Religion's Reach and the Tide of Change

Author: Kate Russell

Religion has always played a major role in American politics, but for the last three decades faith has been cast as a perennially and inevitably conservative force. There are Republican candidates and political operatives who assume that religion lives on the political right, that religious people care primarily about issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and that these voters will be forever part of the Republican political base. There are liberals, though fewer than conservatives think, who buy this account and write off all religious people as backward, reactionary and obsessed with sex.

Historically, of course, this account is false. In the United States especially, religious faith has long been associated with progressive movements for change, from abolition to trade unionism to civil rights. The Catholic bishops’ 1919 Program of Social Reconstruction was in many ways the forerunner to the New Deal—and Father John A. Ryan, who inspired the movement for a family wage shortly after the turn of the century, became known as “Father New Deal.” In the mid-1980s, U.S. Catholic bishops entered the public debate on the progressive side with powerful pastoral letters on war and peace and economic justice.

Yet with 1973’s Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision and the spread of legal abortion, the Catholic voice on public policy came to be inflected with a new tone. Over time, many bishops concluded that the battle against abortion was, for Catholics, the premier issue in public life, and that other traditional Catholic concerns necessarily took second place. The intervention of these pro-life bishops was especially dramatic in 1984 on behalf (albeit indirectly) of Ronald Reagan’s re-election.

The argument over the bishops’ stance led to one of the most dramatic interventions in our country’s history by a Catholic politician in a theological debate. And Notre Dame was Ground Zero.

On September 13, 1984, Mario M. Cuomo, who had been elected as governor of New York two years earlier, came to Notre Dame to deliver the liberal Catholic Speech Heard Round the World. The speech was the culmination of a running conflict with New York’s Archbishop John J. O’Connor, who had sparred with Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro, the New York City congresswoman who was Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate. O’Connor had been installed as archbishop in March, and caused a stir that summer when he declared on television: “I don’t see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion.” Shortly thereafter, Cuomo complained that “The Church has never been this aggressively involved” in politics.

Archbishop O’Connor tamped down the controversy only slightly when he issued a statement declaring that it was “neither my responsibility nor my desire to evaluate the qualifications of any individual of any political party for any public office.” But he continued to insist on his responsibility to present “as clearly as I can the formal, official teaching of the Catholic Church.”

In the midst of the controversy, Cuomo acknowledged that discussing religion and politics is “hot stuff, boy.” He added: “You can drown in this stuff, and many people have. Once having opened the box, you have to deal with the contents very carefully.” His speech at Notre Dame was Cuomo’s comprehensive effort to deal with the box that was opened that summer.

Cuomo’s address was a complex, thoughtful and at times highly personal reflection on his own role as a Catholic politician and his own obligations as a public official. Yet he did confront the archbishop obliquely but plainly in asserting that “it is not wise for prelates and politicians to be tied too closely together.” And he stressed that “the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us.”

It’s certainly hard for anyone to disagree with Cuomo’s central assertion about religious liberty. “The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on,” Cuomo declared, “the truth that to assure our freedom, we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or nonbeliever or anything else you choose.”

The Cuomo controversy
Cuomo’s talk, however, went beyond an abstract view of politics and religion. To understand the controversy the speech sparked, it’s important to recall his central assertions.

“I believe that legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work,” he declared. “Given present attitudes, it would be Prohibition revisited, legislating what couldn’t be enforced and in the process creating a disrespect for law in general.”

He argued that a constitutional prohibition “would allow people to ignore the causes of many abortions instead of addressing them, much the way the death penalty is used to escape dealing more fundamentally and more rationally with the problem of violent crime.”

He also said this: “The hard truth is that abortion isn’t a failure of government. No agency or department of government forces women to have abortions, but abortion goes on. . . . Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin? The failure here is not Caesar’s. This failure is our failure, the failure of the entire people of God.”

The reaction around the country was explosive. Praise and condemnation came Cuomo’s way, both in abundance.

Archbishop O’Connor himself eventually replied to Cuomo in an address on October 16, 1984. O’Connor posed the question, “What do we ask of a candidate or someone already in office?” And then he answered it: “Nothing more than this: a statement opposing abortion on demand, and a commitment to work for a modification of the permissive interpretations issued on the subject by the United States Supreme Court. It will simply not do to argue that ‘laws’ won’t work, or that ‘we can’t legislate morality.’ Nor will it do to argue, ‘I won’t impose my morality on others.’ There is nothing personal or private in the morality that teaches that the taking of unborn life is wrong.”

Thus a central moment in an argument that, a quarter century on, is still very much alive among Catholics, no less than among other Americans. But in the 24 years since Cuomo’s address, our public debate over religion and public life has undergone a change that is already visible in the 2008 presidential campaign. While that transformation has affected the debate about abortion, it involves a much larger reconfiguration of religious forces in politics.

The most significant change of all is that there is far greater acceptance of religion’s role as part of American politics than there was in 1984. The country was actually surprised in the 1980s by the emergence of strong religious voices on the conservative side of politics, both in the evangelical-led Christian Right and among Catholics in the right-to-life movement.

Going back to the 1930s, the nation had passed through a long era in which largely secular concerns dominated public life and old cultural and religious questions—such as the prohibition of alcohol and the role of Catholics in public life—had receded. Evangelical Protestants withdrew from active participation in the central public arguments.

A change in attitude
The new, relatively secular period created the climate in which it was possible for John F. Kennedy to be elected as the nation’s first Catholic president. This did not mean that Americans were no longer religious. On the contrary, the presidents of this period regularly invoked God. Franklin D. Roosevelt saw Nazism as a new German pagan religion and insisted that the world was too small to provide adequate “living room,” that Nazi term Lebensraum, for both Hitler and God. Dwight D. Eisenhower assailed “Godless communism.” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his 1961 inaugural address that “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

Kennedy’s emphasis was decidedly on the work to be done here on earth. In keeping with the secular mood, he confined religion to a largely private role. In his famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, designed to reassure Protestants that his Catholicism would play no substantive role in his presidency, Kennedy said, “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair.” Religion was private, not political. If John Kerry had given a similar speech in 2004 he would have been condemned by many Catholics for ignoring what the Church had to say on public questions. But in 1960 the country was in a different place.

Come now to 2008. Religion is not going to withdraw from public life, but I do believe we’re at a time when a politics built around culture wars will recede in the face of new challenges, notably in the economic realm, and also in regard to Iraq and our position in the world. Religious people will continue to care about the issues they have cared about in the past, but those questions will be less pressing than others.

We began to see evidence of this in the 2006 elections, when the matters of Iraq and the economy far outweighed cultural issues, even in the decisions of many of the most theologically and culturally conservative voters.

There is a paradox here: religion is a far more accepted part of public life than it was at the time of Cuomo’s speech, but where its public role was waxing at the time he gave it, its role now is becoming far more vexed and complicated.

Thus the second difference: in 1984, the religious right—a movement largely distinct from a longer-standing Catholic conservatism—was a fresh and powerful phenomenon. In 2008, it is yesterday’s news. John McCain, the victor in the Republican primaries, was actively opposed by large segments of the religious right. Mike Huckabee, the longest surviving challenger to McCain, is a fascinating figure with one foot in the old religious right and one foot in a new disposition that is a kind of evangelical populism. He spoke a great deal about poverty, inequality, health care and education. Like McCain, he had little support from the old leaders of the religious right, yet he won substantial support from evangelical voters. The candidates with the strongest support from the old leaders failed. Consider that Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani, and appeared to perform no miracles on his behalf.

A move to social justice
These results reflect a Christian political movement whose core concerns are changing and broadening, reflecting a renewed understanding of Jesus’ teachings about the poor and of Biblical calls to justice. The new leaders of the evangelical movement are consciously backing away from the narrow partisan approach of the past. In a sense, they are moving closer to the tradition of Catholic social thought, which sees a respect for life as also encompassing a strong commitment to social justice, to alleviating poverty and to exercising great care and caution on the matter of war.

A good example is Rick Warren, the founder of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, California, and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that has sold more than 25 million copies. If there is a 21st century Billy Graham, it is Rick Warren. And he has shown that the causes to which his faith leads him are more important than partisan politics.

In late 2006, Warren invited two politicians to his church who shared his concern for the victims of HIV/AIDS in Africa and around the world. One was Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a good conservative Republican. The other was a young Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

Warren is strongly pro-life and opposed to gay marriage. But the invitation to Obama infuriated his conservative allies. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, declared that Obama’s views on abortion represented “the antithesis of biblical ethics and morality” and insisted that Warren had no business inviting him to Saddleback. Warren’s church issued a statement reaffirming its strong opposition to abortion, but Warren did not back down. Indeed, he seemed to revel in rejecting the old evangelical political model.

“I’m a pastor, not a politician,” Warren told ABC News. “People always say, ‘Rick, are you right wing or left wing?’ I say ’I’m for the whole bird.’” What we are seeing broadly is the emergence of whole-bird Christianity.

Talk the talk
The third difference between now and 1984 is that Democrats are far more comfortable talking about religion publicly than they were when Mario Cuomo gave his speech. Indeed Cuomo’s speech was a sensation precisely because it was so unusual to hear a Democrat and a liberal speak so openly and thoughtfully about his faith and its implications. Now, there is nothing unusual about Democratic politicians addressing the issues of faith and politics with feeling and sophistication. In this sense, I do believe that liberals have learned some important things from their conservative friends since 1984.

A good example here is Tim Kaine, who was elected governor of Virginia in 2005. Kaine is opposed to the death penalty and, predictably, his Republican opponent attacked this position. The Roman Catholic Kaine responded with an ad in which he said he would enforce the death penalty as governor because it is the law of the state. But he added: “My faith teaches life is sacred. I personally oppose the death penalty.” When Kaine’s campaign tested the ad with focus groups, they discovered that it went over well with conservative voters who decided that Kaine could not possibly be a liberal because he was religious. The paradox is that because the death penalty issue encouraged Kaine to talk about his faith, the issue may have helped him, indirectly, with conservative voters.

It’s worth noting that in the 2008 campaign, both Obama and Hillary Clinton have been exceptionally comfortable in talking about their own faith and its relation to their political and public policy views—and doing so has been essential for Obama, both to fend off false rumors that he is a Muslim and to deal with the controversy surrounding his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The fourth difference is the simple fact that when Cuomo gave his speech in 1984, Roe v Wade had been the law of the land for only 11 years. We are now 35 years on from Roe. For those 35 years, we have been having essentially the same political argument over Roe, to little effect. Politics has not reduced the number of abortions, though it has changed the philosophical orientation of the Supreme Court. Yet it is fair to say that even if the Supreme Court were to strike down Roe or substantially alter it, it is highly unlikely that most states in the country would ban abortion, and few if any of the states with the largest populations would do so.

The fact that abortion will in all likelihood remain legal indefinitely has important implications for those in the pro-life movement. Cuomo offered a hint of a plausible future course in his speech when he spoke of what might be done to help poor women who wanted to bring their children into the world.

“We must work to find ways to avoid abortions without otherwise violating our faith,” he said. “We should provide funds and opportunity for young women to bring their child to term, knowing both of them will be taken care of if that is necessary; we should teach our young men better than we do now their responsibilities in creating and caring for human life.”

He continued, “Without lessening their insistence on a woman’s right to an abortion, the people who call themselves ‘pro-choice’ can support the development of government programs that present an impoverished mother with the full range of support she needs to bear and raise her children, to have a real choice. Without dropping their campaign to ban abortion, those who gather under the banner of ‘pro-life’ can join in developing and enacting a legislative bill of rights for mothers and children, as the bishops have already proposed.”

Easing the culture wars
All those years ago, Cuomo pointed to what has become one of the most promising strategies to ease the culture wars and to take a large step in the cause of life. A strategy to outlaw abortion is not likely to succeed politically and would certainly not end the practice of abortion. Millions of abortions are performed annually in countries where abortion is banned. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that reducing the number of unintended pregnancies through a combination of abstinence and family planning could do a great deal to reduce the abortion rate. So would doing far more for poor women who want to choose life.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey gave a talk at Fordham a few years back in which he asked his listeners to imagine that a young, single woman working in a textile factory in South Carolina got pregnant. He asked his audience to imagine that she had a good job with health coverage and a decent wage, and then suddenly found herself unemployed and without health coverage. Under which circumstance, Kerrey asked, was this young woman more likely to choose life? When she had a job that would allow her to support herself and her child and provided them both with adequate health care? Or when she had lost all these supports?

As Notre Dame’s Mark Roche argued in an important 2004 op-ed piece in The New York Times, “the overall abortion rate (calculated as the number of abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44) was more or less stable during the Reagan years, but during the Clinton presidency it dropped by 11 percent.” Why? Surely, Roche said, “the traditional Democratic concern with the social safety net makes it easier for pregnant women to make responsible decisions and for young life to flourish; among the most economically disadvantaged, abortion rates have always been and remain the highest.”

Roche also noted that the world’s lowest abortion rates are in Belgium and the Netherlands, “where abortion is legal but where the welfare state is strong.” On the other hand, Latin America, “where almost all abortions are illegal, has one of the highest rates in the world.”

The time has come for those who are pro-choice to acknowledge that abortion is a moral problem and to understand why opponents of abortion see it as a moral evil. It is also time for the pro-life movement to take seriously a strategy that will substantially reduce the number of abortions in our nation. In Congress, representatives Tim Ryan, who is pro-life, and Rosa DeLauro, who is pro-choice, have introduced abortion reduction legislation that has won broad support. The cause of reducing the number of abortions would provide us a way of making progress on a matter where, for 35 years, we have seen only stalemate.

The fifth difference between 1984 and the current moment lies in the vigor of the conservative movement then and its near collapse now. In 1984, Ronald Reagan carried 49 states and received 59 percent of the popular vote. He carried voters under 30 by a margin of roughly 3-to-2.

Youthful excitement
Young voters often tell us which way the political winds are blowing, and consider that in the 2006 midterm elections those under 30 voted by 3-to-2 for the Democrats. If Reagan-style conservatism captured the imagination and enthusiasm of so many among the young a quarter century ago, it is Obama-style progressivism that is capturing the hopes and energies of the young this year. This new progressivism among the young is affecting theologically conservative young Americans and is part of the explanation for the evangelical movement’s engagement with the issues of poverty, global warming and HIV-AIDS.

More generally, the failures of the Bush Administration have created an opportunity for progressives and liberals, much as the failures of the Carter Administration created conservatism’s opening in the 1980s. As a religious liberal, Mario Cuomo was fighting uphill in 1984. In 2008, religious progressives are in tune with their times.

I titled my recent book on religion and politics Souled Out, because I thought the pun embodied the large changes in the landscape of faith and public life. The title could be read in two ways. It spoke to our country’s exhaustion with a religious style in politics that was excessively dogmatic, partisan and ideological. It was a style reflecting a spirit far too certain of itself and far too insistent on the depravity of its political adversaries. Linking religion too closely to the fortunes of one political party, or to one leader or group of leaders, is always a mistake. It encourages alienation from faith itself—where, after all, did the current new atheist writers come from?—by turning a concern with the ultimate into a prop for temporal power. It distorted great traditions by requiring their exponents to bob and weave to accommodate the political needs of a given moment or the immediate requirements of a given politician. A great many people—including a great many religious people—have had enough.

They have had enough for the reason embodied in the other sense of the title: Reducing religion to politics or to a narrow set of public issues amounts to a great sellout of our traditions. It is common to speak of religion as “selling out” to secularism or to modernity or to a fashionable relativism. But there is a more immediate danger, particularly in the United States, of religion selling out to political forces that use the votes of religious people for purposes having nothing to do with a religious agenda—and, often enough, for causes that contradict the values such voters prize most.

It is a great sellout of religion to insist that it has much to teach us about abortion or gay marriage but little useful to say about social justice, Iraq, the organization of our work lives or our approach to providing for the old, the sick and the desperate. Religion becomes less relevant to public life when its role is marginalized to a predetermined list of “values issues,” when its voice is silenced or softened on the central problems facing our country and our government.

Catholics, with our rich tradition of engagement on social questions embodied in papal encyclicals from Rerum Novarum to Pacem in Terris, Mater et Magistra, Populorum Progressio and Centesimus Annus, should be especially wary of confining the Christian voice to a narrow set of concerns.

Changes on the right—and left
The “Christian Right” is, finally, an abstraction. Millions of committed Christians who may well have responded to the appeals of a political movement at a particular moment are rethinking not so much their politics as the public implications of their faith. They are growing impatient with narrow agendas as they reach out to the poor in Africa and in their own communities, as they worry about the obligation to stewardship of the earth, as they grapple with practical ways to reduce the number of abortions, and as they struggle to approach gay friends and relatives in a spirit that is consistent with being Christian.

Liberals are changing, too. They are remembering things they had forgotten about the spiritual sources of their own dreams. They are recalling that one of the great successes of the last half century was a civil rights movement led by a Christian preacher who was inspired by the Declaration of Independence and the scriptures. They are realizing that bigotry against people of faith is still bigotry. They are accepting that if religion can sometimes promote prejudice, it often promotes justice. They are coming to understand that their central goals—to lift up the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and challenge injustice—have biblical roots and religious sanction.

To end the religious and cultural wars and to allow religion to flower in public life, we need passion and we need humility. These two virtues do not always come together, but they must. We need a passion for moving our nation out of a period in which public problems went unsolved and the possibilities of broad alliances were lost because narrow political imperatives triumphed over the idea of a common good. And we need humility to understand how prejudices—of believers against unbelievers, and unbelievers against believers—have obstructed our path and blurred our vision.

Americans, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued, are never safe “against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire.” In making arguments for what Christianity has to say about political questions, all of us who are Christians can fall prey to the temptation simply to ransack the scriptures or the tradition to justify conclusions we’ve already reached.

“Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “We are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.”

The believer must always ask whether the voice he or she hears inside is really the voice of faith. The dialogue, debate and self-interrogation that Mario Cuomo encouraged all those years ago are more than ever essential—to believers and to all citizens in a free society.

E.J. Dionne is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, published by Princeton University Press. This essay is based on a talk he gave in March 2008 at Notre Dame, where he served as the Keifer Visitor in Journalism under the auspices of the Marguerite and Lou Keifer Endowment for Excellence in Journalism and the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.