When the 1928 presidential election was heating up, H. L. Mencken made a prediction: “It will break up in a fist fight, with ears torn off and teeth knocked out. It will be a good show.” As it was in 1928, so it is and ever shall be, at every election as long as the Republic stands. And in the campaign just past, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians were in the middle of the fight.

Conservative Christians were seen early in the campaign to be a solid part of President Reagan’s constituency.

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, then, rang the bell only for round one when she declared that she did not believe “for one minute” that Reagan was a good Christian. Fundamentalists were quite visible at the Republican Convention in Dallas. But if Jerry Falwell was a champion to the Republicans, he was depicted as an unscrupulous street fighter in Democratic television commercials that attacked the policies of “Reagan and Falwell” as if Falwell, not George Bush, were the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Roman Catholics jumped into the ring when prominent archbishops questioned the stand of Roman Catholic politicians who say they are personally antiabortion but officially prochoice. The gloves came off in September, surprising such representatives of the general press as Newsweek, which could hardly believe that “Religion? Yes, religion” was energizing a presidential campaign.

Conservative Protestants pressed two main issues: abortion and the relationship of church and state. Since political campaigns and fist fights are not noted for their decorum, we might wonder how well the Christians fared, mixing it up in the Reagan-Mondale melee. Was the fundamentalist nose bloodied, the evangelical lip split? And did the Religious Right land some blows of its own? How, as a result of the election struggle, does the American public now view the arguments against abortion and for a proper place of religion in politics?

After a boxing match at this summer’s Olympics, Howard Cosell ardently disagreed with the judges’ decision. “They were not watching the same fight I saw!” he protested. And so it is with the debate over religion and abortion during the presidential campaign. Different referees have different opinions of the outcome. Yet they are agreed—to a surprising degree—on the substantial advances made in the discussion of abortion and church-state interaction. There are points, it could be said, solidly scored by the Religious Right—and worth considerable examination.

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But it is also fair to ask: Were there points scored against the Religious Right? Perhaps the single most damaging criticism was the bluntest one made against Reagan Republicanism in general. Columnist Joseph Kraft posited it early in September when he wrote that “selfishness is the Reagan hallmark” and “ ‘get rich’ is the basic message of the administration to the American people.” Sidney Blumenthal, writing with acid for ink in the New Republic, said, “Reagan is more a hero for consumption than production” and dismissed a vote for Reagan as “a vote for immediate gratification.”

Other critics saved some arrows to injure the Religious Right on the same theme. “Social Darwinism has also a comfortable association with one branch of fundamentalist theology, which holds that property expresses God’s approval of the worthy,” said John Kenneth Galbraith in the New York Times Magazine. “The relevant texts can be had from the religious broadcasters and the spokesmen for the Moral Majority.” Christian Century concurred, saying the Religious Right “does not manifest a sacrificial gospel, but is a celebration of self-righteous greed.” Finally, historian Martin Marty toured Japan and found that, to Japanese Christians, the American Religious Right “comes on as a kind of self-serving interest group.”

We will, of course, immediately note that none of these criticisms come from conservative Christians themselves. Yet passionate enemies as well as passionate friends are believed to be the keenest observers of a person’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, the critics of a movement, intensely opposed and so determinedly seeking the weak spots, may discover true problems. For instance, some have asked, how well does the campaign appeal “Aren’t you better off than you were four years ago” jibe with a commitment to obey and follow Jesus Christ, the preeminent “Man for Others”? Politicians of any pedigree, Republican or Democratic, are certainly inclined to offer “smooth words and seductive visions” rather than hard truth and “true visions” (Isa. 30:10).

However correct this prime criticism may or may not be, there was much more to the God and politics debate of the election. Midway through the flap, on September 19, the New York Times and CBS News decided to take control of the disputation in thoroughly American fashion: they conducted a poll. With it we learned that a mere 22 percent of registered voters thought candidates should discuss religion in the campaign. But even if politicians should not have played theologians, the controversy of that spectacle qualified it as the subject of genuine democratic, coffee shop debate.

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It is, after all, in coffee shops that democracy is actually at work. Will Rogers, a man of the grassroots, was no doubt aware of this truth, and so would not mind a modification of one of his more famed sayings: All Americans know about the world is what they read in the papers—and hear at the coffee shop. The lawmakers hammer out legislation beneath gilded domes. But ordinary citizens decide their politics over danish and steaming cups.

And what it was that they heard at the coffee shop, if we may judge by the press, was a debate that became over time increasingly—and surprisingly—more enlightened. Consider the discussion of religion’s rightful place in politics generally.

What the American public heard in September and October were not new arguments. Robert Bellah, writing in a 1978 issue of the liberal Society, declared that religion had never been absolutely separate from politics in America: “Every movement to make America more fully realize its professed values has grown out of some form of public theology, from the abolitionists to the social gospel and the early socialist party to the civil rights movement under Martin Luther King and the farm workers’ movement under Caesar Chavez.”

So the arguments of the recent election were not novel. But for the first time, they were widely disseminated. How many of your friends at the coffee shop wave off talk of the evening news in favor of a discussion over the latest Commentary or Society? The Religious Right forced the debate into the middle of the evening news. In the process, it flushed antireligious bias into the open. Prejudice of any sort flourishes in the dark; bring it into light bright enough for the reading of newspaper headlines, and it falters.

And lo, suddenly the antireligious prejudice was recognized and called to task in surprising places. Charles Krauthammer, of the liberal New Republic, consistently penned some of the fairest and most perspicacious commentary on the God and politics debate throughout its duration. Christian Century put it in print that secular neutrality in politics is a myth. “Politics and religion are inseparable,” the Century editorialized. “Individual voters cast their ballots for or against candidates for many reasons; personal religious conviction may be one of those reasons.”

Likewise, the Catholic Commonweal flatly insisted there “is a striking amount of intolerance toward religious belief, and it is particularly frustrating because it is frequently displayed by those who hold themselves as models of tolerance and openmindedness.”

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It is true, of course, that the coffee shop set has never won subscription drive contests for New Republic or Christian Century. But we can be sure that such wisdom made its way into the coffee shop debates, since most in that set do read Time, Newsweek, and the local paper. Said Time: “It is, of course, absurd to tell the church to stay out of politics, if politics is defined as that universe of activity in which people collectively decide what the public good is and how to pursue it.” Said Newsweek: “As long as there are issues that have a moral component—war, poverty, injustice—no arbitrary dividing line can ever completely separate religious beliefs from political passions.”

There is (as Commonweal might put it) much more to be said about the relation of religion and politics. The Religious Right’s solution too often sounds like a call for a theocracy. It is not difficult to understand why such rhetoric is upsetting to, among others, American Jews, in whose ears the words “Christian America” sound ominously like “Nazi Holocaust.” Rabbi Alexander Schindler explained, “Everywhere else in our wanderings we suffered persecution; never here [in America]. In all other countries there was an established faith; here there is none. That is why we prize the First Amendment as the very cornerstone of our liberties.”

This is a serious warning about what must not follow from religious influence in government. That warning taken into account, though, the Religious Right did shove the “myth of neutrality” into the forefront of the campaign’s argument—and saw the myth shattered in the process.

Part of the debate about religion in politics, yet a controversy unto itself, was abortion on demand. And here there was a similar effect. Somehow the nation had declared a sort of partial moratorium on the public discussion of abortion. It was all right to bring up the subject occasionally, briefly, and only with shibboleths coined no later than 1975. Thus a reporter could query an officeholder or candidate, “Is abortion morally wrong and are you opposed?” The politician could answer, “I am personally opposed, but prochoice when I legislate on the matter.” This standard answer, containing logical holes the size of the Grand Canyon, would cause reporters half as aggressive as Mike Wallace to salivate if given in another context. But given in answer to an inquiry about abortion, it was meekly accepted, reportorial notebooks slamming shut quicker than mousetraps.

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It was accepted, that is, until the campaign just past. Moved actually to talk about abortion on demand, journalists could not help seeing difficulties with some standard prochoice arguments. So, 11 years after Roe v. Wade, the New York Times ran a news story outlining the positions of major religions on abortion. Another side was being heard: a politician could no longer end discussion with one phrase (“personally opposed, but publicly neutral”).

A few journalists still wanted it the old way. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, for instance, managed to find some individuals who do not appear to be among our more astute citizens. Among them was one Stella Bronzell, “a smiling woman who has 11 grandchildren.” She told McGrory that Geraldine Ferraro was being harassed by antiabortionists at campaign rallies because she is a woman and a Catholic. “They have no other reason to go after her,” said Grandmother Bronzell, apparently forgetting that Ms. Ferraro, besides being a woman and a Catholic, was prochoice and, just incidentally, a vice-presidential candidate.

The conservative Catholic journal, Fidelity, uninhibited by Stella Bronzell’s suspicions about bigoted journalistic motives, dredged up the candidate’s arguments in favor of legalized abortion. Speaking for federal funding in the House in 1979, Congresswoman Ferraro said, “As a Catholic, I accept the premise that a fertilized ovum is a baby.” But she must vote for funding, since “I have been blessed with the gift of faith, but others have not. I have no right to impose my beliefs on them.”

The congresswoman also lamented how agonizingly difficult it would be to ban abortion in such extreme cases as rape and incest. Yet these cases, as cannot be too strenuously and redundantly stated, do not account for 1.5 million abortions every year. Fidelity noted, instead, the pivotal point of the congresswoman’s abortion apologetic: that her personal opposition arises from the gift of faith alone, and thus should not be imposed on those who do not share that gift.

But it is simply not fact that the Catholic opposition to abortion on demand is based on faith and faith alone. Commonweal neatly summarized the basis of the church’s stand: “The briefest investigation would show that the church’s case against abortion is utterly unlike, say, its belief in the Real Presence, known with the eyes of faith alone.… The church’s moral teaching on abortion, as it happens, is for the most part like its teaching on racism, warfare, and capital punishment, based on ordinary forms of moral reasoning common to believers and nonbelievers.”

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New York Governor Mario Cuomo felt compelled to address the abortion question in September, and spoke eloquently from a profound faith (he has said he is a Catholic first and a politician second). Cuomo too, however, came down to the same basic insistence: the church opposes abortion for religious reasons, and such an opposition should not be forced on disagreeing Americans. He added that since so many Americans disagree, pressing antiabortion laws would fragment the nation and embitter major parts of it. In other words, wait for unanimity before legislating against abortion.

A host of writers (to say nothing of bishops) contested Cuomo’s assertions. If we had waited on unanimity, critics in the New Republic, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune said, there would never have been civil rights legislation—for that matter, we might still have slavery. As ever and always, it basically comes back to the central question: How valuable, how sacred, how human is the fetus?

If the myth of “personally opposed but publicly neutral” has not, like the myth of secular neutrality, been shattered, it has at least been tried and found wanting. It will no longer be an easy code word for politicians Protestant or Catholic, and the coffee shop debate on abortion has, we may hope, been raised to a higher plane. Continued public discussion may erode away other noble-sounding abortionist rhetoric, such as that of “personal privacy and liberty,” and help all Americans to face the unpleasant truth—that sheer convenience and our rampant hedonism motivate the vast majority of abortions. And as long as the Christian activists are around, there will be such public discussion, whether the rest of the nation wants it or not.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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