Are You Afraid of the Religious Right ?

Evil, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder, and the religious right serves as a good case in point. Some Americans, mostly liberal and secular, believe the religious right poses the greatest threat to American democracy since the country’s founding. Others, mostly conservative and religious, believe it represents God’s last battalion in the culture wars – a shattered remnant of old America fighting valiantly against the forces of secularism.

Some movements in history, like Nazism or Stalinism, easily comport with an absolute definition of evil and make the judgment of evil so simple that a high school philosophy class can get it right on the first try. The religious right is not such a movement. This is because the judgment of whether the religious right is good or evil depends on the politics of the judge.

Liberals – even some libertarians – argue that the religious right is dangerous because it allegedly violates the separation of church and state, refuses to extend rights to those living outside of the mainstream, supports the subjugation of women, and is intolerant of alternative values. They insist that, by entering the political fray and reaching for the levers of government, the religious right functions anti-democratically and brings sectarian values into the public square.

When groups like the Christian Coalition refuse to extend group-recognition rights to homosexuals or campaign against abortion, critics hold that the religious right is trying put its stamp on a much larger domain, subverting the rights of others. When Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan try to limit the definition of a “real family”to one headed by two heterosexual parents joined together in matrimony, critics say they prevent those who choose an alternative lifestyle from gaining the full respect of the law. The religious right is thus, according to liberals and libertarians, dangerously aggressive, hostile and intolerant.

Cultural conservatives insist that it was actually the liberals, and perhaps the libertarians, who drew first blood. They say they were minding their own business, living in decent, God-fearing neighborhoods far away from Hollywood or New York City, when all of sudden they came under attack by their own national government. Through traditionalist eyes, government has been the predator – passing laws preventing school-sanctioned prayer, allowing teenagers to have an abortion without their parents’ consent, encouraging sexual activity among children by bringing the subject into the classroom, and using tax dollars to fund arts and humanities projects clearly antithetical to religious values. The political activity of the religious right, insist cultural conservatives, is not offensive but defensive.

If you find yourself agreeing with the cultural conservatives’ position, then Don Feder’s new work, Who’s Afraid of the Religious Right?, is your book.1 Feder, a nationally recognized conservative columnist based at the Boston Herald, defends cultural conservatism with wit and humor. All the old bogeymen are here – the Clintons, the ACLU, the radical feminists, the pro-choice crowd, the affirmative-action crowd, the NEA, the victims-rights groups and the U.N., to name just a few. Largely a collection of his magazine and newspaper columns over the years, the book reads easily and is quite entertaining.

Those who desire a new and sophisticated defense of cultural conservatism, however, will be somewhat disappointed. Feder’s defense of conservatism rests on three time-honored strategies and does not exactly explore virgin intellectual territory. The first method is to use as straw men the most ridiculous and extreme characters in an opponent’s camp and then to go after them, thus making one’s own views seem the bastion of moderation and common sense. Feder does this quite effectively. Thus, one finds references to former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who “wants to legalize drugs, give condoms to third-graders, promote gay adoption, and have public schools teach masturbation,”2 to aggressive social workers who presume to judge the fitness of parents,3 and to the extreme political correctness on some college campuses, where white students are taught from day one that they are all closet racists.4

These attacks are fair. To the extent that liberals themselves have refused to repudiate such phenomena within their own movement, the latter are simply getting what they deserve. But secular America is not a monolithic liberal block; many non-religious Americans are also concerned with the extremist elements within liberalism. While these people may join the religious right in condemning such foolishness, they also secretly fear that the religious right is rigid and authoritarian in its own way. Thus, there is between the two poles a vast middle, which is difficult to find in Feder’s book.

Feder’s second method is to use statistics. Certainly, statistics which give an account of America’s growing social pathology – the high rates of divorce, juvenile delinquency, crime, single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births – form the centerpiece of many conservative reform efforts. Feder effectively uses numbers to buttress his argument that many of America’s problems can be traced back to the moment when liberalism gained ascendancy. But Feder’s statistics are not new. To the extent that they are supposed to incite one to action, they instead evoke a yawn. Divorce is common, it seems, among both Democrats and Republicans. The growing number of harried, single parents trying to raise a child while working may make one long for calmer days, but they probably do not pose a real threat to the republic.

It is true that such social pathology has serious and potentially dangerous consequences for the working poor and the underclass, but this leads to a second problem. It is exceedingly difficult to change behavior through infusions of cash or – the preferred conservative alternative – by simple legislation. Much that is troublesome in America has come about, not because of misguided welfare laws or high tax rates, but because a new, aggressive form of individualism has taken hold. The coin of the American realm is no longer honor, duty and commitment but “choice,” options and rights.5 For this reason, it is unlikely that the old order will be brought back simply by repealing no-fault divorce laws or passing new laws against deadbeat dads – ideas advanced, for example, by the conservative Institute for American Values, a New York think-tank.6 Society can legislate laws and govern institutions, but it cannot, apparently, replicate the spirit that gave them life.

Feder’s third method, and one which is perhaps most relevant to the future of the religious right, is to argue from instinct rather than by using dialectics or logic. Why, for example, should a gay marriage be illegal? One could argue from a utilitarian position and say that the children of gay parents are more likely to suffer psychopathology, but such statistics are hard to come by. Besides, it conceals the real reason that many in America, especially conservatives like Feder, are opposed to it. The real reason is that the Judeo-Christian tradition says that a gay marriage is simply not a marriage.

For cultural conservatives, certain norms of good conduct are as integral to their outlook on life as tension is to their muscles. Such norms resist the dissecting urges of rational philosophy and, instead, are taken on a leap of faith. This is not necessarily a bad thing – to believe that certain truths are self-evident and beyond the subject of debate. Other truths in the American tradition, like the rights and freedoms of the individual, have also been viewed as self-evident. But the reason the culture wars rage on, without chance for solution, is not because the two camps are divided by policy, but because they are divided by certain world views.7 Feder should admit this as he tries to persuade others to join his camp.

How ingrained these religious instincts are in Feder’s psyche is readily apparent in one of the more interesting chapters of his book, “What in Heaven’s Name is a Jewish Conservative?” Feder, a religious Jew, is more comfortable with the devout Christians of the religious right than he is with liberal, secular Jews, and for an obvious reason. They share his fundamental world view and believe that life should be guided by a few religious precepts, not by some fashionable, unanchored philosophy.

This world view angers secularists, for they are used to focusing the glaring light of reason on all human institutions, public and private. Secularists believe that faith in “self-evident truth” should generally give way to more erudite talk about risks and benefits, pros and cons. To them, no idea is impregnable to reason.

Cultural conservatives keep a dark veil covering some of the basic institutions of life. They say, for example, that how one raises a child or courts a mate should not be over-analyzed or too scrutinized because that would destroy the intangibles – the sweetness, the warmth, the devotion – that make up a parental or spousal bond of affection. Secularists respond by saying that such institutions must be brought into the purview of the reform effort and be carefully probed to make sure that all is fair and equal.8 They say conservatives shield these issues from scrutiny only because they are ignorant, prejudiced and afraid to debate. In this respect, cultural conservatives (like Feder) and liberals are just talking past each other, and no meaningful dialogue is really possible – a sad, but true, estimate of the state of the culture wars in America. Feder’s book is an enjoyable one but it is not surprising that it will most likely be read by those who are already in agreement with him.

Dr. Dworkin is the co-director and CFO of the Calvert Institute and the author of a recent book on the culture wars.

End Notes

[Top] 1. Don Feder, Who’s Afraid of the Religious Right? (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1996).

[Top] 2. Feder, Who’s Afraid?, p. 101.

[Top] 3. Feder, Who’s Afraid?, p. 64.

[Top] 4. Feder, Who’s Afraid?, p. 161.

[Top] 5. Lawrence Friedman, The Republic of Choice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

[Top] 6. See, for instance, David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America (New York, N.Y.: Martin Kessler Books, 1994).

[Top] 7. Ronald W. Dworkin, The Rise of the Imperial Self (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996).

[Top] 8. Catherine McKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

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