During George W. Bush’s presidency, many liberal and secular Americans came to regard religious conservatives not merely as their political opponents, but as a kind of existential threat. The religious right, they decided, wasn’t a normal political movement. Rather, it was an essentially illiberal force, bent on gradually replacing our secular republic with what Kevin Phillips’s 2006 best seller dubbed an “American Theocracy.”
These anxieties dissipated once the Republican majority imploded. In the Obama era, debates over the economy and health care crowded out arguments about sex education and embryo destruction, and liberals found a new set of right-wing extremists to worry about: Tea Party activists, birth certificate obsessives, the Koch brothers.
But with the rise of first Michele Bachmann and then Rick Perry in the presidential polls, and the belated liberal realization that many Tea Partiers are also evangelical Christians, the fear of theocracy has suddenly returned. Beginning with Ryan Lizza’s profile of Bachmann in The New Yorker, a spate of recent articles have linked the Republican presidential candidates to scary-sounding political theologies like “Dominionism” and “Christian Reconstructionism,” and used these links to suggest that Christian extremism is once more on the march.
In this week’s New York Times Magazine, The Times’s outgoing executive editor, Bill Keller, argues that Perry and Bachmann should face tough questions about their religious beliefs. The Republican hopefuls’ associations, he writes, should force us to “confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life — and to get over them.”
Keller is absolutely right. The separation of church and state in the United States has never separated religion from politics, and the “private” beliefs of politicians have often had very public consequences. When candidates wear their religion on their sleeve, especially, the press has every right to ask how that faith relates to their political agenda.
But here are four points that journalists should always keep in mind when they ask and then write about religious beliefs that they themselves don’t share.
First, conservative Christianity is a large and complicated world, and like other such worlds — the realm of the secular intelligentsia very much included — it has various centers and various fringes, which overlap in complicated ways. Sometimes teasing out these connections tells us something meaningful and interesting. But it’s easy to succumb to a paranoid six-degrees-of-separation game, in which the most radical figure in a particular community is always the most important one, or the most extreme passage in a particular writer’s work always defines his real-world influence.
Second, journalists should avoid double standards. If you roll your eyes when conservatives trumpet Barack Obama’s links to Chicago socialists and academic radicals, you probably shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Bachmann’s more outré law school influences prove she’s a budding Torquemada. If you didn’t spend the Jeremiah Wright controversy searching works of black liberation theology for inflammatory evidence of what Obama “really” believed, you probably shouldn’t obsess over the supposed links between Rick Perry and R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist guru.
Third, journalists should resist the temptation to apply the language of conspiracy to groups and causes that they find unfamiliar or extreme. Republican politicians are often accused of using religious “code words” and “dog whistles,” for instance, when all they’re doing is employing the everyday language of an America that’s more biblically literate than the national press corps. Likewise, what often gets described as religious-right “infiltration” of government usually just amounts to conservative Christians’ using the normal mechanisms of democratic politics to oust politicians whom they disagree with, or to fight back against laws that they don’t like.
Finally, journalists should remember that Republican politicians have usually been far more adept at mobilizing their religious constituents than those constituents have been at claiming any sort of political “dominion.” George W. Bush rallied evangelical voters in 2004 with his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, and then dropped the gay marriage issue almost completely in his second term. Perry knows how to stroke the egos of Texas preachers, but he was listening to pharmaceutical lobbyists, not religious conservatives, when he signed an executive order mandating S.T.D. vaccinations for Texas teenagers.
This last point suggests the crucial error that the religious right’s liberal critics tend to make. They look at Christian conservatism and see a host of legitimately problematic tendencies: Manichaean rhetoric, grandiose ambitions, apocalyptic enthusiasms. But they don’t recognize these tendencies for what they often are: not signs of religious conservatism’s growing strength and looming triumph, but evidence of its persistent disappointments and defeats.