Much of the public debate about the Moral Majority's role in politics is misplaced. The critics allege that religion has no role in public policy; of course it does - and has for two centuries of American politics. Instead, the most dangerous characteristic of the Moral Majority and the rest of the New Right is their extremist interpretation of domestic and international political trends.
Christian political activism in the United States is certainly not new. It has had both liberal and conservative strains; and it has been involved closely with at least three major political movements: abolition of slavery, prohibition of alcohol, and civil rights.
Sen. Barry Goldwater is correct when he argues that public policy debates have generally focused on political and economic topics, on which there can be compromise. It is indeed difficult to reach tactical bargains on religious issues.
But these subjects simply cannot be avoided in a democratic system. In fact, millions of Americans could become much more active in all levels of politics because they have moral concerns about the direction of our public policies. Such an increase in participation should enhance the quality of political dialogue. Contrary to Senator Goldwater, I would hate to see our politics totally separated from the idealism of religious groups.
The Moral Majority and other New Right organizations certainly have expressed strident attitudes toward legislators and executive officials. But so have most other special-interest groups in American society. The tactic of using ''legislative grade cards'' to pressure legislators, for example, is a sign of the times - although, of course, it is a rather simplistic way of engaging in public debate. Because of the decline of political parties, the tenor of politics is determined increasingly by the clash of interest groups. The only effective way of muting this type of conflict in the long term is to strengthen the two major parties.
There has been a persistent strain in right-wing thought of a direct-action notion of political efficacy. This theme finds it difficult to accept social forces as a convincing explanation for failures of governmental policies. Right-wing organizations need to mobilize, agitate, and act - especially when the international situation takes a turn for the worse. They are frequently the most vocal proponents of a hard-line policy. In addition, they often exhibit antigovernment, anti-institutionalism attitudes which are akin to radical populism - revolt of ''the people'' against the ''incorrect'' or ''immoral'' policies of government.
Today most Americans are worried about inflation, a stagnant economy, crime, taxes, threats to traditional social values, and the buildup of Soviet military strength. In the context of these concerns, the right feeds on discontent, anger , and insecurity. It directs resentments of the middle class against those below and - similar to the Populists of the 1890s - against the ''elites'' above.
There is a strong radical strain in the New Right. Instead of emphasizing the protection of traditional political institutions, it argues for radical political change in order to ''recover'' and protect social values. The New Right is therefore not wholly conservative. It could be described as right-wing populism: a middle-class movement which distrusts the ''elitist upper class'' and instead trusts ''popular government.''
The leaders of the New Right, including the Moral Majority, have felt shut out of politics and are now demanding recognition and status in the political system. The left fears that these groups will take over society. A much more realistic danger is that the right could withdraw from political competition and splinter into extremist sects.
Throughout the history of right-wing thought in America, there have been strong trends of political intolerance and alienation, which have been described as a paranoid style. In this approach, the feelings of persecution and victimization are central; they are expressed in various theories of conspiracy. Conspiracies are seen as directed against the nation, political culture, and social values; in fact, conspiracy is considered to be the motive force in historical events.
According to the New Right, what is at stake is a conflict between absolute good (American values) and absolute evil (the communist conspiracy). Such strife cannot be mediated and compromised; it has to be fought out to a finish. This battle is seen in apocalyptic terms.
Such interpretations of domestic international trends constitute the most worrisome aspects of the Moral Majority and other New Right organizations. America faces two or three decades of terribly complex problems: (1) increasing international economic interdependence, which will require global solutions, (2) regional conflicts, which could become ''flash points'' for wider wars, and (3) perhaps a greater potential for nuclear war. The only effective way of coping with these issues is with an informed, realistic electorate.
Simplistic and extremist attitudes about public policy and international politics will undermine efforts toward solutions.