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Chapter 3 THE ROLE OF FAITH
God in His infinite wisdom must have designed Tennessee as the ideal place in which to argue the role of faith in public life.
In what sometimes is still called “the buckle of the Bible Belt,”
locals favor “strong preachin’,” but also the evangelism of a secular gospel called Jacksonian Democracy. Nashville is home to the abstemious souls of the Southern Baptist Convention, but also to country singers keening over lives ruined by drink and dissolution. In 1925 the mountains of east
Tennessee were the site of the infamous Scopes Trial, in which a teacher was sent to jail for teaching the science of biological evolution. Yet those same rugged mountains are home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory,
a leading center for advanced science, and to two nuclear power plants that operate on the physics venerated there.
So Tennessee was the appropriate launching pad for the political career of Senator William Frist, M.D.–and also the appropriate place for it to crash to Earth. In Tennessee, the senator had to fly through the crosswinds of cultural conflict, between the theories and demands of Bible Belt religion and of ivory tower science. The bumpy ride ultimately reduced his image from that of an idealistic, Grey’s Anatomy—style “superdoc” and presidential possibility to a hopeless political hack. The trajectory of his public life illuminated the power of an essential American Argument. We are a prayerful,
Bible-believing country, yet that same trait causes us to constantly fret–and argue–over the extent to which our faith should influence decisions about education, research, welfare, and other government activities.
Frist rose to prominence on the secular, science side of the argument.
His first calling card was medicine. His father and uncle were prominent
Nashville physicians who had made a fortune assembling one of the nation’s first HMOs. He was a brilliant, meticulous student, excelling at
Princeton, at Harvard Medical School, and in internships at Massachusetts
Frist had a need to exhibit his knowledge in dramatic circumstances.
He became a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon famous for steely nerves and clinical derring-do, “cracking open chests,” as he put it, thrusting his hands into thoraxes to remove diseased hearts and lungs. He owned a plane, which he kept gassed up and ready to fly so he could ferry in replacement parts–living hearts–for his patients. He piloted the plane, of course. He was forever experimenting with new surgical techniques,
studying logistics, puzzling over the social consequences of the on-the-fly triage necessary to match salvageable patients with salvageable hearts. A
committed runner, lean as a whippet, and blessed with an ability to concentrate in an operating theater, Frist slept only three or four hours a night.
He used the wee hours to educate himself by writing medical tracts.
As he launched his campaign for the Senate in 1994, his religious faith was not a visible part of his public profile. He rarely talked about his standard-issue Presbyterianism, the denomination of choice among the
Southern business establishment. Rather, he advertised the healing power of medicine. On the wall behind his desk, he tacked up a picture of a picnic he had organized and attended earlier that year. He was surrounded in the photo by a cheerful-looking throng of more than one hundred.
Who were they? “Those are my former transplant patients,” Frist said proudly. “I feel a deep bond with those people,” he said. “I can’t express it in words.”
Even after he became a senator, Frist did not abandon his medical pursuits.
He was an unofficial doctor-in-residence in the Capitol. After the
9/11 terrorist attacks, he used his late-night study vigils to produce a picture-and-text guide and instruction manual on how to treat injuries and contaminations that might follow a chemical or biological assault. He insisted that his full title be emblazoned on press releases and in brass on his office door: Senator William Frist, M.D.
When he began fashioning his political career, Frist had little contact with the Other Tennessee, the one controlled, or at least defined, by the
Southern Baptists. The state’s largest denomination, they had always set the tone politically, but not always directly. In pioneer days they were a liberating political force, opposed to hierarchical authority, especially an
“established” church, of any kind. They promoted democratic ideals by insisting that man had free will, and by insisting that the route to salvation lay in the simple, straightforward act of reading and believing the
Bible. Baptists had grown mighty on America’s frontiers, where settlers had needed a portable, independent faith, one that validated their sense of freedom but also gave them confidence that they were doing the Lord’s work in the New World.
At first, Baptists and their brethren wanted nothing to do with direct involvement in government, however, which they tended to fear (given their history in Europe and in much of colonial America) as an instrument of theological oppression. That attitude changed somewhat in the
1920s, as rural Americans came to feel themselves under assault by a new,
metropolitan modernity. The battle was joined in Dayton, Tennessee,
where a teacher named John Scopes was brought to trial for violating a state law against the teaching of evolution. Clarence Darrow, the most famous courtroom lawyer of his day, teamed up with an equally famous journalist, H. L. Mencken, to make a national laughingstock out of the law’s chief defender, William Jennings Bryan, the “prairie populist.”
And yet it was Bryan’s side–the Bible-believing one–that won the case at trial and on appeal. In New York City, textbook authors were forced to delete evolution from their newest manuscripts. The Tennessee law remained on the books, banning instruction in “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” or that suggests “man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Similar laws existed in fourteen other states until the U.S. Supreme Court, in
1968, firmly and finally ruled that they were an unconstitutional imposition of sectarian dogma in secular classrooms.
The national ridicule engendered by the Scopes Trial drove two generations of Baptists out of the political arena. Despite their legal early
“victory,” the Southern Baptist leaders increasingly downplayed fundamentalist teachings, even if their congregants did not.
But by the time Frist was thinking of running for office, a new generation of hard-liners–more media-savvy and sophisticated, but no less dedicated to Scripture–had reasserted control of the denomination. Luckily for Frist (at least it seemed lucky at the time) the Baptists’ leading political figure in the early 1990s was Dr. Richard Land, who had close ties to Karl
Rove, an ally of the late Lee Atwater’s and the emerging kingmaker of the
Southern-based Republican Party. Land headed the Southern Baptists’ political and grassroots organizing arm. He was theologically devout, but had a doctorate from Oxford and enjoyed jousting with the Other Side.
And maybe the Lord had a hand in bringing him to the campaign: Like
Frist, Land was a Princeton man. He could educate Frist in the political ways of the Word.
It was a slow, careful process. In Frist’s first campaign, in 1994, Land did not press his fellow Princetonian on faith issues. It wasn’t part of the
GOP’s national game plan. Instead, the Republicans ran coast-to-coast on
Newt Gingrich’s determinedly secular “Contract with America,” which studiously avoided social and theological issues and instead focused on anti-Washington themes: tax cuts, spending reform, and the iniquity of the new Clinton administration and the Democrats who had ruled the
House of Representatives for forty years. Frist was anti-abortion–just about everybody in the new GOP was–but otherwise had felt little need to talk much about “the social issues.”
Frist’s focus changed once he arrived in Washington, especially after
George Bush became president, the GOP took control of the Senate, and
Frist, with a behind-the-scenes boost from the White House, became majority leader. Suddenly he was the man in the middle of an American Argument.
Stem-cell research was the specific issue. Baptists and other fundamentalists joined with the Vatican hierarchy to oppose the use of human embryos in such research, even though many frozen embryos were being discarded by fertility clinics and most scientists thought research using cells from that source held great clinical promise in the search for cures to disease.
Frist proceeded to ambush himself on the issue. In 2001, he supported the president’s decision to limit federally funded research to cultures from existing embryo “lines.” But under pressure from his erstwhile colleagues in the medical community–not to mention former first lady Nancy Reagan,
who saw stem-cell research as the route to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease–Frist reversed course. Now, he said, he considered the existing
“lines” inadequate, and would support the use of embryos that would otherwise be discarded by clinics and perhaps other sources as well. Since he was a doctor and potential presidential candidate, Frist’s 2005 switch was major national news. “It’s an earthquake,” said his Republican colleague
Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania at the time.
Frist garnered praise from the same medical and scientific community that had denounced him earlier. But the GOP’s religious fundamentalists attacked him for supporting what they labeled “destructive embryo research.”
“To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science,”
said Dr. James Dobson, “will be rightly seen by America’s values voters as the worst kind of betrayal of choosing politics over principle.” Dr. Land had a simpler political reaction, but equally to the point. “I’m heartbroken,”
And so it came to pass that Frist was politically doomed, even though he tried his best to reconnect with the “heartbroken” Land. The senator sought to placate his religious “base” by championing the anti-euthanasia cause of Terri Schiavo. Although he had not personally seen the bedridden and severely brain-damaged woman, he offered a long-range “diagnosis”
of her condition, concluding that she was aware of her surroundings and thus should be spared. He did so after watching a video of her moving her eyes in what some had concluded was a purposeful, sentient fashion.
Then, as though burrowing into Tennessee’s antimodern past, Frist showed up at a Rotary club in Nashville to talk about evolution. After the
Supreme Court in 1968 invalidated statutes that had banned the teaching of evolution, Biblical literalists had developed a new strategy. Rather than opposing evolution per se, they supported the teaching of a theory they called “intelligent design.” The idea was that human beings and other forms of life were so complex and elegantly arranged that only an intelligent
“Creator”–that would be God–could have made them. Scientists generally dismiss the theory as nothing more than a faith-based tautology,
an assertion beyond the reach of experimental, factual verification, and therefore not “science” at all.
But Frist was not one of those scientists. “I think a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith,” he said. Exposing schoolchildren to intelligent design “doesn’t force a particular theory on anyone,” he said. A few months later, a federal judge in
Pennsylvania disagreed. He struck down a local school-board policy that required that students be made “aware of the gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory, and of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to,
By then Frist had bowed out of that debate–and most others in the faith wars. He had said from the beginning of his political adventure that he would serve only two terms in the Senate, and as his second term drew to a close in the fall of 2006, the only remaining question was whether he would run for the GOP presidential nomination. He was not a deft politician–
you could see the gears grinding with every move he made–but even a Lyndon Johnson would have had trouble surviving in the riptides of the faith-versus-science debate.
In his final few months, Frist almost literally wasted away, shrinking from lean to gaunt, his normally chipper surgeon’s demeanor falling off into what resembled absentmindedness. On the Senate floor, he seemed almost lost. He had been chewed to pieces by the Eastern establishment that had credentialed him initially; he was almost too easy a target for The
New York Times. At the same time, the Richard Lands of the world had given up on him, looking elsewhere for Republican presidential candidates to champion. Rove had once been a backer–had led the effort to get him the majority leader’s job–but Bush aides now privately derided
Frist as a ham-fisted amateur who had never learned to play the game, no matter how adroit he had been in an operating theater.
In November of 2006, after the Democrats won back control of the
Senate, Frist limited himself to the occasional Washington social event as he and his wife prepared to return to Nashville. He said he was building a new home there. In a sad, unself-conscious parody, the new edifice resembled a downsized White House, with pillars, portico, and all. He could take shelter there from the argument that had overwhelmed him.
The land we live on was claimed in God’s name, but the world’s first officially secular government sits on it. We invoked God in making our Declaration of Independence, but not in our governing authority, the
Constitution. Only one clergyman signed the former; none the latter. Yet we are among the world’s most devout people; most of us see the Bible as literal truth, the Word of God. We base our nationhood on the unalienable rights the Creator bestowed upon all of mankind. So what role should He play in our public life?
Faith and its traditions and institutions can strengthen society’s social fabric, and amplify its commitment to family and justice. But if the Word rules all, the faithful are duty bound to spread–yea, even enforce–it.
The result: sectarian crusades in secular realms. Some are noble (abolition or the bioethics movement), but some foment intolerance (the anti-
Catholic Know-Nothings, the ravings of Louis Farrakhan), or warp scientific inquiry, public education, and foreign policy. We are one country,
yet forever torn between two methods of understanding, Revelation and
Reason, and two sacred texts, the Bible and the Constitution. Of all the arguments that define us none is more vexing–alternately troubling and inspiring–than the one we had for four centuries over the role of faith.
America, the late Jerry Falwell proclaimed, was a “faith nation.” His political foes disputed the specific term, but they cannot gainsay the basic point. The polling figures are as familiar as they are immutable: 90 percent of us say we believe in God; 85 percent believe in the personal power of prayer; 70 percent are affiliated with an organized religion; 42 percent say they attend religious services regularly; and 38 percent refer to themselves as “committed Christians.” Senator Barack Obama summarized these numbers in his tart fashion. “Substantially more people in America,”
he said, “believe in angels than they do in evolution.”
Looking back, it is clear that it is our destiny to argue about faith in public life. History makes us do it.
One reason is the centrality of the Bible–not just what it contains, but the fact of its new, wide availability at the time of our founding. Our earliest seventeenth-century settlers arrived with Reformation ideas. They came bearing new ways of thinking and guiding their lives created by post-Gutenberg technology (the movable-type printing press) and individualistic,
post—Martin Luther theology. To these early Protestants, and for those who came here over the next two centuries, the Bible–not popes, prelates, or princes–was the arbiter of morality and the road map to heaven. What’s more, it was within the power and the ken of any mortal to read it and interpret it for himself. He could and did go forth into the New World to seek its riches and master its dangers with a rifle, an ax,
and a Bible. “Those who believe that knowledge of God comes direct to them through the study of the Holy Writ,” observes historian Paul Johnson,
“read the Bible for themselves, assiduously, daily. The authority lay in the Bible, not the minister.”
The result was a uniquely American invention: a lively, supply-side marketplace of religion. “The direct apprehension of the word of God,”
writes Johnson, was a formula for dissent–“for a Babel of conflicting voices.” Diverse faith was, and is, like the energy from splitting the atom.
“Nowhere else in Christendom was religion so fragmented,” writes colonial historian Gordon S. Wood. “Yet nowhere was it so vital.” It was all the more vital because, in a New Eden of America, there was more ur-
gency in finding the right biblical path away from sin. The place was pure; the temptations of freedom were great.
As with other parts of our heritage, this marketplace was so fervent because it was based on freedom of the individual. As with other marketplaces,
it was buffeted by crowd psychology, the dynamics of salesmanship,
and the laws of supply and demand. Without the clerical structure of an official church, preachers rose to power on the strength of eloquence and marketing skill, convincing the layman of the wisdom of their interpretation.
Popular preachers were early fruits of our democratic thinking–“
in a sense, the first elected officials,” says Johnson, “of the New
Philadelphia, birthplace of our Republic, was known through most of the eighteenth century as the ultimate faith-based bazaar–site of the legendary,
building-packing sermons of George Whitefield, American’s first revival evangelist. The Founders who convened there in 1787 to draft a
Constitution knew the history of the city. They were not hostile to religion;
indeed, they were not all firmly against some version of an official church, if it could be democratically selected.
Just two years earlier, a committee of the Continental Congress had come within a single vote of moving in that direction. Drafting rules for selling land in the Northwest Territory, the committee voted to allot for
“the maintenance of public Schools” one section within each square of surveyed squares. Then they voted to devote “the section immediately adjoining the same to the northward for the support of religion. Profits arising therefrom in both instances to be applied forever according to the will of the majority of male residents of full age within the same.” In other words, the public would pay to “support religion,” presumably by constructing the church the locals wanted.
To James Madison’s great relief, the “support of religion” clause was voted down in the end. “How a regulation so unjust in itself, foreign to the authority of Congress . . . smelling so strongly of an antiquated Bigotry,
could have received the countenance of a committee is a matter of astonishment,”
he wrote to James Monroe. Presbyterian clergy, Madison reported, “were in general friends of the scheme,” but they had tempered their “tone, either compelled by the laity of that sect, or alarmed at the probability of further interferences of the Legislature, if they once begin to dictate in matters of religion.”
In writing a Constitution, Madison and the other Founders took another step back from the approach the Continental Congress had considered.
The idea of a state-supported church–even one democratically chosen by local elders–would not even be considered. When it came time to draft a Bill of Rights four years later, they hammered home the point. “Congress shall make no law,” the First Amendment says, “respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The framers were not banishing faith from the public square–
but they were banishing the possibility of state monopoly in the market of creeds. They made the point in 1796 in another, but significant, context.
In the Treaty of Tripoli, they tried to soothe the Muslim ruler there by asserting that “the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” That wasn’t quite right, of course. We were set in motion by
Christians in the name of Christian kings. But after 1776, the kings did not govern us, and neither did their faith. No one faith could. You could believe in any you chose–or in none at all.
The fact is that the focus of the Founders–what they thought the country indeed was “founded on”–was not Christianity per se, or the
Bible, or at least the Bible alone. The focus of their intellectual, political,
and moral ambition was the world, history as it was lived, and the Enlightenment spirit of inquiry and science. Many were Deists, skeptical of
Christian dogma about the divinity of Jesus. They studied Athens and
Rome–not Jerusalem–for most of their clues to the nature of government.
Their holy trinity was Hume, Locke, and Montesquieu. The decision of the committee of the Continental Congress is a footnote in history,
but a crucial one, reflecting and foreshadowing an argument for the ages:
They concluded that the only kind of education that government should pay for is the kind that takes place in a secular classroom.
But, as was the case in 1785, it was always a close question. In 1801,
Baptists, a minority in Connecticut, wrote to President Jefferson to complain that their state viewed religious liberty not as an immutable right but as a privilege granted by the legislature–as “favors granted.” In his famous and carefully considered reply, Jefferson said nothing about Connecticut,
but noted that it was an “act of the whole American people” (the
Bill of Rights) “which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Perhaps no single “thus” has generated so much controversy. To be sure, Jefferson’s “wall” means there can be no state-sponsored church. But must it mean no role for faith in public life?
Probably not. Even in his letter, Jefferson seemed to make the point.
He closed his “wall of separation letter” to the Danbury Baptists this way: “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man.” However guarded his words,
he was reciprocating something. Faith and public life are not a unity, but
Jefferson understood that here they are virtually inseparable in many ways.
The idea of “revival” is one example of how faith and politics in
America are intertwined. Indeed, it is, arguably, our most important political metaphor. We are a nation that operates by continual revival. Without an established church, with each of us free to read the Word for himself, we compete with each other to win souls, and revivals are our unique method for doing so. The religious Great Awakenings were mirrored in our politics, and vice versa. In a nation that prays for the advent of Good News, every deal is New, every political campaign is a crusade,
and every crusade is a campaign. The mechanics of a Billy Graham event
(he no longer calls them “crusades”) and those of a candidate rally are indistinguishable.
Much of the language is the same, sign-up tables are the same, prayer counselors and precinct workers are the same. Only the objective is different: souls versus votes.
What we think of as civic life would not exist without the religious impulse to lead, to educate, and to convince. That impulse fostered the founding of our great universities and colleges, from Harvard to Notre
Dame to Brigham Young to Brandeis. It encouraged us to be the most charitable of people, with faith-based institutions leading the way from the time of the Puritans through Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker mission to the mainline Protestant and Jewish settlement-house movement,
which in turn gave rise to the modern science of social work. The abolitionists sprang from the churches of New England and Upstate New
York; the civil rights movement from the Baptist and African Methodist
Episcopal churches of New York City and the Southern Bible and Cotton belts. The Reverend Jesse Jackson used his preacher’s status and rapper’s gifts to launch successful voter-registration drives throughout the South during the 1980s.
Mixing faith and politics–souls and votes–can be uplifting, but it can be toxic, too. In the South, religion was a bulwark of slaveholding society,
with elders interpreting the Old Testament view of chattel, including human chattel, literally. In the North, the captains of industry mixed in their Union League Clubs a lethal cocktail of Calvinism, Darwinism, and profit. They made their workers drink it in the mines and on the factory floors. Literal readings of Scripture retarded the advance of equal rights for women and, in more recent years, for gays and lesbians. Churches have protested the moral blindness of science–of the eugenics movement, for example–but also have stood in the way of worthy experimentation. The
Women’s Christian Temperance Union launched itself with good intentions,
aiming to achieve a sober, God-fearing society, but wound up fostering criminality and linking arms with anti-Catholic bigots.
Intolerance was and is a risk. In colonial times, the emotion of religious conflict could be drained away by distance. This was a vast, open country, and those with a different or controversial view of the Bible could simply leave, or be banished, to a place where they could practice their faith relatively undisturbed. (The Mormons were literally hunted as they moved, until they found peace beside the Great Salt Lake.) By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the flood of Irish Catholics was too overpowering, too visible, and too economically vital, to be out of view.
The result: sectarian riots and faith-based discrimination.
Appropriately, the ballot box was and is an antidote to religious discrimination.
The Catholic example is instructive. In 1884, a clergyman speaking to the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee famously blasted the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, as an agent of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” The GOP candidate, James G.
Blaine, did not immediately repudiate the remark, and he lost New York
City (and the election)–in large part due to Irish Catholic voters.
Protestants took to establishing their own secret societies, dedicated to rooting out Catholic influence. In 1893, a group called the American Protective
Association promulgated a new secret oath for its members.
Among other things, they swore to “do all in my power to retard and break down the power of the Pope” and “not vote for, or counsel others to vote for, any Roman Catholic, but [to] vote only for a Protestant . . .” The
Catholic response was to plunge into politics that much more deeply; the first fruit of their labors was the 1928 presidential candidacy of New York governor Al Smith.
It took another generation, and the advent of the charismatic John F.
Kennedy, for the United States to elect a Roman Catholic president. That,
too, was a crusade, melding our fundamental metaphors for renewal and hope–a Great Awakening, a move to the West–into the phrase “New
In domestic politics, the biggest story of the last generation is plain to see in retrospect. In summary form, here it is: Dismayed by what they saw as the loss of respect for biblical values, evangelical Christians abandoned their aversion to electoral politics and joined with anti-abortion,
culturally traditional Catholics to build a new, faith-centered Republican
Party that elected Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and two generations of Bushes.
It took a biblical generation–forty years in Old Testament reckoning–
for the trend to reach its apogee, in Bush’s reelection campaign of
2004. Its influence began to wane thereafter (the unpopularity of the Iraq
War, sold in part by and for religious fundamentalists, hastened the process), but the rise of the Religious Right remains a big turn in the road of American history, and one of the most consequential developments of our time. Like a coda on a symphony, the 2004 presidential campaign produced the fast-rising candidacy of Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in
2008. He had spent much of his career in the pulpit, as a Southern Baptist preacher. He had led one congregation. Now he was proposing to lead another:
This cycle of conservative Christian political awakening began at a time of new beginnings in America, the 1960s, and it began, appropriately enough, with the issue of Bible prayer. The proximate cause, ironically, was not electoral politics per se, but six decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In New York, as in most other states, public school students began the day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and either the Lord’s Prayer from the
Gospel of Matthew or the Twenty-third Psalm from the Old Testament.
Facing a challenge to that practice, New York State Regents prepared a
“non-denominational” substitute. It said: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers and our Country.” But even that was too much for the Supreme
Court. In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, it ruled that requiring a prayer of
any kind in the schools was a violation of the First Amendment. In a Pennsylvania case the next year, the justices ruled that the practice was unconstitutional even if students could get permission not to take part in the public praying.
Although civil libertarians and their Democratic allies saw the cases as a victory, an emerging cadre of conservative Republicans immediately saw it as a cause–and an opportunity. History tends to regard Arizona senator Barry Goldwater as a libertarian who cared little about religious matters and who, in later years, expressed alarm at the rise of the Religious
Right. But in his 1964 presidential campaign, Goldwater stressed his strong belief in the need for a swift “return of prayer to the public schools of the nation.”
Cases that followed over the next few years stoked the anger of religious conservatives. In 1965, the Court struck down a Connecticut law that barred the dispensing of contraceptives–at a time when Catholic teaching still held the use of such devices to be immoral. In 1968 the Court struck down a ban on the teaching of evolution. In 1973 the Court substantially loosened rules governing the national distribution of pornography,
holding that it was up to localities to decide what was or was not obscene by applying their “local community standards.” Finally, most famously,
the Court ruled in 1973 that women had a qualified, constitutionally protected right to an abortion, most clearly at early points in pregnancy.
Taken together, the cases ignited a political supernova, the light from which took years to reach the consciousness of the political establishment.
I caught a glimpse of its power in the mid-’70s as a reporter in Louisville,
in Bible Belt Kentucky, in the audience of an ad hoc group called the Jefferson
County Commission on Obscenity and Community Standards.
The city of Louisville itself was not a fundamentalist hotbed, but the surrounding blue-collar county suburbs were, populated for the most part by rural folks who were drawn to the metro area to work at the industrial plants of GE and Ford. The chief executive of the county, the county judge, was up for reelection, and he saw a way to appeal to that crowd by establishing the commission. The idea would be to set–in advance of any court case, should there be one–the county’s very own “community standards.”
It was a political stunt: The commission never did establish the standards, if for no other reason than that no one was eager to be seen examining evidence.
But it was the citizens who came to testify who mattered. Politically, I
came to realize, they were harbingers of the new era, in which “cultural politics” would be, or would seem, as important as the economics-based politics that traced its roots to the New Deal. One by one, voters trooped to the microphone in a school gymnasium to describe what they saw as the decay of society’s moral and religious signposts. They saw their families as under siege, assaulted by an evil laxity. To them, the rapid spread of pornography was just one example. There was no prayer in the schools.
No one respected the Bible.
This was the time of “Deep Throat” in two versions. In New York and Washington, the Nixon administration was under attack, hounded by leaks from an FBI man who had been given the porno-flick nickname
“Deep Throat” by editors of The Washington Post. The journalists were out to expose the political evil of unconstitutional authoritarianism. In
Louisville, at least in that gym, they fretted more about the movie of the same name, which they thought posed a greater danger than Nixon.
The disgust at the two “Deep Throats” sparked a reawakening of overtly biblical language in mainstream–that is, white middle-class–
politics. The church-based civil rights movement was suffused with biblical vision and verve; now the same faith-based emotion spread to the suburbs in a different context.
The first to say so explicitly was Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia who rose from obscurity to the presidency in 1976. He did so by promising a post-Watergate moral housecleaning in Washington, and sold himself as a truth-telling man of the soil and proud “born-again
Christian.” Carter was the first major candidate to declare his born-again bona fides–and the first to directly appeal for the votes of fellow evangelicals.
Carter’s sister testified to her brother’s spiritual quest for “total commitment to Christ.” In a speech to the Democratic National Committee that year, Martin Luther King Sr. declared: “Surely the Lord sent
Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back to where it belongs.”
In an interview in Playboy, Carter himself confessed to a lustful heart. The metropolitan wise guys laughed, but his confessional, revivaltent moment played well in the countryside.
The electoral-map results were astonishing: Carter, the born-again
Bible Belt avatar, swept the South–the first time a Democrat had done so since 1960, and, it turned out, the last time since. The meaning was clear:
Even though millions of white voters in the South had migrated to the
Republican Party because of its “states’-rights” stand on race, Democrats could win the region if they could maintain, and build on, the new faith-
based activism of the evangelicals. Republicans and conservatives, led by new RNC chairman Bill Brock of Tennessee, recognized the threat immediately,
and went to work countering it.
So began a new political war, this one based not on race but on religion.
It was actually a two-front war: one among conservative, antiabortion
Catholics in the North; the other among evangelical Christians in the South. The former, based initially in Connecticut, was led by acolytes of William F. Buckley’s. The second was led by Brock and counseled by Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” guru, Harry Dent of South
Carolina, and by a new breed of preacher awakened to the call of politics–
ironically–by Jimmy Carter himself.
This new alliance had four goals: to undercut Carter with his evangelical base; unite conservative Catholics and fundamentalist evangelicals
(who had feared and despised each other on theological and social grounds throughout American history); build a new national grassroots machine to turn out faith-based voters; and find an inspiring candidate around whom to unite for the 1980 election.
Undoing Carter was the easy part, since he was perched uneasily atop a national party that was, on most issues, at odds with evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Baptists had expected him, as president, to champion their causes–such as a return to prayer in public schools–and to abandon other positions he had been forced to adopt during the 1976
campaign. Carter did not do either. He continued to support Roe v. Wade
and its progeny, continued to back the Equal Rights Amendment, which evangelicals viewed as an attack on the “traditional” family–and continued to allow alcohol to be served at White House functions, even if drinks were no longer available in the White House Mess. “I hope you give up your secular humanism and return back to Christianity,” a prominent
Baptist preacher told Carter.
Here was the opening the Republicans needed, and it was immediately spotted by a group of religious conservatives that met regularly in
Washington to plot the counterrevolution among the faithful. Catholics in the North had been stirred to action by Roe; the National Right to Life
Committee was gaining power. In the South they needed grassroots groups with whom they could link arms over abortion and other issues such as school prayer, gay rights, and “secular” science. All they lacked was a public leader and motivator to gather the reins.
And that is how Jerry Falwell barged into the picture. New Right ac-
tivists in Virginia knew about him and were impressed. He was boisterous and literally from the wrong side of the tracks in his hometown, home base of Lynchburg. He was a born huckster who spoke in the deep,
hickory-smoked accent of Southside Virginia. His televised sermons filled the pews of his Thomas Road Baptist Church to the acoustically contoured rafters, and he had turned his local broadcasts into a nationally syndicated powerhouse called the “Old Time Gospel Hour.”
As Falwell told the story years later, a delegation led by strategist Paul
Weyrich came down from Washington to see him and propose that he launch a group to engage evangelicals in politics from a conservative Republican angle. “They approached me and I agreed that it was a good idea,” Falwell recalled. “The idea was to take the country back.” (In fact,
Falwell had been selling himself to the Beltway powers.) The name, Falwell and the others decided, would be “the Moral Majority,” an echo of
Nixon’s “Silent Majority” from Dent’s 1970 “Southern Strategy” election campaign for the GOP.
From the start, the goal was not only to register and inspire conservative evangelicals, but also to win the presidential election, which meant agreeing on a figure to lead the crusade. “We needed a candidate to rally around,” said Falwell, “and we set about finding one.” Falwell, Weyrich,
and the rest of the group met with most of the Republicans who were thinking of running for president in 1980. It did not take them long to find the one they could agree on: former California governor Ronald Reagan.
His California record was not perfect. As governor in the 1960s, he had not opposed state funding for abortions, and his professional roots were in the Hollywood movie industry, a font of secularism and moral corruption in the eyes of most evangelicals. But he had worked hard to win their support in recent years, decrying the absence of prayer in schools and backing, when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1976, a
“human life amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.
With a candidate to sell and a constituency to reach–the one that
Carter had identified–Falwell and his Washington-based media and direct-mail advisers compiled lists and opened Moral Majority chapters at the new suburban megachurches and old-fashioned rural outposts alike.
Adapting a technique used by labor and business lobby groups, Falwell &
Co. compiled “scorecard” ratings of candidates on moral issues. The
Moral Majority staged rallies across the South and Midwest to support candidates, all of them Republicans.
The rallies were a powerful mix of rock concert, revival meeting, and political rally. At one in Alabama, huge screens in the darkened auditorium presented slide shows of examples of evil in the world of 1980, especially what Reagan would come to call “the evil empire,” the Soviet
Union: shark-toothed rows of missiles aimed at the United States,
Khrushchev banging his shoe on the tabletop at the United Nations, Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Falwell took the stage to thunder a warning against “godless communism” and–though he didn’t say it in so many words–its allies in America: the godless, heathen liberals who supported abortion, gay rights, and secular science, and who opposed school prayer, the family, and tax breaks for religious schools.
After the ominous music and scary pictures, after the speech about the danger of liberals, Falwell talked about answers: God, of course, but also right-thinking candidates. Lo and behold, two of them happened to be in the audience: Jeremiah Denton, a former admiral and Vietnam War hero who was running for the U.S. Senate, and Albert Lee Smith, local congressional candidate. They stood at their places, the spotlights beaming down on them as they were showered with applause. Reagan was not there, but the Gipper was cheered, too.
The overall theme of the rally: God will rain down his wrath on us if we do not elect these people!
On election day, Denton and Smith swept to victory in Alabama, and
Reagan swept the country, including the entire South except for Carter’s home state of Georgia.
The pattern and the alliances were set. Only the names, candidates,
and technical expertise changed in the intervening years. The Moral Majority faded but begat the more technologically sophisticated Christian
Coalition, which promoted the presidential candidate Pat Robertson in
1988. Falwell (who had no love for Robertson), supported George H. W.
Bush that year, the first step toward becoming what amounted to a family retainer. The third and last iteration of this line was Dr. James Dobson,
who was not a preacher per se but a family counselor (better for the soft sell) and a radio host who deployed the latest computer technology to service his listeners and build his national following.
When it came time to build George W. Bush’s political career from the ground up, Karl Rove began by introducing his charge to the Bible Belt of
Texas: the small towns in the west and the new megachurches of Dallas and Houston and San Antonio. And it was Bush, not Carter, who became the ultimate in born-again presidents. He favored the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolutionary theory. He opposed the creation and use of human embryos for stem-cell research. He supported a
Human Life Amendment to the Constitution. He opposed a gay-rights constitutional amendment, and supported efforts in the states to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. He supported the use of government money by churches to do social-welfare work. He opposed a court decision to take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance.
He nominated two justices to the Supreme Court whom right-tolifers trust and admire, even if those justices, now that they are confirmed,
are likely to tread carefully as they dismantle Roe.
Bush was the ultimate faith candidate in 2000. There was an even more perfect iteration in 2008, however–a Southern Baptist preacher turned politician named Mike Huckabee. The former governor of
Arkansas (from the town of Hope, no less) campaigned among evangelicals in the Iowa Republican caucuses as a “Christian Leader.” Since he was an ordained minister (he had pastored two congregations), that was literally true. And he won the caucuses.
Though Bush had become a pariah to much of the nation by the time of the 2008 campaign, the voters who got him elected remained as important as ever–especially to Republicans eager to succeed him. One of them was Senator John McCain, who in the 2000 campaign had denounced
Falwell, Robertson, and others as “agents of intolerance” and division.
Now McCain wanted their support. Some rethinking on matters of science was required. In the very earliest stages of the ’08 campaign,
when the bidding wars already were well under way among evangelical activists, McCain gave a speech at the Discovery Institute, the world’s leading proponent of intelligent design. Seeking to run on the base that
Bush and Rove had built, McCain at times depicted himself as a proponent of teaching the theory in public schools. “I think there is nothing wrong with teaching different schools of thought,” he said in 2005. But a year later, he qualified his support for intelligent design. “Should it be taught in science class?” he said in a conference in Aspen, Colorado.
A few months later, McCain issued what he hoped would be his definitive statement on the matter. He did it in a book he cowrote with his longtime aide, Mark Salter. McCain praised Charles Darwin’s work, and argued that the “only undeniable challenge the theory of evolution poses to Christian beliefs is its obvious contradiction of the idea that God created the world as it is in less than a week.”
As far as McCain was concerned, the Bible in that case was metaphor,
not literal truth. “Nature does not threaten our faith,” he wrote. “On the contrary, when we contemplate its beauty and mysteries we cannot quiet in our hearts the insistent impulse of belief that, for all its variations and inevitable change, before its creation, in a time before time, God let it be so, and thus its many splendors and purposes abide in His purpose.”
If that was a little too murky, McCain was back in the fall of 2007 with a clearer declaration–not on intelligent design, but on the design of
America. “The Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation,” he told the website Beliefnet.com in an interview. Surveys showed that a majority of Americans tended to agree. That would be news to the
Founders, Christians all.
McCain’s bid to secure the allegiance of evangelicals fell short. Two other 2008 candidates worked hard to woo them. One, ironically, was a
Mormon–Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. As earnest, devout, and cleancut as he was, Romney had a hard time keeping up with Huckabee, who had spent ten years pastoring churches as a Southern Baptist preacher. He ran an ad in Iowa proclaiming himself a “Christian Leader.” Not surprisingly,
the ad started an argument.