January/February 1996 Issue Backtalk

Reporter Adele Stan's cover story on the rise of the religious right drew praise for its insight, along with a complaint: "The liberal left still doesn't get it." Studs Terkel offers condolences to exiled radio host Jim Hightower. And political analyst Daniel Yankelovich's article on redeeming liberalism sparked further debate.

 

Religious Rights

"Power Preying" (Nov./Dec.), which portrays me as a spider at the center of the New Right's web, is more flattering than accurate. Its fundamental problem is wild exaggeration.

In reporting on my earlier call for a formal declaration of war on the drug trade (a trade which has done this country more real damage than the Soviet Union did in all its years of existence), it says that "drug users and dealers" would have been treated as prisoners of war. In fact, only foreign nationals and American drug dealers taken while armed would have been so classified. The objective was to disarm the drug trade. Given the number of innocent victims of drive-by shootings typical of turf wars between drug dealers, it seems to me that serious measures to disarm that trade are worth considering. From the ad in your magazine, I gather Mother Jones considers issuing a CD to be a serious measure.

Even wilder exaggeration is shown in your picture of the America the "New Right" (a dated term) supposedly wants to create: a theocracy with only biblical punishments, parental abuse of children, no immigration, etc. I have never ascribed to this theology, neither do I associate with anyone who does. In fact, I don't know anyone influential in the conservative community who pursues that goal. The America most politically active Christians would like to see is roughly the America we had in the 1950s. Even some Mother Jones readers will remember that America in the '50s was a pretty nice place to live.

What your article fails to convey is that most conservative Christians see themselves on the defensive. With their families surrounded ever more closely by a popular culture suggestive of Weimar Berlin, they are fighting to protect their children and their future. They do not seek to impose their ways on others, but to keep others--those who seek to destroy our historic common culture--from imposing on them.

Are their fears so far-fetched? In your article, you write, "The history of evangelical Christianity in America predates even the founding of the republic, and its influence on our society cannot be exorcised without unraveling the very fabric of our culture." Since your article clearly seeks to "exorcise" that influence, should we not presume that your objective is, in fact, "unraveling the very fabric of our culture"?

 

Paul M. Weyrich
President, Free Congress Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Adele Stan's account of the Christian Coalition ("Power Preying," Nov./Dec.) and Jeffrey Klein's essay on the separation of church and state in America ("Editor's Note," Nov./Dec.) set me to remembering the last occasion when these issues were fought out with equal vehemence and passion. John F. Kennedy was attacked in 1960 as unfit to be president because he was Catholic. The criticism came not only from "twice-born" fundamentalists: No less redoubtable a figure than Reinhold Neibuhr, the best-known liberal theologian and thinker in America, asserted that the presidency is a quasisacramental office, and that a president should be a Protestant. Kennedy was elected, the pope did not move into the White House, and Neibuhr lived long enough to recant the notion that the United States is really a Protestant country willing to grant others equality provided they leave the ultimate leadership in the hands of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

After Kennedy was elected, I co-wrote a book on the explosive question of church and state, The Outbursts That Await Us. I reviewed the question of "original intent," that is, what did James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, really mean? Those who argue that the separation of church and state is not an absolute like to quote the fact that Madison, as the first speaker of the House of Representatives, proposed the creation of the office of the Chaplain of the House. No doubt he thought that a little public piety on state occasions would be useful, but he made no move to broaden the practice. On the contrary, Madison said, again and again, that he wanted to separate church and state so that no sect in America would be able to impose its doctrines and practices on any other group. He wanted an end of all established churches (they existed in five of the 13 colonies) because he wanted to outlaw coercion of any kind.

A close reading of much of the earliest discussions of the Bill of Rights persuaded me that the Founding Fathers knew they were proposing something new and unprecedented to the various religious communities: Each of you may believe that your sect is the sole bearer of God's truth, and that all the others are in error, but all the religions must henceforth behave in such fashion that they will not make the believers in other traditions uncomfortable. The Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, who was a central religious thinker of the last generation, put it best: "Pluralism is against the will of God, but it is the only way to preserve the city of man."

Mother Jones has encouraged me to hope that the voices of Madison and of John Courtney Murray have not been drowned out by the Christian right. You are refighting the battle that Americans who are devoted to the Constitution seem to have to refight each generation.

Arthur Hertzberg
Bronfman Professor of Humanities
New York University

Thank you for the insightful (and deeply disturbing) article on the religious right's increasing influence on American politics. As one experiencing a call into ordained Christian ministry, it really saddens me to see the transcendent name of my Lord used by such hateful and narrow-minded people to advance their warped political agenda.

The article confirms something I've noticed about the so-called Republican revolution. For these revolutionaries, the narrowly defined part has become more important than the whole. Just as Bible verses taken out of context and rigid religiosity are more important to the right than larger spiritual truths, so is the role of taxpayer more important than citizenship, and money more important than the more enduring value of an individual's dignity.

As history has shown, narrowly defined dogmatic realities usually collapse in on themselves because the dead ideals bolstering them cannot long carry such a burden. I just pray this happens soon to the radical right before too much damage is done.

Dwayne Eutsey
Frederick, Md.

The liberal left still doesn't get it. As a mother and conservative school board member in Merrimack, N.H., I cannot allow the continued assault on our children of a failed liberal agenda that seeks to undermine the time-tested values we hold as a family and as a community.

Mother Jones fails to recognize that it's not just "religious zealots" who are joining the battle. It is your average middle-class moms and dads in Anytown, U.S.A., who pick up their newspapers on any given day and see our country in a downward spiral of increasing teenage suicides, skyrocketing illegitimate birthrates, as well as ever-rising violent crime rates.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Pat Buchanan when he stated: "It is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America." For me, it is also a war for the souls of our children.

I don't agree with this psychological concept of moral relativism where there is no right or wrong, which seems to be the prevailing message given to children in public schools today. Children must be taught traditional American values such as self-discipline, respect for the law, freedom of religion, respect for others and their property, respect for the family, honesty, integrity, premarital abstinence, and patriotism.

If it takes the Christian Coalition and others to get us there, so be it. I for one want to help lead the fight!

Shelly A. Uscinski
Merrimack School Board Member
Merrimack, N.H.

 

Your article provided an accurate national look at the religious right's short-term objectives. Our deeper concerns, however, should be for its long-term objectives.

For example, by removing elements of the curriculum that teach students to think independently, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, and their fellow travelers want to make it easier to indoctrinate children with religious dogma--and train them to follow religious leaders blindly.

The Christian Coalition (in its many guises) and other radical right organizations have been successful in co-opting values that most of us, as Americans, hold dear.

Once they have labeled those values exclusively as their own, they demonize anyone who opposes their organization.

Kenneth R. Coleman
Merrimack School Board Member
Merrimack, N.H.

I note with interest in "Showdown in Des Moines" (Nov./Dec.) that I am referred to as a "local right-wing Christian radio shock-jock."

1. WHO radio is not local. It has a 50,000-watt statewide signal.

2. I am a Christian; the radio station is not.

3. Shock-jock? Yagottabekiddin'. I'm a Norwegian-American. I have the temperament of an air traffic controller, and my middle name is Bland.

Your story has more spin than a curve ball.

Jan Mickelson
WHO Radio
Des Moines, Iowa

Missed Signal

Knocking Jimmy Hightower off the air ("Jim Hightower," Nov./Dec.) just goes to show how the conservative right, which owns the major media, will shamelessly attack what little opposition there is on the airwaves. Ninety-five percent of the pie is not enough for them.

Here's the perversion: We have public television that's criticized as "liberal," and you turn it on and who do you see? William F. Buckley Jr., John McLaughlin, and now Tony Brown--where's the opposition?

They get away with this by constantly propagating the "liberal media" myth. The "L" word has replaced the "C" word of the 1950s.

It all gets you down. Sometimes you want to give up and stop fighting the bad guys. Ah, but when that happens, I remember what A.A. Milne wrote:

Sometimes when the fights begin/I think I'll let the dragons win/But then again, perhaps I won't/Because they're dragons, and I don't.

Studs Terkel
Author of
Coming of Age
Chicago, Ill.

What's Left?

My first reading of Daniel Yankelovich's "Restoring Public Trust" (Nov./Dec.) left me gasping! Here is a carefully argued and well-written essay providing rational steps for climbing out of America's social, economic, and political dilemmas. What's more, it is based on well-researched analyses of the public's views, and it asserts that "creating a liberal political movement capable of challenging the current conservative trend is not as impossible as it might seem."

I do, however, have some worries. To some degree, at least, I accept Yankelovich's critique of liberals as being so mired in past achievements and so defensive of them that they are slow to consider recent changes in American society. At the same time, I can't help but wonder whether conservatives aren't equally mired in the past. Their support of the status quo ante seems to me unresponsive to the new issues we face. Shouldn't Yankelovich's concept that liberals open their minds to new possibilities be offered to conservatives as well?

Furthermore, he places great emphasis on discerning what the public wants and shifting our policies in that direction. While there is some common sense in this instruction, there is also a dilemma: What if the public wants policies that are morally indefensible, or provably wrong on the basis of reliable exploration?

Yankelovich supports the major shift of social programs from federal to state responsibility. But two economic facts must be addresssed: Most states are already broke as the result of gifts of new responsibilities from Presidents Reagan and Bush; and state tax systems are universally regressive (and political viewpoints from both parties will keep them that way). Without entitlements, which are being dumped in the process of transition to the states, won't our already punctured safety net become a travesty?

Yankelovich has given us a new pespective for rethinking how Americans might face the future. Between the lines it carries the assumption that we might be able to stop shouting at each other and start talking together. Not a bad idea!

Harold Howe II
Former U.S. Commissioner of Education
Concord, Mass.

Daniel Yankelovich makes a powerful contribution toward the redemption of a prgressive vision that can again engage the American center and lay claim to majority support. He is dead right on at least two counts. The corrosive acid creating anxiety among most Americans and fueling the mean-spirited backlash against minorities, the poor, and the vulnerable is the lopsided economy: The rich getting richer; the not-rich getting poorer.

He is also right when he tells us what we have almost ceased to believe: that Americans are impelled by a moral vision--not narrow self-interest. And that if Americans appear to be drawn to the radical libertarian vision of the right, it's because liberals and progressives have lost their tongues in articulating our moral vision.

Ironically, his wisdom is echoed by Gingrich's wordsmith, Frank Luntz, who told GOP congressional leaders, "Remember that Americans perceive the key challenges ahead in moral terms rather than economic terms--a reality the Democrats still don't fully understand."

On the other hand, Yankelovich is almost equally wrong in believing that "a genuine partnership between government and industry can solve the problem." Been there. Tried that. What is really needed is a broad popular movement mobilizing the 80 percent of Americans at risk to rewrite the global terms of trade to serve the interests of workers and communities--not the transnational corporations, which now write the rules to serve their interests.

But, given a broad policy agenda which promises to remake the rules of global trade in ways that strengthen the bargaining power of those who now see themselves as helpless pawns in the global corporate race to the bottom, and give renewed attention to the power of language in evoking a progressive moral authority, Yankelovich's rare optimism is not misplaced.

"If we surrender our language to the Democrats," Luntz warns the GOP, "our reign will be short indeed."

He's right.

Mike Pertschuk
Co-director, The Advocacy Institute
Washington, D.C.

Yankelovich makes no mention of the phenomenon of influence-peddling so prominent in our government and the media. Rather than retake the "moral high ground," perhaps liberals should redefine it. Until we recognize the cog in the current American political wheel--the paid political advertisement--we will never reform it.

From paid advertisements comes the corruption of democracy, and the imbalanced controlling power of industry and business. Advertisements enslave both the media and politicians, and at the same time lull the populace. Your own publication my criticize Archer Daniels Midland, and so does the Wall Street Journal. but for all the written criticism, ADM can counter with one visual advertisement. In the end, the public nods, convinced that this most egregious of companies is a friendly American.

Nancy B. Lacey
Deatsville, Ala.

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