THE TERRI SCHIAVO TRAGEDY has been seized on by long-time critics of the "religious right" to launch attack after attack on the legitimacy of political action on the basis of religious belief. This attack has ignored the inconvenient participation in the debate--on the side of resuming water and nutrition for Terri Schiavo--of the spectacularly not-the-religious-rightness of Tom Harkin, Nat Hentoff, Jesse Jackson, and a coalition of disability advocacy groups.
The attack has also been hysterical. After Congress acted--ineffectively, it turned out--Maureen Dowd proclaimed that "theocracy" had arrived in the land. Paul Krugman warned that assassination of liberals by extremists was not far off. And the Internet frenzy on the left was even more extreme.
Into the fray came former Missouri Republican Senator John Danforth, an ordained priest, and much admired man of integrity. In yesterday's New York Times, Senator Danforth blasted the control that he asserts is now held over the Republican party by religious conservatives. Danforth specifically criticized the congressional action on behalf of Schiavo, a proposed Missouri bill that would halt stem cell research, and concerns over gay marriage.
All of these charges--from the most incoherent to the most measured--arrive without definition as to what "the religious right" is, and without argument as to why the agenda of this ill-defined group is less legitimate than the pro-gay marriage, pro-cloning, pro-partial-birth abortion, pro-euthanasia agenda of other political actors. Danforth's position is, apparently, that the agenda of the left on these matters ought not to be resisted, which means that it will be enacted. "For politicians to advance the cause of one religious group," Danforth intones, "is often to oppose the cause of another." That is inescapably true. To come to the defense of the unborn, as Senator Danforth correctly notes he always did during his legislative career, is to oppose abortion on demand. To come to the aid of the Christians in Sudan is to oppose the wishes of the Muslims who sought their destruction. Every political conflict is a choice between competing moral codes.
So Danforth's essay is really a poorly-camouflaged complaint that his positions on stem-cell research, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo are not the positions of the Republican party. It is fair for him to try and persuade people to endorse his positions but it is wrong and demagogic to attempt to question the right of people of faith to participate in politics. That is certainly what Dowd, Krugman, and others want to accomplish, and although Danforth asserts that "I do not fault religious people for political action," the intention of his essay is to encourage the Republican party to reject the efforts of religious people to influence the party's agenda.
There is little chance that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Bill Frist or Dennis Hastert are going to heed Danforth's advice. But a strain of thought is developing that the political objectives of people of faith have second-class status when compared to those of, say, religiously secular elites. Of course, not only would such a position have surprised all of the Founding Fathers, it would have shocked Lincoln and Reagan, too.
The speed with which issues that excite the passions of people of faith have arrived at the center of American politics is not surprising given the forced march that the courts have put those issues on. It was not the "religious right" that pushed gay marriage to the center of the public debate; it was courts in Hawaii, Vermont, and Massachusetts. It wasn't the "religious right" that ordered Terri Schiavo's feeding tube removed; it was a Florida Supreme Court that struck down a law passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Governor Jeb Bush which would have allowed Terri Schiavo to live. And it isn't the "religious right" that forced the United States Supreme Court to repeatedly issue rulings on areas of law that would have been better left to legislatures.
These and other developments have indeed mobilized new activists across the country, many of who see a vast disparity between what they believe ought to be public policy and what is becoming that policy by judicial fiat. They have every right to participate in politics, and they can be expected to refuse to support elected officials who ignore their concerns.
Attempts to silence them, marginalize them, or to encourage others to do so are not arguments against their positions, but admissions that those positions represent majorities that cannot be refused a place at the law-making table.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.