Political Animal


September 26, 2012 11:15 AM The Secularist Agenda of the Christian Right

By Ed Kilgore

While we are in the vicinity of the subject of politics and religion, I wanted to draw belated attention to a post last week by Michael Sean Winters (not a writer with whom I frequently agree) at the National Catholic Reporter that makes an essential point about the claims of many conservative Christian activists that in demanding legal recognition of “traditional” or “biblical” notions of sexual ethics or family structure they are defending the sacred from the profane. Winters is specially addressing people like George Weigel who want to align the Catholic Church with the Christian Right:

There is something decidedly modern in this moralistic, utilitarian understanding of religion. A focus on morality, as opposed to, say, worship, allows us to talk about ourselves. It permits something else. Weigel and his ilk may fashion themselves standing up to the dominant culture, but in fact they are the most abject of conformists. They want to baptize the founding. They want to baptize capitalism. They want to baptize the Republican Party….
The reduction of religion to ethics is the hallmark of faith in the modern age. It began really with the Reformation. There is much work to do if we hope to re-evangelize our culture. But, that work is impeded, not assisted, by people like Weigel who wish to tether the faith to a conformist morality, reduce it to a prop for Americanism, and use its holy mission to advance a partisan agenda. The reduction of religion to ethics is the problem, and Mr. Weigel has made a career writing new chapters in that sorry tale.

This may all sound like mumbo-jumbo to non-believers, but for followers of any supernatural religion, it’s a very important point, and for all of us, it’s an important insight in dealing with the contemporary Christian Right. The fundamental problem with our would-be theocrats isn’t that they are debasing politics with their religion (there are plenty of debasing influences on politics!) but that they are debasing their religion by identifying it with secular ideologies and thereby seeking to make them absolute.

Some progressives are puzzled by the whole “constitutional conservative” construct that is central to today’s conservative movement by way of its latest incarnation, the Tea Party. What gives rise to this newly dominant school of political dogma is the claim that conservative notions of governance and economic policy were intended by a religiously-motivated and divinely-ordained group of Founders to serve as a permanent, universal, immutable principles, regardless of changing circumstances, pressing national challenges, or popular sentiment. It’s no accident that the most aggressive advocates of “constitutional conservatism” are politicians, thinkers and talkers rooted in the Christian Right. As Winters says, they are giving to Caeser what is properly God’s. He doesn’t come right out and call it “idolatry,” as I am prone to do, but he expresses the same fear that a “religion” that is reduced to a handful of prescriptions for Correct Living doesn’t much resemble the Gospel of Jesus Christ or church tradition.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • stormskies on September 26, 2012 11:28 AM:

    Of course it doesn't remotely resemble the Gospel Of Jesus Christ which starts with the injunction to take care of the poor, the needy, and the persecuted. Just the opposite actually.

    And the injunction and sin of bearing 'false witness' and to 'lying'. Again, not even remotely close.

    Their invented Christian doctrine is in fact a doctrine of sadistic joy and the suffering of those truly in need. And then they go to their churches and cross themselves.

  • golack on September 26, 2012 11:29 AM:

    The separation of church and state has done as much, if not more, to protect religion as well as protect the state. Many who settled in the new colonies were doing so to escape the violence and wars brought on by religious differences.

    talk about coming full circle...

  • Cliflader on September 26, 2012 11:38 AM:

    Ed, you may find interesting this piece about efforts to excommunicate a Mormon for his critism of Romney:

    It used to be the theocrats just wanted to enforce religious orthodoxy as the price to particpate in politics; now they also want political orthodoxy as the price to participate in religion.

  • Robert Waldmann on September 26, 2012 11:46 AM:

    I am an atheist. Michael Sean Winters view is comprehensible to me, but I don't agree with him at all. My problem with the Christian right is just that I have different ethical views than they do. But I must admit that I rather like the idea of religion being mostly about ethics (not a shocking sentiment in an atheist).

    Note that I just insisted that I have no problem with religion. I am quite sure there is no God, but think that some religious beliefs are very good (I absolutely disagree with Jesus Christ's claim about the truth setting us free -- I think it is just the truth)

    Ahhhh divinely ordained founders. Yes they must think this. The thought didn't come to my mind (I have the atheist's blind spot -- I often just don't see religious beliefs). Now I understand better.

  • bcinaz on September 26, 2012 11:51 AM:

    Imagine how unbelievably alarming this is to someone who does not believe in any god. Caring for the poor, the Golden Rule, these are principles which produce a more decent human being and a more egalitarian society. Seeing yourself as chosen by some god and thus imposing you will through laws - that will only create heretics.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on September 26, 2012 11:52 AM:

    If weren't concerned about my own neck, I'd say: Bring on the Age of American Theocracy!!! Of course, I would then sit back and watch as the Christian Right literally kill each other off debating just which iteration of Christianity should dictate secular law in America. I'm sure after several elimination rounds of Inquisitions, stonings, and burnings at the stake, the losers will be begging to separate the church from the state.

  • SecularAnimist on September 26, 2012 12:05 PM:

    You are absolutely right, Ed. It does sound like mumbo-jumbo.

    The so-called "Christian Right", is, and has always been, a corporate-sponsored, Madison Avenue-scripted, focus-group-tested, talk-radio-programmed FRAUD designed to bamboozle gullible dupes into electing kleptocratic corporate stooges to positions of power where they will enrich themselves and their cronies and financial backers at the expense of those gullible dupes. Who will keep voting for them, as long as they keep spouting that ol' mumbo-jumbo.

  • Shane Taylor on September 26, 2012 12:05 PM:

    I keep coming back to something Chris Ladd posted at David Frum's old place:


    Back in 1999, Paul Weyrich (a founding father of the New Right) recognized that the Moral Majority was actually a minority. Hence their failures to outlaw pornography, reimpose school prayer, or restrict the grounds for divorce (yes, for heterosexuals). So, the Christian Nationalists adapted. Now, they are seeking a minority veto over civil law in the name of "religious liberty." It seems like a revision of Calhoun's theory of nullification, but using the First Amendment.

    As Sarah Posner has frequently noted, they have been playing a long game to redefine religious liberty. For secular Americans, religious liberty means people should be free to exercise their own faith, provided they do not substantially burden others. But Christian Nationalists (or theonomists) have a far more expansive definition. They are willing to turn the Free Exercise Clause against the Establishment Clause, because they believe that the Declaration of Independence already established a Christian nation. For them, religious liberty means their God must be sovereign. Theirs is a positive conception of religious liberty: Wherever God's Law ends, secular tyranny begins.


  • Josef K on September 26, 2012 12:11 PM:

    From Winters' original piece: The reduction of religion to ethics is the hallmark of faith in the modern age. It began really with the Reformation.

    What forever puzzles me is the notion that religion is unique from every other form of organized framework of thinking. I appreciate that religionous doctrine is supposedly handed to humanity by an external source (be it God, Zeus, aliens from Zeta Reticula B, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), but it strikes me more of a weakness than a strength that this source is granted such complete authority on issues.

    Isn't religion ultimately just a framework within which one is recommended to act? How is that any different from plain old ethics, especially given the ultimate arbiter of "right" and "wrong" is both unseen and unknowable?

  • jim filyaw on September 26, 2012 12:12 PM:

    it took me all of five minutes to figure out what was going on when a copy of the first 'voter's guide' was shoved in my hand in 1980 as i was leaving the baptist church where i belonged. these people said to hell with salvation--its temporal power they were after.

  • Ronald on September 26, 2012 1:03 PM:

    I had posted a quote from, of all people, John Cusack:
    "Let's go with Jesus. Not the gay-hating, war-making political tool of the Right, but the outcast, subversive, supreme adept who preferred the freaks and lepers and despised and doomed to the rich and powerful."

    Kinda says it all there.

  • Mitch on September 26, 2012 1:09 PM:

    "The reduction of religion to ethics is the hallmark of faith in the modern age."

    That is probably the biggest load of crap I have read this year.

    The folks of the Christian Right are NOT focused on ethics, no matter how much they may like to think of themselves that way. Theocrats are focused on religious legalism.

    Focusing on ethics means being focused on proper behavior, and "doing to others as you would have done to you" (to quote Jesus, Confucius, Isocrates and Siddhartha Gautama among countless other philosophers in nearly every human culture). You know, the Golden Rule.

    The Christian Right is NOT focused on the Golden Rule.

    They are instead focused on legalism. As in, "These things [insert X here] are the Laws of God and must be followed. If you do not respect our Laws of God, then you are infringing upon our religious freedom."

    This legalism (particularly among the most zealous forms of faith) had little to no connection to the actual words of the Scriptures that theocrats follow.

    This holds true for Christianity: Jesus preached constantly that tending the weak, the poor and the sick was the main work of God; the Christian Right generally agrees with Romney's 47% remark, and behaves as if the needy were in themselves inferior to those who have been blessed. "As you have done to the least of my brothers, so you have done unto me," Jesus said. He was speaking specifically of the needy, the hungry, the sick and those in prison.

    Modern American Christian Conservatism does NOT care one bit about the least of our brothers.

    This also holds true of Islam. For those who have not studied it, let me explain that in the Koran there is the concept of "the People of the Book" which defines those religions who follow the same God: Islam, Judaism, Chrisitanity and a couple of other, smaller faiths.

    To quote the Koran: "Not all of them are alike; a party of the People of the Book stand for the right, they recite the Verses of God during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer. They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin Al-Ma'rf and forbid Al-Munkar ; and they hasten in (all) good works; and they are among the righteous"

    And we ALL know that far too many Muslims do not consider Christians or Jews to be "among the righteous".

    By the way, for those who may not know me, I am a committed atheist, but I study religion as one my main hobbies. I have no problem with religious people; provided that they have no problem with my lack of faith in anything supernatural. The Religious Right, and the GOP in general, will not, cannot, do this.

    So, I will agree with you, Ed, that the behavior of the Christian Right is Idolatry. But I reject the entire premise of Winter's piece. Zealots and theocrats are not focused on ethical behavior, and never have been during the entire course of human events. They are focused on making everyone else obey their dogma. This is, quite simply, one of the Iron Laws of history. To think otherwise is to give too much credit to those who will joyfully abolish freedoms, and have historically commited blatant acts of evil in defense of their legalistic views, and boundless desire for temporal power.

  • nonheroicvet on September 26, 2012 1:16 PM:

    Perhaps a reason that the Religous Right morphed into the Tea Party is that it finally dawned that they can go to hell for lying.

  • boatboy_srq on September 26, 2012 1:42 PM:

    @Shane Taylor:

    Wherever God's Law ends, secular tyranny begins.

    It seems to me that a more apt phrasing would be: wherever God's Law is not explicitly referenced and sourced, secular tyranny runs rampant. It's not enough for faith to inform legislation and jurisprudence: it has to be spelled out in every bill and every judgment, or it doesn't count.

    Of course, they're far too willing to value Leviticus or Kings over Matthew or (especially) John, so we should expect stoning of adulteresses, execution of thieves, and all sorts of other OT punishments to be seen as perfectly defensible in their eyes.

  • hornblower on September 26, 2012 4:01 PM:

    Jesus is a cypher. Any point of view can be justified by a quote here or there. Religion is a private matter and should never be used as a public justification for any governmental action. The US has a tradition of tolerance, inclusion and equality at its best. One does not need any religious impulse to be a good American. The most prevailing prejudice is against someone who professes no particular faith. When an agnostic citizen is elected we really will have grown up and embraced the Enlighenment which produced our experiment in government.

  • Ted Frier on September 26, 2012 4:47 PM:

    Constitutional Conservative" is one of those felicitous phrases that conservatives adore but which illustrate why conservatives are also so incapable of compromise and contemptuous of democratic politics itself.

    To rigid doctrinaires like Sarah Palin, the Constitution is the political equivalent of the Christian Bible, and appealing to conservatives for exactly that reason. It's a document, after all, whose words are sacred, imparting a fundamental and timeless truth, whose rightness imbues all who embrace it with an impregnable sense of self-righteousness.

    Wrapping themselves in the Constitution, like wrapping themselves in the flag, is a ritual conservatives do habitually so as to demonstrate their superior American-ness, to themselves if not to us.

    But here's the thing. To declare something constitutional is to place that thing outside of politics and even democracy itself -- to effectively take that something "off the table" and put it forever beyond the reach of the American people to alter or amend.

    That is why conservatives are such ostentatious idol-worshipers of the Constitution and, at the very same time, promiscuous amenders of it, with proposals like the Balanced Budget Amendment that would deprive our elected representatives and all future generations of the flexibility to deal with issues as fundamental to self-government as spending and taxation. There is also a "Parental Rights" amendment now circulating on the religious right allowing parents to raise their children as they see fit whose real aim I believe is making public education unconstitutional.

    Consequently, while conservatives like Sarah Palin have made a cult of the Constitution in order to claim that she and her kind are more patriotic, democratic and American than the rest of us, the practical implications of entombing hotly-contested controversies in the amber of constitutional law is exactly the reverse.

    Pseudo-patriots like Sarah Palin who call themselves "Constitutional Conservatives" reveal themselves to be political authoritarians instead, possessed with a distinctly dictatorial view of the world who mean to use the Constitution and "constitutionalism" as American-sounding pretexts for preventing anyone from disagreeing with them in the future.