when George W. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove would speak of “the Republican base,” this was who he had in mind. (Edwards 2008: 41)

The Christian Right was hardly the Republican base (the party’s voters were often much more moderate in their views than were Robertson and his followers), but because Robertson’s forces tended to dominate conventions and primaries in which voter turnout is often low, they exerted influence far beyond their numbers. In the process, they transformed the republican Party and indeed the conservative movement itself into an arm of religion, precisely the outcome the First Amendment of the Constitution was designed to prevent. There were instrumental in galvanizing the conservative opposition to death with dignity laws in Oregon, private medical decisions in Florida, and scientific advances in the nation’s medical laboratories. (Edwards 2008: 41)

A wall was erected between church and the state … as an extension of the founder’s experience with religious persecution in Europe. Placing religion in a position to dictate, or heavily influence, national policy had led to sanctions, torture, murder, and war. European battlefields were littered with the corpses of men sent to war on behalf of one religious sect or another. In a nation founded on Lockean principles of individual rights, there would be no place given to sectarian terror. (Edwards 2008: 64)

The wall between religion and statecraft serves an additional purpose. The enemy of civility (a necessary ingredient in the governance of a diverse society) is certitude. And nothing breeds certitude more than religious belief. Religion is often a positive force in the lives of individuals, but when the true believer feels compelled to impose upon the whole of the society the truths that have enriched his or her life, the threads that bind us as a nation begin to fray. (Edwards 2008: 123)

(….) Conservatism’s central philosophy has long been based on the regard for the individual rather than the collective. Yet today many are willing to support the imposition of the personal beliefs of some, be they a majority or a minority, on others, who do not subscribe to those beliefs. The title of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about a politician who rose to power on a wave of religious fervor was ironic: It Can’t Happen Here. Its message was: yes, it can. (Edwards 2008: 124)

Because the Constitution’s central premise is liberty — it is a document designed for a free people–it was created to prevent both the concentration of power in a few hands … and the ability of the majority to impose its will on the minority… The rule of law, not the rule of the masses or rulers, defines American constitutional government. But that is a lesson conservatives have forgotten. (Edwards 2008: 128-129)

The Constitution is for all Americans — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and nonbeliever alike. We are free to practice or not as we deem fit. Religion is a personal thing; government is what we hold in common, and that distinction lies at the heart of American conservatism [opposed to extremist fundamentalism as exhibited above]. Community is not the same thing as government. The U.S. government is a secular institution, and its policy decisions should not be required to conform to religious doctrine. (Edwards, Mickey. Reclaiming Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008; pp. 40-166) 

Now is the time to remember that our great religious traditions, notably Christianity, once upon a time could not even conceive of reducing religious engagement with public life to a narrow list of hot-button issues. They were too concerned with the whole person and the whole of society to limit their reach to a handful of questions. Now is the time to heed the call to social justice and social inclusion embedded deeply in in the scriptures. (E. J. Dionne Jr., Forward, in Lew Daly (2009) God’s Economy: Faith Based Initiatives & the Caring State. University of Chicago Press)

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