January 3, 2006
By Joseph Loconte
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House,
sounded like an Old Testament prophet recently when she denounced
the Republican budget for its "injustice and immorality" and urged
her colleagues to cast their no votes "as an act of worship" during
this religious season.
This, apparently, is what the Democrats had in mind when they vowed
after President Bush's re-election to reclaim religious voters for
their party. In the House, they set up a Democratic Faith Working
Group. Senator Harry Reid, the minority leader, created a Web site
called Word to the Faithful. And Democratic officials began holding
conferences with religious progressives. All of this was with the
intention of learning how to link faith with public policy. An
event for liberal politicians and advocates at the University of
California at Berkeley in July even offered a seminar titled "I
Don't Believe in God, but I Know America Needs a Spiritual
A look at the tactics and theology of the religious left, however,
suggests that this is exactly what American politics does not need.
If Democrats give religious progressives a stronger voice, they'll
only replicate the misdeeds of the religious right.
For starters, we'll see more attempts to draw a direct line from
the Bible to a political agenda. The Rev. Jim Wallis, a popular
adviser to leading Democrats and an organizer of the Berkeley
meeting, routinely engages in this kind of Bible-thumping. In his
book "God's Politics," Mr. Wallis insists that his faith-based
platform transcends partisan categories.
"We affirm God's vision of a good society offered to us by the
prophet Isaiah," he writes. Yet Isaiah, an agent of divine judgment
living in a theocratic state, conveniently affirms every spending
scheme of the Democratic Party. This is no different than the
fundamentalist impulse to cite the book of Leviticus to justify
laws against homosexuality.
When Christians - liberal or conservative - invoke a biblical
theocracy as a handy guide to contemporary politics, they threaten
our democratic discourse. Numerous "policy papers" from liberal
churches and activist groups employ the same approach: they're
awash in scriptural references to justice, poverty and peace,
stacked alongside claims about global warming, debt relief and the
United Nations Security Council.
Christians are right to argue that the Bible is a priceless source
of moral and spiritual insight. But they're wrong to treat it as a
substitute for a coherent political philosophy.
There is another worrisome trait shared by religious liberals and
many conservatives: the tendency to moralize in the most extreme
terms. William Sloane Coffin of the Clergy Leadership Network was
typical in his denunciation of the Bush tax cuts: "I think he
should remember that it was the devil who tempted Jesus with
unparalleled wealth and power."
This trend is at its worst in the misplaced outrage in the war
against Islamic terrorism. It's true that in the days after the
Sept. 11 attacks, some Christian conservatives shamed themselves by
blaming the horror on feminists and gays, who allegedly incited
God's wrath. But such nonsense is echoed by liberals like the
theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University.
"The price that Americans are going to have to pay for the kind of
arrogance that we are operating out of right now is going to be
terrible indeed," he said of the United States' response to the
Qaeda attacks. "People will exact some very strong judgments
against America - and I think we will well deserve it." Professor
Hauerwas joins a chorus of left-wing clerics and religious scholars
who compare the United States to Imperial Rome and Nazi
Democrats who want religious values to play a greater role in their
party might take a cue from the human-rights agenda of religious
conservatives. Evangelicals begin with the Bible's account of the
God-given dignity of every person. And they've joined hands with
liberal and secular groups to defend the rights of the vulnerable
and oppressed, be it through prison programs for offenders and
their families, laws against the trafficking of women and children,
or an American-brokered peace plan for Sudan. In each case
believers have applied their religious ideals with a strong dose of
realism and generosity.
A completely secular public square is neither possible nor
desirable; democracy needs the moral ballast of religion. But a
partisan campaign to enlist the sacred is equally wrongheaded. When
people of faith join political debates, they must welcome those
democratic virtues that promote the common good: prudence, reason,
compromise - and a realization that politics can't usher in the
kingdom of heaven.
is a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation
and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront
Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield). He served as
a member of the Congressional Task Force on the United
First appeared in The New York Times
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, sounded like an Old Testament prophet recently when she denounced the Republican budget for its "injustice and immorality" and urged her colleagues to cast their no votes "as an act of worship" during this religious season.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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