Steve Chapman
One day, in a sardonic jibe at some conservative who was piously claiming the mantle of heaven, I told my wife, "Don't forget, God's a Republican." Without missing a beat, she replied, "But his son's a Democrat."

Between the Old Testament Jehovah and the New Testament Jesus, a Christian can find support for almost any ideological perspective. American religion used to have room for many different political views, and American politics used to feature religious people across the entire ideological spectrum.

At one time, mainstream denominations were just as likely to tilt to the left as to the right. Back during the 1960s, as a teenage Christian conservative, I was continually annoyed by antiwar ministers and priests who admired Che Guevara.

At the height of the Cold War, U.S. Catholic bishops called for nuclear disarmament. In 1983, I went to a Lutheran service expecting a sermon commemorating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther.

Instead, I heard a denunciation of President Ronald Reagan's policy in El Salvador.

Experiences like that drove me from church to church in search of a nonpolitical version of Protestantism. They eventually also helped drive me from religion entirely. Today, something similar is happening, but the push is coming from the right, not the left.

It may have started in 1979, when Southern Baptist minister Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority to mobilize evangelicals behind conservative political causes. Reagan and other Republican leaders were more than happy to make use of religious sentiments to attract votes.

It looked like a perfect match: Evangelicals gained political influence, and the GOP acquired a loyal bloc of supporters.

But today, it looks increasingly like a bad bargain that dramatizes the risks of interweaving politics and religion. As these believers became more vocal and visible in the Republican Party, they sent an unmistakable message: If you're not a conservative, you're not a Christian.

So a lot of people who are not conservative but once would have gone to worship services have decided they don't belong. They see the GOP claiming to represent the will of God and run the other way.

_"Each year, fewer and fewer Americans identify as secular Republicans or religious Democrats," write political scientists David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. "Formerly religious Democrats (except among African Americans) have drifted away from church, and formerly unobservant Republicans have found religion."

That may sound like a reasonable trade for conservative Christians. Who needs skeptics and scoffers anyway? But it has some side effects they may come to regret.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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