Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Blinded by Ambition?” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone.
Blinded by Ambition?
Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?
by James Hitchcock
In the l970s many American Christians began a love affair with conservative politics, an affair that is now ending in disillusionment and even bitterness, leading to renewed calls to retreat within the fortress of the Church and the family and to eschew the wicked world. Unfortunately, some of these disappointed lovers are like the man in the Gospel who had his devil cast out—their last state is worse than their first; it would have been better had they never been reborn as political activists.
The prime text of this disillusionment is Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?—written by two former staff members of the Moral Majority, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. There are reasons for suspecting a barely hidden agenda in this objectively mischievous work, but even if the authors are conceded unquestioned good will, the book is a mishmash of both religious and political confusion that, ironically, tends to prove the very point the authors are trying to make—that Christians should stay out of politics.
The possible hidden agenda may give insight into why the authors have moved in the direction they have. They claim that they have not changed their beliefs on any important issue but merely regret the style and tactics employed by groups like the Moral Majority.
The major criticism of the latter is the familiar one that conservative Christians are judgmental and unloving, and the authors go out of their way to be respectful, even gushing, towards certain secular liberals. (Remarkably, Cal Thomas boasts that Senator Edward Kennedy and Norman Lear are his personal friends.) But on the other hand, harshness is virtually required when addressing Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and, in particular, James Dobson. The authors complain that they have been falsely portrayed merely as disgruntled former employees, but their account shows that they had conflicts with the leaders of these movements that have left scars.
Thus the authors easily fall into the familiar habit whereby tolerance includes the right to be intolerant of those deemed to be intolerant, love is practiced towards one’s ostensible enemies but need not be wasted on one’s erstwhile friends, being judgmental is forbidden except when directed at those who are themselves (allegedly) judgmental. These are now ingrained liberal habits, in and out of the churches, and it is a measure of how far the authors have traveled that they fall into those habits so comfortably.
Whether consciously or not, Ed Dobson, now a pastor in Michigan, appears to be in the process of training to be a liberal. Thus, while once again insisting that his moral beliefs have not changed in the slightest, he affirms that homosexuals are discriminated against and deplores the way Christians treat them, condemns acts of civil disobedience against abortion (he does not even condone picketing), and quotes a “non-political” sermon he preached during the recent White House scandals, the peroration of which was a criticism of those inclined to “throw stones” at President Clinton.
Cal Thomas takes obvious delight at revealing that he has warmer feelings towards Kennedy and Lear than towards Falwell and Dobson and, while deploring conservative clergy who allow themselves to be used by politicians, relates how he sat next to Clinton at a White House breakfast and dutifully reports how “hurt” the President was by criticism from some Christians.
While Ed Dobson gives the impression that he is learning to be a liberal, Thomas seems to have run successfully for the office of the liberal media’s favorite Evangelical, someone who can be counted on to pull his punches and periodically to issue public warnings to his fellow Christians. Reputedly he is now the most widely published “conservative” columnist in the United States, and readers who find him on their op-ed pages get his analysis instead of the vastly more perceptive (and bold) writings of George Will, Charles Krauthammer, or Linda Chavez.
Perhaps the most revealing signal as to the book’s purpose is the fact that the publishers have hired a public relations firm to stir up interest and arrange interviews. The flacks helpfully line up key passages from the book, every one of which is designed to discomfit conservative Christians and warm the hearts of secular liberals. Thomas and Dobson are clearly signaling to the liberal media that they are now available.
But the substantive flaws in the work are even more serious, because the book will be used as an excuse to abandon the struggle for the soul of America and retreat into private worlds.
It might be said of the book what was famously said about some now forgotten work—it is both true and original, but the parts that are true are not original and the parts that are original are not true. The authors have legitimate criticisms to make of the conservative Christian movement—the egotism of some of its leaders, dubious methods of fund-raising, questionable use of money, and other things, all of which other people have said long ago.
Perhaps most serious is the issue that the book alludes to but then ignores—how to distinguish genuine religious issues from mere conservative politics. There is only one authentically Christian position about abortion, which is that it is the taking of innocent human life, but it is a serious mistake to think that Christianity somehow dictates precise positions on gun control, a balanced budget, or war in Kosovo.
The fact that the authors see the problem but do not address it stems from their own intellectual weaknesses—they do not appear to have either the theological or the political resources to establish what is or is not an authentically Christian political agenda. Thus they are required, once they find parts of that agenda invalid, to discard the whole. Pastor Dobson will not, for example, allow his church to be used in any way in support of the pro-life movement, will not even allow activist groups to distribute literature to his parishioners.
A second fatal confusion is the fundamental thesis of the book—that neither individual Christians nor the world in general are saved through politics. But who ever thought they were? It may be true that some activists have been carried away by euphoria, but the discovery that politics is not everything does not mean that it is nothing. Had the authors issued a call for a more realistic look at what is possible, a more ironic sense of history, a time for renewed reflection and prayer, their book would have served a good purpose. Instead, despite occasional disclaimers, it can only be read as calling on Christians to abandon politics completely.
There are still further confusions. Politics, the authors repeatedly remind the readers, is dirty. So it is. No serious person has ever doubted it, but every serious person has also concluded that, despite its dirtiness, perhaps even because of it, people of integrity are obliged to become involved. They do indeed risk being soiled by the process, but the same can be said of merely being alive. In one place the authors invoke the example of the Desert Fathers, but those holy hermits were themselves acutely aware of the uniquely powerful temptations inherent in their own state of life.
Saying that politics is dirty implies that Christians should stay out of it lest they be sullied. But then the authors offer the contradictory message that, since we are all sinners, we have no right to criticize the behavior of others. Politicians may be sleazy, but no more so than clergy or church deacons. But if this is so, why is politics called dirty and why should Christians not participate?
Nowhere do the authors better reveal how deeply they have been influenced by the secular culture than in their repetition of the truism that Christianity forbids one to be judgmental or condemnatory. On the contrary, many Christians have thought that, in such incidents as the money-changers in the temple, Jesus acted otherwise, and it is undeniable that, beginning with Paul, the great leaders of Christianity have from time to time felt obligated to make precisely the kinds of condemnations that Thomas and Dobson now forbid. The authors have adopted the understanding of Christianity fostered by the therapeutic culture, whereby each person’s sins serve to inhibit candid discussion of any other person’s sins. Any condemnation of sin is itself condemned as self-righteousness.
Their inability to make distinctions prevents the authors even from offering merely common-sense advice—that different people have different gifts and are called to different activities on behalf of the Kingdom. Not everyone need be an activist. But it is equally specious to imply that no one should be. It is a betrayal to turn the churches into mere adjuncts of political movements, but why is the alternative a self-willed political ignorance? Without compromising its religious mission, a congregation can foster political awareness in the same way in which it encourages many other kinds of activity.
Another of the authors’ truisms is that the world is not saved “from the top down,” that is, through politics, but “from the bottom up,” that is, by individuals and families living authentic Christian lives. Once again, who ever doubted it?
But here lies the book’s most serious political failure, which is the authors’ apparently having forgotten what they once knew—that the modern state will not let people alone, will not allow them to live simply as their beliefs dictate. The modern state more and more moves towards what has been aptly called soft totalitarianism, in which it claims authority over every aspect of people’s lives. Until now conservative Christians have been the strongest bulwark against this tendency. Mischievously, Thomas and Dobson now urge them to withdraw from the fray, thus leaving government bureaucrats free to implement their programs of social engineering.
Another of the authors’ cliches is that laws are not sufficient to change things, only personal conversion can do so. Once again this belief stems from political naivete. Dobson insists that all law must rest on “moral consensus”; otherwise, it is ineffective. But that issue was settled during the civil rights movement. The law leads as well as follows. It has a powerful symbolic effect on the culture. Indeed, where true moral consensus exists, laws are unnecessary, because law coerces those people who reject the moral authority behind the law.
Does the law change nothing, as the authors insist? In order to assert this, they must accept uncritically the secular-liberal accounts of both Prohibition and the nineteenth-century anti-abortion movement. (Their account of the latter is outrageously distorted and biased.) They are apparently the last two people in America not to have learned that, following tougher policies, crime has declined substantially. They favor intact families but apparently see no connection with “no fault” divorce laws. They have nothing to say on the question of whether legalized gambling might drastically undermine the kind of family life they extol.
Stated realistically, their advice to Christians is, in effect, “Struggle as best you can to create little islands of holiness in your lives. Keep retreating inward as Big Government makes it harder and harder for you to live the way you should. But whatever you do, don’t try to change the course of Big Government. That is a kind of heresy.”
Calling it a heresy finally reveals the authors’ theological deficiencies. They seem to think that they have invented the theological wheel with respect to the relationship between religion and government. The fact that these conundrums have been discussed for many centuries by many different thinkers seems lost on the authors, so that they are capable of offering only the most simplistic answers, which seem to be based chiefly on their personal reactions to the movements of which they were once a part.
They do insist that Christians are citizens and should take the duties of citizenship seriously. But so opposed are they to any religious-political agenda that it is impossible to find in the book any idea of what citizenship might look like.
Dobson argues that, where abortion is concerned, Christians should merely concentrate on alternatives like the counseling of pregnant women and the care of unwanted children. These are of course noble ideas, but a stark fact remains—American law has withdrawn its protection from the most vulnerable and innocent category of human beings. Trying to discourage abortions is laudable but insufficient. A society that allows the killing of the vulnerable is an unjust society, and Christians do not have the right to remain passive in the face of that. They are obligated by their faith to struggle to restore the protection of the law to those who are denied it.
Another of Dobson’s examples of good citizenship is curious indeed. He is less than enthusiastic about private religious schools, which he sees as further examples of the narrowness of his one-time constituency, and he asks Christians to consider whether the alleged moral decline of the public schools is partly due to the fact that Christians have withdrawn from them. He wants those same Christians to close their own schools and return to the public schools as leaven.
But when they do, they are not to press their own agenda, such as formal prayer, which Dobson opposes. Neither are they to be critics of official school policies, which would be the kind of “unloving” behavior the authors condemn. Evidently Christians’ sole moral duty to the schools is to be cooperative. This is a view indistinguishable from that of the American Civil Liberties Union or People for the American Way, the anti-religious group founded by Thomas’s friend Norman Lear.
Thomas and Dobson in effect tell Christians not to be citizens, in the classical sense of that word—people who participate vigorously and intelligently in public debate and who attempt to influence public policy in the interests of a good society. Dobson’s parishioners are apparently required in effect to cast their votes blindly, since the church refuses to do anything to guide them concerning the moral principles behind public issues.
Once again adopting a favorite liberal position, the authors repeatedly claim that activist Christians are the cause of their own failures, because they are too rigid, too unloving, too aggressive, too uncompromising. (In this view of politics, compromise becomes a good in itself, so that logically Christians should not want the pro-life movement to succeed fully.)
But, as with the liberal secularists who admonish militant Christians, the authors ignore the stories of many successful movements in American history—abolitionism, civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, the anti-war movement—that have possessed exactly those same “negative” qualities. In counseling Christians to be mild and passive, they are offering what is a proven recipe for political defeat.
The authors’ view of the relationship between the Christian and the state would not have been acceptable to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. It is compatible with certain other Christian traditions, but those traditions have always been somewhat small and marginal. Thus the authors are less than candid in not informing their readers (possibly because they themselves do not realize it) that they are offering a position that is eccentric in the light of Christian history and that imposes on those who accept it a radical rejection of the American democratic experiment as well. If they had thought out their position clearly, they would tell their readers candidly, “Your faith will not allow you to exercise your rights as American citizens.”
Militant secularists like Norman Lear work tirelessly to exclude religious belief from the public square. Thomas and Dobson’s achievement is to offer Christians specious theological arguments why they should willingly cooperate in their own disenfranchisement.
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“Blinded by Ambition?” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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