Religion and the hurly-burly of politics

WHY don't the churches just shut up?'' Peter Berger has asked, expressing perhaps temporary exasperation over the recent flurry of social and political pronouncements issuing from church leaders and church bodies. Many, both within and outside the churches, agree that some religious groups have been drawn too deeply into secular politics. But the memory of events in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s sets an outer limit to the degree of political noninvolvement that most church persons now feel is morally acceptable for the churches.

Practically every decision made by government, even if it involves no more than changing the physical location of a government office, touches moral concerns at some point. The extent of these moral dimensions, however, varies enormously. Some issues, such as civil rights or nuclear war or abortion, are fundamentally though almost never exclusively moral in nature. At the other extreme are issues like administrative reform that normally turn on questions that are primarily technical or pragmatic. In bet ween these extremes lies a wide range of issues that raise significant moral questions but on which persons operating on similar moral assumptions may come down on different sides because of differing technical or empirical judgments.

If the churches advocate detailed positions on particular pieces of legislation or administrative policies in this middle range, which includes many important economic and foreign policy issues, they risk squandering their moral authority on questions on which their technical competence will usually be slight.

Most economic, social, and ideological interest groups pursue their political objectives in part through pragmatic exchanges of favors with public officeholders and with other interest groups -- in short, through political logrolling. When the churches become involved in politics, they are naturally tempted to play by standard political rules. Some conventional interest-group techniques, such as publishing tabulations of how legislators have voted on selected issues, can probably be adopted by the churc hes without undue danger to their moral standing. But if the churches enter very far into the game of practical politics as it is usually played, they risk compromising the claim to objective moral concern that is the chief resource most of them bring to the political arena.

Capitalism and theist-humanist religion will always be to some degree in tension -- as capitalism and democracy or democracy and religion are in tension. To the extent that it promotes theist-humanist values, religion supplies moral qualities that capitalism needs for survival and that counter its dehumanizing tendencies. Capitalism, in turn, creates the economic base on which may be built, with guidance from religion and democracy, a more humane society of the kind called for by both Christian and Jewi sh traditions.

From the standpoint of the public good, the most important service churches offer to secular life in a free society is to nurture moral values that help humanize capitalism and give direction to democracy. Up to a point, participation by the churches in the formation of public policy, particularly on issues with clear moral content, probably strengthens their ability to perform this nurturing function. If the churches were to remain silent on issues like civil rights or nuclear war or abortion, they wou ld soon lose moral credibility. But if the churches become too involved in the hurly-burly of routine politics, they will eventually appear to their members and to the general public as special pleaders for ideological causes or even as appendages to transitory political factions. Each church must decide for itself where this point of political and moral peril comes. But it is in all our best interests that the churches not be frivolous in testing the limits of public tolerance.

``Religious nations,'' Tocqueville wrote, ``are naturally strong on the very points on which democratic nations are most weak; which shows of what importance it is for men to preserve their religion as their condition becomes more equal.''

The social usefulness of religion to democracy does not of course mean that it will be available. Human beings, for the most part, are drawn to religion not to fill the moral gaps of a political or economic system but to get in touch with what William James called man's ``germinal higher part.''

Fortunately for the health of free institutions, Americans remain, despite recent incursions by civil humanism among cultural elites and relentless promotion of egoism by advertising and entertainment media, overwhelmingly, in Justice Douglas's words, ``a religious people.'' By all the indices of public opinion surveys, most Americans regard religion as either ``very important'' (56 percent in 1984 according to Gallup) or ``fairly important'' (30 percent ) in their personal lives. More than 90 percent of Americans indicate some kind of religious attachment, all but about 3 percent within the Judeo-Christian tradition. How much deep religious experience these figures represent is open to question -- probably more than many academic commentators assume. After several decades of decline, the share of youth expressing some form of religious faith in the 1980s has begun to rise. A new religious awakening seems possible.

From the beginning of American history, religion and the practice of democracy have been closely intertwined. ``Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,'' George Washington said in his farewell address, ``religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.'' Most American continue to believe that Wa shington was right.

Adapted from A. James Reichley's new book, ``Religion in American Public Life,'' published today by the Brookings Institution.

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