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.
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.”
What about The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, or secular Europe more generally? If universal ideals are to be shared by all, it’s best that they not come trademarked, and it sullies the authors’ argument here that they omit any role for science or philosophy in an explanation of altruism or humanity’s “inherent dignity.” (They point to Nietzsche’s moral dualism, but make no mention of Albert Camus’s humanism or John Rawls’s “original position.”)
On the domestic front, Gerson and Wehner call for a “walking the tightrope” approach, advising Evangelicals to not jump into the partisan deep end altogether, but asserting, rightfully, that personal beliefs cannot be fully sequestered during civic engagement. The authors touch on the usual topics of abortion and the traditional family structure, but they also focus particularly on law and order. Warning of the pernicious collateral damage that crime exacts on the whole of society, they praise the law enforcement reforms of the 1990s that led to more efficient policing and a rise in incarceration rates. One cannot argue with crime reduction, especially as the murder rate goes; but the authors may fall short of their own moral challenge when they forgo any discussion of the nature of that 1990s law enforcement crackdown – the brunt of which was felt by poorer minorities, many of whom were rounded up for victimless drug infractions. They write, sanctimoniously, that, “crime is the result of evil that exists within the human heart,” but isn’t it also about socioeconomic conditions and the opportunities, or lack thereof, that those conditions entail?
At times Gerson and Wehner draw themselves into discomfiting tropes from the previous era that they’re trying to leave behind, such as when they flippantly conflate the neutral secularism seen in the courts with “liberalism.” (In other words, what many jurists regard as a referee on the field, they see as the opposing team.) And though the book is laced throughout with a distinct font of piety that could turn off nonreligious readers, the authors do at least state outright that it’s meant for mostly evangelical consumption anyway.
They are correct when they say that religion will always factor into individuals’ civic engagement, but when they declare that their faith comes before their politics or party, this in itself bolsters the case for the secularist safeguards in government that they so abhor. We’ve all seen what happens when religious beliefs supersede pragmatic governing.
Ultimately, however, while Gerson and Wehner’s vision is not without flaws, it’s the most reasonable thing to come from the religious right in quite a while.
Stuart Whatley is a deputy managing blog editor at the Huffington Post.