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Issue Date:  December 10, 2004

The rise of political Christianity


It is my contention that in the last three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, deeply religious Americans have experienced an existential anxiety that is translating into a political backlash that is threatening American secularism, American democracy and America’s traditional respect for international law and international public opinion.

Unlike Europe, American has always been a religious nation. Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 claimed that religion was the first political institution of American democracy. On Nov. 2, we saw this first political institution unleash a backlash against the assault on Christianity from Muslims -- therefore the support for Bush’s irrational and bloody foreign policy and against the growing secularization of American society; therefore the across-the-board support for a ban on gay marriage. Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and Oregon passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriages. A large number of voters, nearly 25 percent, said that the primary issue for them was “moral values.” Moral values are being widely understood as the Christian conservative opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights. But I suspect there is more to it.

The rise of political Christianity -- a coalition of white born-again Christians, conservative Catholics, conservative African Americans and conservative Hispanics -- is concerned with more than gay marriages and abortion rights. Political Christianity seeks to breach the wall of separation between the church and state and wishes to make this country a Christian nation.

America has been experiencing nativist resurgence along with the rise of a form of Christianity -- evangelical -- that is both self-righteous and “untraditional.” It is unwilling to compromise and is uncomfortable with enduring American traditions of religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, fundamental equality of all and appreciation for diversity. This nativism can be heard in the calls for restoring America’s moral values and in political works of scholars such as Sam Huntington who ask, “Who are we?” or in the fears of Pat Buchanan, who declares “the death of the West.”

George W. Bush has returned to the White House on these nativist fears. He is probably convinced that God is firmly in his corner and his mission to “save America” is indeed divine. He is going to charge into battle against dragons overseas and wrestle monsters at home. By George! America will be born again, pure and Christian.

On Nov. 2, political Christianity captured the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court. Bush is expected to appoint anywhere between two to four judges to the Supreme Court, which already enjoys a five to four conservative edge. With every branch of the government under control, effectively neutralizing the much-touted divisions of power in the American constitution, political Christianity has taken American democracy hostage.

It is time for American Muslims, American Jews, American Hindus and Buddhists, and American Christians who are moderate, secular and liberal to come together to form a moderate and pragmatic center, eschewing the aggressive anti-religiosity of the extreme left and respecting the religiosity of the right, to restore balance, and preserve American democracy and its traditionally balanced relationship with its first institution: religion.

M.A. Muqtedar Khan is chair of the political science department at Adrian College and a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 2004

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