'Just who do they think they are?'

One of the great strengths of our political system always has been our tendency to keep religious issues in the background. By maintaining the separation of church and state, the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars. Throughout our 200-plus years, public policy debate has focused on political and economic issues, on which there can be compromise.

Our political process involves a constant give and take, a continuous series of trade-offs. From this system of compromise, we get legislation that reflects input from many sectors of our society and addresses many needs and interests.

Obviously, not everyone can be pleased, but at least all sides are considered.

However, on religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ. Or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls his supreme being.

But, like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly.

The religious factors that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their positions 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on any particular moral issue, they cajole, they complain, they threaten you with loss of money or votes or both.

In the past couple years, I have seen many news items that referred to the moral majority, pro-life and other religious groups as "the new right," and the "new conservatism." Well, I have spent quite a number of years carrying the flag of the "old conservatism." And I can say with conviction that the religious issues of these groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics.

The uncompromising position of these groups is a diverse element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system, if they gain sufficient strength.

As it is, they are diverting us away from the vital issues that our government needs to address. We are facing serious economic and military dangers in this country today, and we need to make a concerted effort to correct our problems in these areas.

But far too much of the time of Members of Congress and officials in the executive branch is used up dealing with special interest groups on issues like abortion, school busing, ERA, prayer in the schools, and pornography. While these are important moral issues, they are secondary right now to our national security and economic survival.

I must make it clear that I do not condenm these groups for what they believe. I happen to share many of the values emphasized by these organizations.

I, too, believe that we Americans should return to our traditional values concerning morality, family closeness, self-reliance, and a day's work for a day's pay. These are the values our forebears clung to as they built this nation into the citadel of freedom it is today.

And I, too, have been pleased with the swing of the pendulum in recent years to the conservative, moral end of the spectrum.

But I object to certain groups jumping on that pendulum and then claiming that they caused it to swing in the first place.

And I am frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in "A," "B," "C," and "D." Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?

And I am more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every rollcall in the Senate.

I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.

This unrelenting obsession with a particular goal destroys the perspective of many people with whom I think I agree on most issues. In the quest for moral righteousness they have become easy prey to manipulation and misjudgment.

A prime example was the recent nomination of Sandra O'Connor as a Supreme Court justice and the ensuing uproar over her stand on abortion.

The abortion issue has nothing to do with being conservative or liberal. I happen to oppose abortion, but there are many fine conservatives who would go along with regulated abortions. In fact, my own wife believes that a woman should have the freedom of choice for herself whether she is capable of continuing the pregnancy and then raising the child.

I disagree with her on that. Yet I respect her right to disagree. If I expected her to agree with me on every issue we would be in a lot of trouble.

And the same goes for prospective Supreme Court justices. No single issue ever should decide the fitness of a Supreme Court justice. To think otherwise is to go against the integrity of the Constitution.

The religious factions will go on imposing their will on other unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy.

They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives.

The great decisions of government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. This was true in the days of Madison, and it is just as true today.

We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of State separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we must not stop now.

To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.