Suzanne Fields

Those who advocate moderation, however unsatisfying moderation can be, are more likely to succeed in getting their views across. Rudy Giuliani seemed to be acting on that notion when he spoke last week to religious conservatives at the Values Voters Summit in Washington. "Christianity is all about inclusiveness," he said, and he quoted Ronald Reagan, the hero hovering over the summit: "My 80 percent friend is not my 100 percent enemy." The former mayor of New York didn't win many votes in the summit straw poll, but he was talking to the larger audience that will determine the winner next year.

Ironically, the politics of the New Left of the 1960s crusaded for "values voters" before the conservatives did. But they failed to build a winning consensus and Richard Nixon won the election. The New Left lost its appetite for values voters when it turned out that they had the wrong values. The right succeeded in organizing the grassroots, creating a broad conservative movement of civic engagement that liberals satirized with the bumper sticker, "Nuke the gay whales for Jesus."

"One of the great political ironies of the past few decades is that the Christian Right has been much more successful than its political rivals at fulfilling liberal thinkers' hopes for American democracy," writes Prof. Shields.

But the future of the religious right is less clear. The presidential contenders asking for their votes are more mixed in their appeal than George W. Bush was seven years ago. It's harder now to excite passion with reason when the arguments aren't 100 percent ideologically pure. But Americans remain a practical people, and nobody likes a losing strategy for long, no matter how dear the single issue.

The separation of church and state remains the great triumph of our democracy, enabling lively and often contentious argument that leads to workable, if not always wholly satisfying, compromise. The tensions between enlightenment and evangelism have been with us throughout our history, a struggle between reason and emotion. It's a tension that at its best provokes informed debate on moral and intellectual issues. To paraphrase Pogo, the philosopher of the comics pages, "We have seen the values voter, and he is us."


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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