The marriage of mainline denominations to the Great Society caused the rise of the New Religious Right.

The relationship between the sacred and the profane is not a new issue, and it is not terminal. At least it will not be terminated short of the promised coming of the kingdom of God. We want to deal with the conflicts, tensions, and sometimes harmonies of that relationship. In courts of law, the issue is church-state relations. In ethics it is the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent. In every field of human endeavor the issue erupts in a distinctive form. It is irrepressible.

Christian wrestling with this issue was always tortuously complex. Jesus spoke of duties to God and to Caesar. Paul wrote of principalities and powers. For Tertullian, it was the empire of Christ; for Augustine, the City of God and the City of Man. It was pondered by Innocent III, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and by John Courtney Murray who, in what he called “the American proposition,” underscored the historical nature of our thinking about the sacred and the profane in society. Contemporary insights, he wrote, “became available only within twentieth-century perspectives, created by the ‘signs of the times.’ [They] were not forged by abstract deductive logic but by history, by the historical advance of totalitarian government, and by the corresponding new appreciation of man’s dignity in society.”

A question many thought was definitively settled is being asked again today in many different ways: Is America a secular society? If not, what might that mean? If America is presumed to be the “advance society” of world history, the question has large implications for our thinking about the future of humankind.

The “signs of the times” reveal an increasingly urgent impingement of the sacred upon our public discourse. The conventional wisdom has been that public discourse is essentially profane in the precise meaning of the word—that is, outside the sphere of the sacred. In recent years, controversies in law and public policy have raised challenges to the conventional wisdom:

• There is the issue of conscience in relation to various societal rules, including military service.

• In connection with tax exemption and other rights, we have witnessed efforts by the state to define, and by defining, to restrict the public role of religion.

• There is the still heated debate over prayer in public schools.

• In the realm of public policy, there is no more painful conflict than the one over the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision to abolish abortion law in the United States.

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Perhaps what has most clearly brought to public attention the problem of the sacred and the profane is the emergence of the New Religious Right in U.S. politics. The movement commonly referred to by the generic name Moral Majority is likely to be with us for a long time. In their passion and frequent crudity, the Moral Majoritarians have kicked, or perhaps stumbled over, a cultural trip wire and set off an alarm alerting us to a much more fundamental change in modern society: the collapse of the 200-year hegemony of the secular Enlightenment in Western culture.

A dogma of this secular Enlightenment has been that as people become more educated—that is, more enlightened—religion will wither away. The corollary of this dogma is that to the extent religion lingers on as a residual force, it must be rigorously excluded from the public arena.

But the collapse of the secular Enlightenment is not unmitigated good news, for from that tradition emerged much of value in Western culture and policy. Nor was its hostility to religion entirely without warrant. The seventeenth-century wars of religion in Europe nearly destroyed the basis of civil discourse. Religion was understandably viewed as a dangerously divisive force that must be relentlessly privatized and sealed off from the public realm. Today that seal is not holding, and it cannot be put back into place.

The collapse is evident in many spheres of our culture. It is seen in legal philosophy’s protest against a sterile positivism. It is seen in the physical and theoretical sciences that increasingly point us not merely to puzzles to be solved but to mysteries to be revered. It is manifested in the popular and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the fine arts. In education and the social sciences it is manifested in the debunking of the myths of value neutrality. And, of course, it is manifested in the renascence of religion in which our society and others are unmistakably engaged.

As the sacred is irrepressible, so the present decline of secularism may be irreversible—for better and for worse. Certainly it is for worse in the ignorant polemic of the New Religious Right against what it calls secular humanism. It is a polemic that maligns the noble tradition of Christian humanism, and it disdains God’s love for the secular—that is, this world. Yet we are surrounded by a hunger for the transcendent that will not be denied. It is the irrepressible belief in what Peter Berger calls a “sacred canopy”—an overarching meaning, a redemptive story, that can bestow dignity upon the world and our place in it.

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There is yet another reason why the religious factor cannot be sealed off from public space. Quite simply, it is that America professes and aspires to be a democracy. Public policy that is to be perceived by the people as morally legitimate cannot be decided in indifference to the values of the people. For the overwhelming majority of the American people, those values are religiously based. They are based, for the most part, in the biblical traditions of Christianity and Judaism. Roe v. Wade is a classic instance of trying to deal with ultimate questions without reference to the traditions that inform our thinking about ultimacies. In that case, the ultimate question is, Who belongs to the human community for which we accept common responsibility? Or, to put it in biblical language, Who is my neighbor?

If we are to avoid such legal and political disasters as Roe v. Wade in the future, and if we continue to cherish democratic governance, we will have to devise a better language for our public discourse. It will need to be a language that mediates between particularist religion and universal reason. We cannot, as the New Religious Right would have us do, leap from Bible passage to legislative enactment. But neither can we democratically enact legislation that is uninformed by the Bible-based convictions of millions of Americans. To some strict separationists to the contrary, it is not an unconstitutional “establishment of religion” to have a decent respect for the opinions of the citizenry. Nor is it within the competence of the state to decide which options, by virtue of being untainted by religion, are admissible to the public square.

The argument, then, is that we are witnessing the collapse of a dominant secular world view. In the political realm, this collapse is precipitated by what in social science jargon is called a legitimation crisis—that is, government is out of “sync,” and frequently in conflict, with the values of the American people. These values, in turn, are religiously based, and religion therefore bears a major responsibility for the moral reconstruction of the American experiment. If this reconstruction succeeds, the democratic process will be strengthened, pluralism will be enhanced, and individual rights will be more firmly secured. If it does not succeed, millions of Americans will become increasingly alienated from a political process that will come under growing attack from conflicting belief systems, both religious and secular. If our only choice is between the militant fundamentalism of Moral Majority and the militant secularism of the American Civil Liberties Union, the outlook is not encouraging.

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Which religious force might take the lead in providing a new moral legitimation for the American experiment? (Note that moral legitimation does not mean uncritical affirmation of America, but rather, articulating a transcendent sense of purpose by which the nation can be both criticized and affirmed.) As late as 1954, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Though the phrase was added for dubious reasons, it speaks to the issue of moral legitimation. “Under God” means that America is under both the blessing and the judgment of a reality that transcends the nation and the state. It means there is finally, however ambiguously we express it, a sacred canopy.

In considering religious forces that might help reconstruct this moral legitimation, one must first mention the Puritan tradition. The lineal descendents of that tradition are today called “mainline” or liberal Protestants. They are clustered in churches such as the United Methodist, United Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ. They operate in large part out of 475 Riverside Drive in New York, the National Council of Churches headquarters. These churches are not all Puritan in any precise theological or historical sense, but they are in the Puritan tradition because they have accepted historically the culture-forming tasks that can be traced back to the country’s Puritan beginnings. They represent thoroughly Americanized Christianity and the effort to Christianize America. They have provided in the past a transcendent or providential meaning for the American experiment. For the most part, the leadership of mainline Protestantism has abdicated that culture-forming responsibility today.

But what happened to the Puritan tradition? Sydney Ahlstrom’s recent influential book, A Religious History of the American People, ends with the mainline dispirited and uncertain, and because he tends to identify religion with the mainline, Ahlstrom suggests we have entered a post-Christian era. I believe it is more accurate to say we have entered a postsecular era in which new religious forces are taking over from the failed establishment of Protestantism. That failure is brilliantly shown in Robert Handy’s A Christian America. According to Handy, the declension of the Protestant establishment means that it can no longer do what it once tried to do. At a deeper, more ominous level, it no longer even wants to do what it once believed was its divine mandate to do.

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Today, talk of a “Christian America” is portrayed as right-wing extremism. But that America was as Christian as it was a republic was self-evident throughout most of our history. If we wonder why some people react so aggressively to the course of American society, we need to be reminded that some of the fundamental changes in our national life are very recent. Historian Timothy Smith notes that talk about our being a secular society and state began to gain currency only in the 1940s. From the Mayflower Compact in the seventeenth century through the social-gospel movement that ended in this century, it was assumed that in some significant sense this is a Christian nation. Opponents of that notion have failed in recent decades to eradicate that belief from American life.

Business leaders, politicians, educators, and jurists all thought it self-evident that this is a Christian nation. The proclaimed purpose of Horace Mann and the public school movement was to advance the Christian—that is, Protestant—religion. In 1892, the Supreme Court declared, “We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity” (Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S.).

As late as 1931 the same Court could say without fear of contradiction, “We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God” (U.S. v. Macintosh). Such assumptions were commonplace in mainline Protestant pulpits and periodicals until the 1960s. The puzzling thing is not that some people still talk about Christian America, but that talk about Christian America is thought to be un-American.

In the sense that the great majority of Americans are Christians, this is a Christian nation. But the claims of the Puritan tradition went far beyond mere statistics. Into the first half of this century, its leaders believed that America is Christian by providential purpose. It was the social gospel movement that worked a subtle change that later proved devastating to that vision. For all the good it produced, it also effected the fatal equation of Christianity with secular progress. Especially after the triumphs of evolutionary thought, progress was thought to be inevitable. The restlessly transcendent truth claims of the faith were domesticated and placed in service to a society moving ever upward and onward toward a socialized version of the beatific vision. The promise that pointed toward the kingdom of God was replaced by programs that pointed toward the Great Society.

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Washington Gladden and other leaders of the social gospel movement declared that the worth of Christianity—indeed the truth of Christianity—is proved by its ability to advance societal reform. But such a Christianity could no longer shape culture because it had been thoroughly assimilated into the culture’s vision of its own happy and inevitable future. With the social gospel movement, establishment Protestantism assumed an ancillary and supportive posture toward the culture: the direction of the culture could not be brought under divine judgment because the culture itself is the working out of God’s purposes in history. To borrow Pauline terminology (Romans 12), the church’s mission is no longer to transform the culture, but to be conformed to a culture that is transforming itself into the heavenly kingdom. (A later variant of this view appeared in the World Council of Churches’ pronouncement that “the world sets the agenda for the church.”)

In The 1930s, a terrible thing happened to the mainline Protestant witness: it succeeded. With the arrival of the New Deal, the country seemed set on the course the social gospel mandated. But beginning with World War II, the decades to follow turned out to be disappointing. To be sure, there were exhilarating moments, such as the early civil-rights movement. But the last great spurt of domestic innovation in the New Deal tradition came with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, which, far from reviving liberal confidence, collapsed in a cacophony of recrimination over Vietnam and what began to be perceived as the “systemic evils” of the American social, economic, and political system. It is a very long way from mainline Protestantism’s euphoric hopes for Christian America.

Typical of the mainline is Engage/Social Action, a United Methodist magazine, whose 1980 pre-election issue blasted Moral Majoritarians for saying there is a Christian postion on many public issues. The same issue carried a comparison of the Democratic, Republican, and Anderson platforms with the “official teachings” of the United Methodist church. It turns out that the church’s positions are those of the Democratic party, and any differences would have been reconciled had the party’s McGovern-Kennedy wing written the entire platform. Though they may be right on the issues, mainline Protestantism has invested the fortunes of its self-described “constituency of conscience” in a political past that may turn out to be an ineffectual minority for years to come.

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What was thought to be the tide of the future begins to look like the backwater. In the bitterness of its isolation, the mainline’s pronouncements become more acerb. In its disappointment at betrayal by the America it married, establishment Protestantism becomes ever more “prophetic”—which is small consolation for being ignored.

What I have described is the story line of the Puritan tradition and its mainline descendents. Because it is a story, however, it is not yet over. Mainline leadership may change its ways, or be replaced by the discontented memberships of its several churches. But for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that mainline Protestantism will be a major participant in redefining and reconstructing the American experiment.

There is another reason that this is unlikely. Martin Luther King, Jr., was fond of saying, “Whom you would change you must first love.” This is not the same as the reactionary slogan of the sixties, “Love it or leave it.” Love, because it is love, often must be critical. Certainly there was no doubt that King’s “dream” was for, not against, America. It is not so evident that the National Council of Churches loves America, and the Protestant mainline has thereby dramatically broken from the social gospel. Abbott, Gladden, Rauschenbusch, and others had no question but that America’s influence is not only good for the world, it is the hope of the world. Today’s mainline is like the social gospel in identifying Christian hope with social change, but the change with which it identifies that hope is frequently perceived as being against, rather than for, America.

There is, however, another story. It is of another Protestantism, and it leads us to the New Religious Right that today both frightens and encourages so many Americans.

By the beginning of this century, some Protestants were choosing a quite different course. Some of them, such as J. Gresham Machen of Princeton, were intellectually and spiritually impressive; but like most people everywhere, most were not. The fundamentalism to which they gave birth provided no compelling alternative vision of America—it seemed reactive and sour. Its resounding No! to modernity seemed as sterile and bereft of culture-transforming power as liberalism’s accommodating Yes.

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By the end of the 1920s, fundamentalism had been expelled from the circles of the influential and respectable, and in truth, retreated almost faster than it could be expelled. Its lingering imprint on the general culture was etched by that master of cruel contempt for the Bible-thumping “booboisie,” H. L. Mencken. Aside from occasional forays, fundamentalism would not be heard from again for more than 40 years. The mainline was left in secure possession of all the religious turf that mattered—or so the mainline thought.

In exile, fundamentalism licked its wounds and nurtured its grudges—but it also set about building an alternative “righteous empire.” Fundamentalism had lost touch with the elite, but not with millions of believers. After World War II, the mainline became uneasily aware that there was another world out there. The stirrings became, quite unmistakably, a movement. Soon fundamentalists had colleges impertinent enough to apply for accreditation. Some fundamentalists with Ph.D.’s called for dialogue in place of derision, and they seemed to have a knack for the technologies of communication with all kinds of people who showed little interest in established Protestantism.

The first fundamentalists to return from exile were called neo-evangelicals. They were very civil and impressive until the “neo” was dropped, and some of the pushier types started to come back. It wasn’t long—1976 to be precise—before they acclaimed “The Year of the Evangelicals.” It was too late to shut the door, and by 1979, the noisiest and most aggressive types arrived, announcing themselves as the Moral Majority. They even called themselves fundamentalists. And that is when some mainline Protestants began to wonder whether they were now the ones in exile.

The Reverend Jerry Falwell had never heard of Italian social theorist Wilfredo Pareto’s “circulation of elites” (I know, because I asked him). According to Pareto, when an elite, for whatever reason, no longer fulfills its function, the function still needs to be done. But the function is not left undone; rather, it circulates to another, usually quite different, group. Thus, a new elite comes into existence.

But Falwell is playing Pareto’s game. He is not a well-educated man. He has written, for example, that the evils of secular humanism began with “the 19th Century German philosopher [Barthold Georg] Niebuhr, who said that God is dead.” Though not well educated, he, along with some of the leaders in Religious Roundtable, Christian Voice, and other organizations of the New Religious Right, is shrewd. Most of his opponents are not. I am convinced that these people cannot be discounted as Rednecks, Ku Kluxers, or neo-Nazis, nor discredited with some Elmer Gantry-type ploy. Secular and religious journalists long have been sniffing around in hopes of discovering that Falwell has been bedding someone other than his wife—preferably an underage black boy—on whom he has been lavishing embezzled riches. But these are people of enormous, indeed frequently insufferable, moral rectitude.

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I believe the New Religious Right is a long-term phenomenon in American life. These people must be engaged as partners in the process of redefining America. Of course, they, as well as others, want to be the controlling partners, but this is a long-term process, with control going to whoever is able to communicate the better dream for America. The present contention is not between the Moral Majority and the immoral minority: it is rather a case of moral minorities in conflict. As one Roundtable leader puts it, “85 percent of the people go with the tide. Our aim is to direct the tide.”

Falwell says that on a majority of issues a majority of Americans agree with Moral Majority. He is probably correct. In the last decade and more, the potent symbols and issues of patriotism, family stability, and public decency have been permitted to gravitate to the Right. Prolife, profamily, promorality, and pro-America are the four planks in Moral Majority’s platform. Whether or not they like Moral Majority, most Americans endorse them. The New Religious Right has been shrewd, and sometimes ruthless, in exploiting the Left’s default.

The New Religious Right, misguided and potentially dangerous on several scores, rails against the symptoms of our social ills while celebrating the individualistic and materialistic drives that feed those ills. It does not understand a pluralistic society’s need for a mediating public language by which conflicts can be resolved without recourse to religious wars. It lacks prophetic backbone; its safe, middle-class issues pose no threat to its audience. It violates a fundamental aspect of the Judeo-Christian ethic by demonstrating little believable concern for the poor and socially marginal. It promotes a narrow nationalism that sometimes comes close to equating America with the purpose of God in the world.

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The New Religious Right is also challenging and encouraging on several scores. It represents a recovery of social concern among fundamentalists—a concern they have lacked and for which they have been condemned for decades. It represents a Christian confidence that God is at work in the world, and that the church must combat social as well as personal sins. It emphasizes that Jewish people and the State of Israel have a particular and powerful claim upon Christian conscience. Finally, it alerts us to the fact that this nation, and all nations, are accountable to God.

Similarities between Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther King, Jr., are not immediately evident. Different in many and important ways, they are alike, however, in that both represent a bold assertion of religiously based values in the public arena, and so in fact are in the mainline tradition of religion and American life. But the New Religious Right is conceptually destitute, ethically undisciplined, and addicted to divisiveness, and therefore I neither hope nor expect it to become the new elite in giving moral definition to America.

Also among the encouraging signs today is widespread rethinking of American Jews about the merits of a secular society. In the 1930s, the leadership of American Jewry agreed that the more secular the society, the safer it would be for Jews. Today, however, there is a growing conviction that it is not good for Jews, or for any minority, to live in a secularized society where there is no absolute, no transcendent prohibition against evil, including the evil of anti-Semitism. The naked public square is a dangerous place.

Jews, Christians, and all Americans have a deep stake in cultivating an awareness that the great threat to our common life comes not from aggressive religion but from ideologies that deny the transcendent and thereby invoke the totalitarian impulse of the modern state, whether that totalitarianism be of the Left or of the Right.

Who, then, will take the lead in reconstructing the public philosophy of post-secular America? Three major groups have not yet been up to bat in Pareto’s game: the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, and the evangelicals. To be sure, Catholics were a crucial part of the old New Deal coalition, but because of both their own insecurities about the American policy and rampant anti-Catholicism they had neither opportunity nor inclination to develop a theologically serious and inclusive statement of America’s meaning. It seems to me they now have that opportunity, and, in many ways, they are the natural candidates for the circulating leadership of this endeavor. They have the numbers and a history rich in political philosophy. Yet, the question must be raised of whether the intellectual and episcopal leadership of American Catholicism has not been weakened by its excessive zeal in “Americanizing” itself in the image of mainline Protestantism. There is, of course, also the inspired leadership of Pope John Paul II, who is a profound teacher of the dignity of the human person and of the societal structures appropriate to that dignity.

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The Lutherans as well have the numbers and a relatively intact sense of the transcendent. Most of them, like the Catholics, are new enough yet to America to sense its strangeness, and are able to ask both new questions and old questions in new ways. But Lutherans are handicapped by a theological tradition with few conceptual resources for ordering of democratic society.

As to the evangelicals, there are at least 10 different kinds, with the politicized fundamentalists but one subgroup. Evangelicals are so maddeningly diverse that it is almost impossible to deal with them as one category. But usually included in their number are the real Calvinists, who still ponder the grandly flawed attempt that was Geneva. Relatively few in number, their heritage is one of serious thought about how the City of God relates to the City of Man. I am impressed by how many there are among those today asking first-principle questions about religion and society who call themselves Calvinist.

But the task, finally, requires all of us. It requires Jerry Falwell, whom we will have to get used to having in the game, although we and he both need to discuss some rules about not fouling other players. And the task also requires those who have the mysterious number “475” written on their foreheads.

I suspect we will be better at the task if, by virtue of transcendent faith, we are able also to see it as a game—the playfulness and apparent absurdity of it all. Our playfulness defies secularism’s deadly sobriety, and it defies the imperiousness of the political that would seduce us into believing that the whole of life is politics. But the task is ultimately serious because human lives and the well-being of the earth may depend upon it, and because ultimately God cares, and invites us to join him in caring.

We Americans have been born from and borne by a liberal democratic tradition. Ours is still a fragile experiment, a new thing upon the face of the earth. Though today many who cherish the tradition of liberal democracy feel depressed and beseiged, I am persuaded this is a time of new openings and new obligations. Jews, Christians, and believers without a faith to believe in must join in the common enterprise of reconstructing a public philosophy that acknowledges the transcendent, which alone can humanize the mundane. It is to rediscover the American proposition.

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Mr. Neuhaus is project director of the Council on Religion and International Affairs, New York City, and editor of Lutheran Forum. His article is adapted from the 1981 John Courtney Murray Lecture, sponsored by the John LaFarge Institute, which he gave at New York’s Harvard Club.

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