Suzanne Fields

The conventional wisdom says the religious right has a monopoly on the "values voters," but that's too simple. We're all values voters. We just define our values differently. In a democracy, politics is the art of capturing the passions of the people, and in the heat of the race, intelligent argument usually drives most of us toward the middle.

"The fact that we cannot escape moral conflicts in politics does not doom American democracy to endless political warfare," writes Jon A. Shields, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, in the Wilson Quarterly. Shields shows how ideologues appeal to the emotions of specific constituencies, but they have to persuade others with reason. "Even the most religiously inspired social movements learn to moderate their appeals in order to win over middle-of-the road citizens."

A slight shift of opinion transforms the red states and the blue states into various shades of purple. Frances Willard, the zealous president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union at the end of the 19th century, understood the importance of reaching out to the opposition. "Be of teachable spirit," she told her followers, "and [be] tolerant of those opinions which differ from ours while we strive to show the reasonableness of ours." An organization called Stand to Reason trains religious activists today to avoid religious language and encourage lively debate on the moral issues of cultural significance.

Religious arguments arm the dedicated ideologue, but a broader argument is necessary to get the less spiritually minded to listen. In the early 20th century there was strong support for sterilization of the psychologically impaired, based on the "science" of eugenics. The Roman Catholic Church naturally crusaded against eugenics, but not by emphasizing religious doctrine. The crusaders brought legal, scientific and moral arguments to bear showing how eugenics contradict our most cherished notions of social justice.

Appeals to compromise or moderation drive the fanatics in any social movement to the sidelines of cultural struggle. Fires destroy everything when zealots get too fired up. It's not hard to find numerous examples. The impatient and irrational flee from appeals to reason to marginalization and then sometimes to violence. The no-compromisers in the civil rights movement begat the Black Panthers, the environmentalists begat eco-terrorists, the New Left begat the Weathermen, pro-lifers begat abortion clinic bombers.

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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