Refighting the Wars of Religion

Published November 1, 2007

Commentary November 2007

Since the rise of the religious New Right two generations ago, the religion-and-politics battle in America has been fought on many fronts. The most obvious one involves electoral politics, although even here the story is not so straightforward as often depicted. As Richard John Neuhaus showed two decades ago, the new activism of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants in the 1970's did not begin as a political offensive intended to woo America from secular liberalism, let alone from the Democratic party. Instead it was a defensive reaction to attempts by the Carter administration to bring federal regulatory pressure to bear on religious schools, thereby threatening to inundate the enclaves that evangelicals and fundamentalists had created to escape the cultural meltdown of the 1960's. Only in time did what started as self-defense — “leave us alone” — become a significant political movement promoting traditional morality in public life.

Viewed through a wider historical lens, the revolt of the evangelicals can also be seen as one episode in an ongoing struggle over the meaning of the religion clause of the First Amendment. For the first century and a half of the Republic, that clause had been a backwater of constitutional jurisprudence. This began to change with a series of Supreme Court decisions springing from the Everson case in 1947. What struck many as an effort to drive confessional religion from the public square and to establish secularism as a quasi-official national creed provoked a challenge by religious intellectuals and activists representing a wide variety of theological and denominational positions; their arguments were buttressed by legal scholars, some of them devoutly secular in cast of mind.

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