Holy war

By JEFF INGLIS  |  June 28, 2010

In the national health-care debate, the Alliance — often in the form of the Family, an evangelical group with ties to many members of Congress (and Maine governor John Baldacci, a former congressman), — stepped in to protect the godly from the godless. Berlet sums it up neatly, saying their argument was that big government is really a form of collectivism, which leads to totalitarianism, which leads to authoritarianism, in which a person is substituted for (or alternately believed to actually be) a god. And so, in their eyes, Obama's desire to expand government's role in health-care is evidence that he is both Stalin and Hitler.

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The underpinning
Scholars of the intersection of religion and politics agree that this development is both new and startling. But they also see a rationale: "Religion fundamentally has moral values and principles," says Roger Keller, Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University. "When those get tweaked by social issues . . . that's what normally draws people into the political arena."

"It's the emotional appeal based on references that are largely Biblical and widely recognized in an evangelical culture in which every political action has to be linked to a Biblical background," says Berlet.

Rhys Williams, director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at the Jesuit-run Loyola University Chicago, says there is a core belief that "politics has to be moral and we want to get our religious views in there." He characterizes the political aspirations of religious movements as "a way of protecting the public sphere as part of their image of what a moral society looks like."

Williams says, in an aside, that many of these individuals may not have problems with homosexuals as people, but rather object to any form of public approval, such as having those relationships recognized by the government as in any way similar to heterosexual marriage.

And while the focus of moralist social reformers has shrunk over the past century (giving up on Prohibition; reining in zealotry around the content of television shows and musical recordings), the conflict between the godly and the rest of us is likely to continue for some time.

Keller says part of this battle is theological: "Some of them are trying to save their neighbors." A converted Mormon who is a former Presbyterian and Methodist minister, he has a more detached view than some of his co-religionists; he argues that his beliefs don't give him the right to say what the government should impose on others. "I shouldn't ask the government to do the job of defining for everybody my moral standards."

But Keller admits, "often, religious organizations don't make that kind of distinction."

That may be dangerous, warns Traci West, a professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Codifying in law a specific prohibition, she says, demonstrates lack of the humility most religions preach. "Christians ultimately never know who is right based on who is saved," she says. "It is only God who separates the wheat from the chaff."

As a result, she suggests an alternative faith-based approach to morals: urging the government to protect "some common values of supporting each other to be caring and respectful across our differences, which of course we're going to have."

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