The Secularist Agenda of the Christian Right

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.