A recent gathering of 25 academics, journalists, and activists delivered a warning for the Religious Right. Though it will undoubtedly play a role in American political life, they said, the Religious Right’s public voice may be significantly muted unless it works harder at translating moral convictions into a persuasive political agenda.

“The issues of the Religious Right are critical not only for the Republican party, but for the country,” said Fred Barnes, senior editor of the New Republic. Sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the two-day conference in Washington, D.C., examined the contributions of religious conservatives in the most recent presidential race and their expected influence over forthcoming national and local contests.

While acknowledging the dominant role of the economy in George Bush’s defeat, John Green of the University of Akron said the Religious Right’s emphasis on “family values” was a net electoral plus. “Social issues helped keep the election relatively close. Evangelicals were central to this pattern.”

Green’s study of voting patterns in the 1992 election, for example, indicates that the Republican party—the most accessible ally of evangelical activists—cannot win a presidential election without support from the majority of religious conservatives.

However, while evangelicals accounted for nearly two-fifths of George Bush’s vote total, their socially conservative agenda cannot by itself form the basis for a winning coalition. Said Green: “There are stern limits to the helpfulness of the Christian Right.”

The key to the movement’s effectiveness may lie in its ability to help forge a “public moral discourse” that connects religious truths to public policy—but in a language the irreligious can understand, said Ethics and Public Policy Center president George Weigel.

Weigel pointed to President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as a model for finding such a common grammar. “At a moment of unparalleled national trauma, it spoke to the entire country in an idiom the entire country could understand.” He said the natural law tradition offers an important source for a vocabulary of persuasion—whether the issue is abortion, homosexual rights, or censorship.

The growing number of self-proclaimed secularists in the electorate—who reject most traditional religious values—strengthens the case for an accessible moral lexicon. Secularists now make up between 15 and 30 percent of the adult population.

“This is now an important constituency in the Democratic party,” said Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma. Secularists provided nearly one-fifth of all President Clinton’s votes, and just over 10 percent of Bush’s.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, has been pushing his organization to adopt not only a broader vocabulary but a wider political agenda. The coalition, founded by Pat Robertson, now works vigorously on a range of economic and social issues—from tax relief and enterprise zones to welfare reform and abortion.

The blending of economic and cultural issues is crucial to coalition-building, Green said, and it demands deft political compromise. “Republican party strategists get headaches when they think about this kind of problem, but it’s the nature of American politics.”

At the heart of the Religious Right’s strategy is limiting the reach of government and encouraging instead the flourishing of private organizations—charities, neighborhood associations, and churches—in meeting social needs and shaping moral attitudes. Politically, Reed’s agenda is most at home among mainstream and conservative Republicans, and at policy groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute.

“What most religious conservatives want is to redress the cultural excess and social chaos that we’ve seen in this country for the last 25 years,” Reed said.

Though conference participants were generally sympathetic with the Religious Right’s goals, some faulted its methods. Clark Cochran of Texas Tech University complained that many Christian activists fail to give sound theological arguments for their political positions. “It’s just a secular political agenda with a Christian stamp,” he said.

Weigel warned of the danger of too closely identifying the central, spiritual truths of the gospel with the details of public policy. “There is an incredible capacity for the world … to corrupt biblical witness when it focuses so intensely on advancing a political agenda.”

Maligned and misunderstood

Michael Cromartie, the conference convener, stressed the bridge-building nature of the meeting. “Religious conservatives have often been maligned and misunderstood; this meeting gave academics and journalists a chance to have a healthy dialogue with leading Christian activists.”

Several conferees argued that moral and spiritual renewal are essential to sustaining American democracy—with its notion of limited government and broad freedoms—and must accompany political action by religious conservatives. “There is something wrong with ruling religious debate out of the public square by fiat,” said Washington Post reporter E. J. Dionne.

“I want evangelical Christians to enter the mainstream of American public life,” said Michael Horowitz, a Jewish scholar at the Manhattan Institute. “I think this community is the key to the restoration of a moral sense in American life.”

By Joe Loconte in Washington, D.C.

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