Threat is on the left Religious right wants to undo decades of harm

October 08, 1995|By Ernest W. Lefever

With all the ink and air time devoted to vilifying the religious right, it may come as a shock that the religious left may be a greater threat to American civility and cohesion.

Since the early 1900s, an articulate religious left has been active and far more influential in American politics than the religious right has been recently.

For almost a century, many liberal Protestant and Jewish leaders have cast their lot with the fashionable secular leftists. The social agenda of the Federal Council of Churches, established in 1900, was similar to that of the Wilsonian idealists and Roosevelt's New Deal. In the 1950s, Soviet apologists included Methodist Bishop Bromley Oxnam. Since the 1960s, main-line Protestant leaders have marched with the "liberation theologians" who blamed America for Third World poverty. The religious left saw Washington, not Moscow, as the chief cause of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. In the 1980s, it supported a nuclear freeze that gave Moscow an advantage and opposed President Ronald Reagan's efforts to offset Soviet SS-20 missiles by deploying Pershing II missiles in Germany. Mr. Reagan rejected the left's advice and his firm policies led to the collapse of the Evil Empire.

It is on national domestic policy, however, where the religious left has exerted its greatest influence. From the New Deal to the current affirmative action debate, liberal Protestant and Jewish leaders have backed virtually all efforts that have culminated in a regulatory state with myriad programs of coercive compassion.

In the 1960s, leaders of the religious left justifiably supported the Rev. Martin Luther King's call for a color-blind society and equal opportunity under the law. But soon, they were seduced by the liberal Zeitgeist that insisted on mandatory school busing, quotas and set-asides, which have led not to racial justice or harmony but to divisiveness.

The left supported Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and its massive welfare program, which has created a growing underclass and played havoc with the inner-city family.

A devastating legacy

The legacy of the left has been devastating: a decline of the work ethic and individual responsibility and a dangerous confusion over the role of religion in America.

In contrast, the religious right advocates a color-blind society, a strong work ethic, personal responsibility and a moral climate that encourages traditional American values. Its rejection of the omnipotent state affirms the Founders' belief in limited government.

The religious right reflects the virtues and hopes of middle America and calls for a return to the norms and practices of America during the first post-World War II decade.

Though we were far from perfect then, we were moving toward racial harmony and equal opportunity, and by today's standards, violent crime and drugs were under control.

What the religious right wants and deserves is a place at the policy-making table; in biblical terms, to be heard in Caesar's household. Conservative Christians do not seek a theocratic state; that would threaten religious liberty. The First Amendment's free exercise clause is designed to ensure freedom of religious faith and practice in a pluralistic democracy. Its establishment clause prohibits only the establishment by law of a particular religion.

At the very least, journalists and politicians should acknowledge that America was founded on a belief in the majesty of God and a recognition that this nation and every nation stands under divine mercy and judgment. The Declaration of Independence speaks of "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a lot to say about the perplexing problems of this world. Alexis de Tocqueville had it right: "Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs the divine source of its claims."

Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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