City of Man: Politics and Religion in a New Era
Two journalists offer a political blueprint for a new crop of young Evangelicals.
While marveling at the iconoclastic wit of H.L. Mencken, what many forget about the Scopes Monkey Trial is that Clarence Darrow did not sway the judge, and that, shortly thereafter, the combative strain of secularism that he and Mencken championed fell into popular disrepute. That manifold term – “secularism” – would return to American civic life in later decades; but rather than serving as an eradicative force against public and even private religiosity, this new, soft secularism would be instrumental in achieving equality and unity among diverse groups, from Roman Catholics to Jews to African-Americans and women. It was in this heady period during the 1960s and ’70s that school prayer was banned and abortion legalized, and in response emerged the modern religious right that has now dominated American politics for decades.Skip to next paragraph
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In City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner describe the religious right as out of balance in the same way that secularism came to be in Mencken and Darrow’s day (though they do not seem to notice the parallel). They write that “in combination, various failings of the religious right – of tone, strategy, theology, and simple human sympathy – [have] abetted a social backlash that goes beyond politics.” For failings in tone, the authors point to Jerry Falwell, who notoriously compared liberal policies toward Evangelicals to those of Nazis toward Jews. Strategically, they criticize the movement’s tendency to inject itself into issues where Christian evangelical values really have no bearing (believe it or not, Scripture furnishes no guidance for US-Taiwan policy). And theologically, they reject any rhetoric that asserts that America is a Christian nation, chosen, rewarded, and punished collectively by God (the kind of attitude on display at the Westboro Baptist church protests at soldiers’ funerals).
In an election season with deep political and cultural divisions, Gerson and Wehner, who served together in the George W. Bush White House and remain in Washington (Gerson as a columnist for The Washington Post, Wehner as a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center) should be credited for their bravery in delivering an honest assessment of the movement that more or less delivered them there. In their book, the authors offer what can best be called a vision – short of a comprehensive plan – for a new crop of young Evangelicals who are turned off by uncivil discourse and interested in a wider array of issues than their forebears.
In foreign policy, the authors advance human rights as the foremost Christian moral imperative, touting the universality of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and condemning states that consider themselves exceptions to its rule. However, Gerson and Wehner are hardly endearing when they turn to exceptionalism themselves to imply that the human rights ideal is derived from and best managed by Christians, who “can represent, in the kingdoms of this world, the values of another Kingdom.”