Religion and the public square have been on something of a collision course for weeks now in our rough and tumble primaries. There hasn't been much in the way of fireworks--at least not yet--on the Democratic side, although Vice President Al Gore has used several occasions to reaffirm his evangelical faith and the role that belief plays in his life. Senator Bill Bradley generally has ruled faith-talk out of bounds: for him, this is a "private" matter. By contrast, the Republican contest has generated a veritable treasure trove for the political and religious observer. Here are just a few of the juicy questions put on the table, whether directly or willy-nilly, thus far. First, should candidates make routine visits to religious schools whose practices are out of touch with the American mainstream? Some suggested as much following Governor George W. Bush's visit to Bob Jones University, a place trekked to by a small army of candidates and politicians in the past with no tumult to follow. Bob Jones once forbade interracial dating, but this policy is now a thing of the past, in part because of the publicity generated by Bush's visit and Senator John McCain's subsequent attack against the "Christian right" or the "evil" leaders of same. As an academic who journeys routinely to all kinds of places, I fretted a bit about the attacks against Bush. Suppose I speak, as I have, at Brigham Young University. Does that mean I somehow am now guilty by association with all the views of Mormonism, a religion I do not share? Surely not! If I go to speak at Princeton, as I have in the past, does that mean I somehow imbibe the views of philosopher Peter Singer? Recently appointed amidst much fanfare and controversy to a distinguished chair in Princeton's Institute for Human Values, Singer has argued in print that infanticide may be an okay thing if some general utility is thereby served. To say that I find Singer's views abhorrent is to understate. But my presence at Princeton wouldn't signify any concurrence with his widely publicized perspective.
Some might say that the governor, as an elected official, had a direct responsibility to speak out against Bob Jones's dating policy, or to attack the views of the now-deceased founder of the school who said some terrible things against Catholics. I confess I would have preferred that myself. But what struck me as worrisome about this whole episode was the notion that giving a speech at an institution meant by definition one was identified with the views upheld by that institution or by some among its most vocal members. Let's turn to a second big issue: how should evangelical Christians enter politics and express their political views? This is tricky because the political views of the so-called "Christian right" are saturated with religion. Or, conversely, their religious views are saturated with politics. We quickly forget the provocations that drove fundamentalists and evangelicals--who historically pretty much shunned the political arena--into that arena in the first place. As a small and generally beleaguered part of the population, they feared for the autonomy of their schools and other institutions. Much of the image of a huge, monolithic right advancing on us to take away our freedoms is a fantasy of the liberal imagination. There are some areas, mostly in the geographic south, where the "Christian right" has clout, but nationally their voice is heard less often, their influence felt less frequently, than it was but a few years ago. It is hard to know how evangelicals and fundamentalists could talk politics without giving offense to mainline Protestants and to the national media in general given its overall orientation.
Unlike Catholics, fundamentalists cannot repair to a language of the common good and of natural law, basic to Catholic theology and Catholic social thought, a language urged upon all "persons of good will" whether faithful Catholics or not. So I have a good bit of sympathy with the dilemma faced by evangelicals and I have no good solution to the problem. When Governor Bush talks about his "turn-around" occasioned by and through the ministrations of the Reverend Billy Graham, I take him at his word. He talks about this in direct response to questions, just as Jimmy Carter, perhaps our first "born-again" president, did years ago. Carter didn't come in for as much flack, perhaps because he was a Democrat and the media generally goes after Republicans more for this sort of thing. Perhaps readers have some good ideas on how evangelicals should talk about their faith in the public square when they are called to do so. In the meantime, I confess that I feel rather like the King of Siam in the great musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. You remember the song: "Is a puzzlement!"
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