Requiems on the Religious Right

Once again, it's time for Religious Right strategists to sing requiems while the chaplains of the Lifestyle Left prepare to dance at inaugural balls.

Two years ago, everything was different. Evangelicals were drinking non-alcoholic toasts on Capitol Hill and oldline Protestant progressives were holding crisis prayer meetings in the Oval Office. And two years from now, who knows? Some of the players may even consider dropping out or forming new teams.

"Obviously, many Christians have encouraged a virtual blanket identification of their cause with the Republican Party," said retired Denver Seminary President Vernon Grounds, an 82-year-old Baptist patriarch who has influenced generations of activists. "Surely we have reached the point where some of them are starting to question the wisdom of that decision. ... What have they received in return for their displays of loyalty?"

Also, millions of morally conservative Democrats crossed over in 1994 and helped Republicans seize congressional power. Then, in a matter of weeks, the GOP leadership became culturally tone deaf. Once the White House race began, Bob Dole seemed to be leading a contest to see who could inspire the most apathy in pews. Everyone expects lots of finger pointing after the election.

While many have focused on the rising and falling fortunes of groups such as the Christian Coalition, Grounds said it's important to remember that most conservative Protestants are newcomers to the muddy ruts of politics. A few decades ago, fundamentalists preached that it was sinful for churches to enter politics. Then everything changed in the '70s and '80s. Things could change again.

"Now we're seeing signs that some Christians who have been very politically active are becoming quite disillusioned with the whole political process. They may be tempted to retreat, again," he said. "One minute it seems like they're on the inside and making progress. Then things turn around and they're on the outside and looks like they haven't even made a dent."

Grounds knows politics can be frustrating. In 1973, he helped form Evangelicals For Social Action, which links issues many consider incompatible, such as opposing both abortion and the death penalty. He's used to hearing blessings and curses on both sides. During one such clash, Grounds created a list of temptations that Christians -- on left and right -- face while pursuing eternal goals in the public square. They may, he said, be tempted:

  • To believe that their "finite, relatively correct perceptions are an exact transcript of the divine mind."
  • To use the name of God to serve their own ends, rather than "humbly serving God as instruments for fulfilling his purposes."
  • To act as if only one position "on a multifaceted matter is biblically mandated, when actually there may be several ... viable approaches that are in harmony with scripture."
  • To "equate personal piety with legislative and administrative competence," forgetting that spirituality does not equal statecraft.
  • To use "sub-Christian means" to reach worthy ends. Instead, they must be honest, fair and accurate in their portrayals of rivals' policies, while resisting the urge to stereotype.
  • To forget that this is a pluralistic, secular society, not a "covenant nation standing in a unique relationship with God."
  • To reject all attempts at compromise, even on issues that do not clearly involve moral principles. Many forget that politics is the "art of doing the possible."

Both political parties face identity crises as America's culture wars continue. At some point, said Grounds, it might make sense for some Democrats and Republicans to flee and create a new party, if only to define boundary lines in an era of change. Right now, the leaders of both parties know that voters who are economic moderates and moral conservatives have few satisfying options.

"You could call it something like the Bull Moose Party or some other kind of harmless name," said Grounds. "But, by all means, they must not call it a `Christian' party. If they fall for that temptation they will only make the word `Christian' meaningless. I fear that would only do much more harm than good."