Fanatic Anti-Christianity | Dr. James Hitchcock | IgnatiusInsight.com
Fanatic Anti-Christianity | Dr. James Hitchcock | IgnatiusInsight.com
Scarcely a day goes by without some new warning that
religious fanatics are destroying American liberties. One of the most widely
publicized is by former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, who is both a lawyer
and an Episcopal clergyman and also speaks as a Republican who longs for the
good old days when the party was interested in things like balancing the
budget, before it was "captured" by religious fanatics.
He is correct that the kind of Republicans whom he now
views with dismay would not have felt welcome in the days of Barry Goldwater or
even Richard Nixon. (Goldwater spent his later years growling about them.)
Involvement with "the religious right" has brought many political advantages to
the party (including electing Danforth to the Senate several times), but in
effect he seems to want to return to the days when, despite some success in
winning the White House, Republicans were a permanent minority party. This
older party is sometimes called the "country club Republicans," and Danforth
fears that the membership committee has gotten rather lax in its standards.
Danforth the clergyman and Danforth the politician are
difficult to separate, because he proposes things that he claims are both right
for the nation and good for the party, which he warns will ultimately suffer at
the polls for its "pandering" to believers. The latter claim may or may not be
true, but where does principle end and political self-interest begin? It is the
essence of politics, as Danforth knows, that politicians do what they think
will get them elected, but he talks as though there is something uniquely
calculating about those who espouse a conservative moral agenda.
Danforth is passionately in favor of embryonic stem-cell
research and dismayed at people who object that it involves taking human life,
and here the old image of the Republicans as merely the party of business comes
back into view--those who are pushing for this in Missouri claim that it will
bring huge economic benefits to the state, so that voters are being asked in
effect to choose between their wallets and their consciences.
Ironically for a man of the cloth, Danforth's account of
true Republican principles seems to confirm the old claim that his party does
not care about people. The Terri Schiavo case woke him up to the dangers of the
"religious right." But whereas the most basic task of government is to protect
life, and Terry Schiavo's fate obviously raises questions that will trouble the
nation more and more, Danforth appears to see no moral issue at all, only a
violation his party's supposed traditional commitment to limited government and
He professes also to believe that marriage is between a
man and a woman but that government should stay out of the issue of homosexual
"marriage." (His Republican principles forbid that the U.S. Constitution be
amended to define marriage but require that the Missouri constitution be
amended to insure tax subsidies for stem-cell research.) But Danforth the
lawyer surely knows that the state has always determined who is or is not
married - bigamy and polygamy are punishable by law and certain children are
declared illegitimate. Marriage has become a political issue not because of a
departure from solid Republican principles but precisely because a consensus
thousands of years old is now under attack.
Danforth is simplistic in attributing such issues solely
to religious belief. Pro-lifers do not oppose abortion or euthanasia simply on
the grounds that their faith dictates it. Rather they respond to very concrete
human situations--a young woman being starved to death, a child being
dismembered by a doctor shortly before birth. Even an atheist ought to
recognize the seriousness of those issues.
In his warnings against conservative religious believers,
Danforth inevitably falls into the trap that is built into the very idea of
liberal "pluralism"--urging believers to be charitable and tolerant in their
public utterances even while almost hysterically condemning the "religious
right" as a threat to the Republic.
In the kind of sermon that has now become commonplace, a
minister in St. Louis recently warned in a newspaper that the "religious right"
is a distortion of true religion and hides all kinds of nefarious schemes
behind idealistic rhetoric. In the name of tolerance her message was in effect,
"Only people like me are real Christians." Objectively, she is an ally of
Danforth, but he has nothing to say about this kind of liberal intolerance,
just as he has nothing to say about the often breathtakingly bigoted attacks on
religious believers put forth daily in the mainstream media.
A standard criticism of conservative believers is that
they "intrude" issues into the political process that are "divisive." But once
again, the critics offer their own view as the only correct one - favoring
homosexual marriage is not divisive, opposing it is. One of Danforth's critics
has pointed out that "divisiveness" is in fact the very essence of the
democratic process, but Danforth seems to think that conflict involving
religion is alone objectionable, making religious believers guilty of
"imposing" their views on others. Danforth reminds people that, when he was a
senator, he consistently opposed abortion, a position he does not explicitly
repudiate. But those who warn against the evils of the "religious right" mean
primarily abortion, so Danforth himself was once guilty of "imposing" his
beliefs on others.
It might seem possible to resolve this contradiction by
proposing that, if people disagree about things like abortion, government
should simply do nothing. But no one really believes this. Those who oppose the
war in Iraq or capital punishment, for example, insist that there is a moral
and religious obligation for the government to act on their judgment. In
reality, rather than conservative believers "intruding" religion into politics,
the battle is often between two rival theologies. Thus in St. Louis recently a
rabbi and two ministers (one an Episcopalian colleague of Danforth) declared
that they know what God thinks about stem-cell research and that there is a
religious obligation to support it. Danforth praises his own church because it
"holds within itself a variety of views. And I think that is good," thereby implying
that the remedy for religious divisiveness is for everyone to emulate the
Danforth clearly seems to believe that, despite his own
one-time pro-life position, conservative religion has no legitimate place in
the public square. But the issue has quickly moved beyond questions of church
and state and into the semi-public realm, so that some people now demand to be
protected from Christmas symbolism in retail stores, for example.
Danforth reports that, when asked a few years ago to give a
blessing at Yale University, he prayed in the name of the Trinity but later
realized that he had made a mistake, offending people who did not share his
faith. But he was made aware of his error by the Yale chaplain, William Sloane
Coffin, a minister who had his own left-wing religious agenda that he never
hesitated to push as hard as he could, everywhere and always. It is also likely
that if, for example, the Dalai Lama came to Yale and chanted Buddhist prayers,
it would be praised as an inspiring experience. Danforth seems not to realize
that special restrictions have been imposed on traditional Christians and that
he was required to make what used to be called a denial of one's faith.
(This article originally appeared on October 15, 2006, on the
Women for Faith and Family website. It is reprinted by the kind permission of the author.)
Other IgnatiusInsight.com columns by Dr. Hitchcock:
Our Enslavement to "Freedom"
Conscience and Chaos
Orientation Is Not a "Gift"
Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion"
Ideology: The Grilling of Judge Roberts
Court's Penumbra of Politics
Ratzinger: Man for the Job
Modern Culture; Asserting the Gospel
Bishops, Liberal Results
The Myth of
the Wall of Separation
The Church and
Theory of the Enlightened
Dr. James Hitchcock, (e-mail)
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary
Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press, in the Adoremus
Bulletin, and on the Women
for Faith and Family website. He is the author of several books, including
The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years
of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com
e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates
about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!