Religion and Politics: Imperfect Together

I have not seen Mel Gibson’s movie. But the descriptions and explanations of it made by its supporters-several of them

I have not seen Mel Gibson’s movie. But the descriptions and explanations of it made by its supporters-several of them friends of mine-have been a powerful conversion experience. They have almost converted me away from Christianity. The substitutionary atonement, always a difficult doctrine, has become dark in the hands of its exponents.

If Jesus’ sufferings are the fault of all men at all times, then the Passion takes on too much. I was born in 1955, centuries after the events described. I can say, of my many sins, that I did not intend to visit their consequences on my worst enemy, much less on Jesus. If Jesus’ sufferings are meant to establish solidarity with all victims of injustice, then the Passion does not take on enough. Many millions of victims have suffered worse-e.g., men who are tortured to death, after seeing their mothers raped and tortured to death. It happens all the time; read the newspapers.

However we factor out the equations of human sin and responsibility, they do not touch the trials of existence, from disease and disaster to simple mortality. What does the Passion have to do with the Lisbon earthquake, or the nursing home? If the answers to these questions are supposed to be mystical, then I say that in this context “mystical” means “inexplicable.” Why throw words into a battle they can’t win?

Yet the only intellectual alternative is the war of all against all, followed by compost. God, we must hope, is not defined by his exegetes.

The reactions to The Passion of the Christ present us with one of those moments when the reviewers (not just of movies, but of our national life) look up from their daily rounds and see, with astonishment and repugnance, what millions of their fellow Americans believe. They see the hotel Bibles by the Yellow Pages and the TV remote control, they know what the Pope looks like, and they know that blacks sang spirituals when they were winning the right to vote. But does the person next to me on the No. 4 train, or behind me in the line on voting day, really believe this?

Not only are millions of Americans devout Christians of an orthodox sort, one of them is in the White House. During the Republican primary campaign four years ago, the candidates were asked at one debate who their favorite philosopher was. Steve Forbes, who answered first, answered John Locke, and gave a little explanation of what impressed him about Locke’s thought. When the question came to George W. Bush, he answered, “Christ-because he changed my heart.” Mr. Bush got to the White House thanks to his fellow believers. John Green, a political scientist at Akron University, reports that 40 percent of Mr. Bush’s vote came from white evangelicals; another 20 percent came from traditional Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The beliefs of the believers have policy consequences. My colleague and boss, Rich Lowry, after citing Mr. Green’s figures in a recent column, quoted Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations: ” … for the next generation at least, we will be witnessing the rise and consolidation of an evangelical establishment that will view America’s role [in the world] in a different way” than the establishment “that once set the Wilsonian agenda.”

You can see the influence of Mr. Bush’s beliefs in such policies as his support for Israel, his attention to religious persecution and international sex trafficking, perhaps even his blunt determination and tenacity in prosecuting the Terror War. Mr. Mead thinks we’re in for a generation of such policies because of the increasing numbers and economic status of evangelicals.

Every politician needs a base, and a solid base will generate a succession of politicians. But history suggests a refinement of the Mead model. Religion has been entwined in American politics from Day 1, literally: The Declaration invokes the laws of nature and of nature’s God. But the greatest American leaders address God in general terms. Washington mentioned Christ, and alluded to Bible verses, with deep seriousness, but sparingly; most of the time he spoke, with equally deep seriousness, of Providence. Lincoln is both more fervent and more oblique. His Second Inaugural hardly dares to call on the Almighty; instead, he points out that both sides in the Civil War call on Him, and He is using the war to punish both. A lot about F.D.R., from his class markers to his noblesse oblige to his friendship with Churchill, was very Anglican, though he never pushed it.

Politicians who are more sectarian can make a splash. The Federalist Party solidified its New England base by harping on Jefferson’s alleged atheism. The Bull Moose convention that nominated Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 was like a Protestant revival meeting, with the delegates singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the doxology. And though Jimmy Carter told Playboy that he had often committed lust in his heart, he nevertheless went on to the White House. Yet overt political religion often fails; the fine point topples over. The Federalists disappeared, T.R. lost in 1912, and Mr. Carter was a one-termer. The campaign against slavery offers the plainest contrast. Abolitionism was, for many of its partisans, a devoutly religious movement. But Abolitionists did not free the slaves, because Abolitionists could never have won power. That job was left to Lincoln.

The gay-marriage debate may well turn on this point. If it looks as if the Constitution is being hijacked by President Bush, who has endorsed the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, and by his evangelical supporters, however numerous, then order up a lot of double-groom, double-bride cake ornaments, because gays will get their marriage vows. If it looks as if the law is being hijacked by showboating officeholders, from San Francisco to New Paltz, marrying whoever they feel like just because they feel like it, then hold off on those Maui honeymoon packages.

If it indeed takes a Constitutional amendment to stop gay marriages, that is another level of difficulty, because amending the Constitution is, designedly, a tedious process. If the gay-marriage movement prevails, then it will be the task of statesmanship to make the best of the situation, however much it depends on futile hopes and bad law. May God guide us, if it comes to that.

Religion and Politics: Imperfect Together