By Stephen Bates
WHEN THE Anti-Defamation League issued a report criticizing the religious right last month, the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed declared it "a misleading and bigoted attack on people of faith." Two weeks later, Rep. Vic Fazio, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged that the "radical" and "intolerant" religious right is gaining ascendancy in the Republican Party; "Christian-bashing," sniped Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. Then President Clinton grumbled that Jerry Falwell, the former leader of the "'Moral' Majority," was spreading "scurrilous and false charges against me," a complaint that Senate candidate Oliver North deemed "a great case of religious bigotry."
The roundelay plays on, with politics of apprehension being answered by politics of indignation. Both sides are out of tune.
The Democrats are reviving the fear-mongering of the 1980s, when the Christian right burst into American politics. Back then, People for the American Way labeled the preachers of the religious right "a new breed of robber barons who have organized to corner the market on morals," compared the movement to "witch hunts, slavery and McCarthyism" and likened Falwell to the Ku Klux Klan, saying that "the common thread that unites them is intolerance."
By 1993, the overheated language seemed to be a thing of the past. Liberals stood up and unapologetically linked ideology to faith (Hillary Clinton's politics of meaning) and defended the propriety of injecting religious values into political discourse (Stephen Carter's "The Culture of Disbelief"). The religious right joined civil liberties organizations (including People for the American Way) to back the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an alliance that would have been inconceivable 10 years earlier. When he signed the act into law, President Clinton uttered a remark unlikely to have passed the lips of a Democratic leader of the 1980s: "There are many people in this country who strenuously disagree with me on what they believe are the strongest grounds of their faiths. I encourage them to speak out."
To be sure, the religious right itself has changed. In the early 1980s, its leaders railed that God doesn't hear the prayer of a Jew, that the United States is and ever shall be a Christian nation and that homosexuals, in the words of a Moral Majority fundraising letter, are "after my children and your children."
Today, in contrast, Ralph Reed maintains that members of the Christian Coalition - he sometimes calls them "people of faith," a la "people of color" - seek only "a place at the table." Rather than conniving to enact God's law into federal law, they're striving to safeguard their fragment of the multicultural mosaic. "Their primary interest is not to legislate against the sins of others," Reed wrote in Policy Review last summer, "but to protect the health, welfare and financial security of their own families."
Some activists may still believe that Jews and other non-Christians are bound for hell, but they now keep such views to themselves. After such an inauspicious beginning, learning the relationship between self-restraint and civility - what sociologist John Murray Cuddihy termed the "Protestant etiquette" - is a laudable accomplishment.
Unfortunately, though, what has replaced the hellfire talk is nearly as inimical to reasoned civility: the crochety rhetoric of victimization. Conservative Christians are aggrieved, and they want the world to know it. "Today," writes Pat Robertson in his book "The Turning Tide," "it is evangelical Christians who are considered by the liberal media as `niggers' and not worthy of respect." Televangelist James Dobson contends that "it is now fashionable to be in any minority group except a conservative Christian minority group." According to Falwell, "Bible-believing Christianity" has been "outlawed" in the United States. What was once the Moral Majority has repositioned itself as the Downtrodden Minority.
A charitable interpretation is that Christian activists are responding in kind to unjust accusations leveled against them. According to some liberals, it's sexist to criticize Hillary Clinton, racist to criticize Louis Farrakhan, homophobic to criticize Barney Frank. If the left can smear opponents as bigots, why can't the right?
A less charitable interpretation is that the religious right is trying to place itself above criticism. Reed often stresses that the Christian Coalition is a political organization out to legislate its members' policy views, not their theology. Yet when the organization is criticized, he and his fellow activists don the flak jackets of faith. According to Reed, calling an opponent a "Christian Coalition-type" (as one might say "NRA type" or "ADA type") is "repugnant" and "bigoted." For questioning its tax status, the Christian Coalition accused Democrats of trying to "silence Christian voices and" - a wily echo of the Ed Rollins contretemps - "suppress the Christian vote."
Admittedly, the rules of American discourse aren't exactly evenhanded. The panjandrums who had long delighted in H.L. Mencken's diatribes against fundamentalist Christians were irate over the antisemitic and racist remarks unearthed in his diaries. Skewering fundamentalists helped make Mencken a luminary of modern journalism; skewering Jews and blacks made him a bigot.
In fact, we frequently pass over slurs against conservative Christians; last year's front-page Washington Post article that labeled viewers of television evangelists "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command"; Ted Turner's 1991 remark quizzically comparing the concept that Jesus died for mankind's sins to the sacrifice of virgins ("Weird, man, I'm telling you") and the 1989 Gallup survey that found that 30 percent of Americans wouldn't want to live next to a fundamentalist Christian. Turner's remark and the Gallup Poll got scarcely any attention. Outraged Christians did raise a fuss over the newspaper article, and The Post apologized.
In overabundance, both fear and indignation degrade our political discourse. Democrats should think twice before they Willie Hortonize the Christian right. For their part, the religious right should drop the high dudgeon and acknowledge the distinction between impugning their politics and impugning their faith. If they really want a place at the table, they should remember that a chronically offended dinner guest is no more welcome than a chronically offensive one.
Stephen Bates, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, is the author of "Battleground," about the religious right and public education, which will be published in paperback in September.
The Washington Post