Editor's note: This interview with George McGovern was conducted by Cal Thomas for his 1999 book "Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America."
THOMAS: There is a lot of evidence of moral decline in America. What do you think is the chief cause of it?
SEN. MCGOVERN: I think there's deterioration in some areas in terms of the moral tone of our society, but not across the board. I think you can make a pretty strong case that we've made progress in the United States in some areas. Even the bare-bones crime statistics have improved. In most cities there is less murder and less aggravated assault than there was 10 years ago. We have even made some progress in reducing the incidence of hard drugs in our culture. We've made some progress in the way we treat other human beings -- civil rights comes to mind. Even people that we used to brand as "q----s" we treat with a greater measure of Christian and religious tolerance than we used to.
I think the status of women has been elevated somewhat in recent years, but on the other side of that we are freer and sometimes less disciplined regarding sexual responsibility -- easier relationships, promiscuity, and undisciplined sex. We see even on the great campuses of this country the phenomenon of weekend binge drinking. It was there when I was in college, too -- 55 or 60 years ago -- but not to the extent it is today.
So I would say it's too simple to say that we're living in a society in moral decline. We're living in a society that in some cases exercised the influence of progressive politics and progressive religion to make certain changes that I think have been pretty good. But we paid a price for that with less discipline over the more orthodox standards of morality.
THOMAS: You note that sexual morality has been lost and there is less commitment to marriage and easy divorce.
SEN. MCGOVERN: Those things concern me, and they do represent a decline in my opinion.
THOMAS: How do we "get that back"?
SEN. MCGOVERN: I think it's a long, slow process that societies have been grappling with, with inconsistent results from the beginning. It all started in my religious tradition with the Garden of Eden, the fact that even at the beginning people couldn't maintain certain God-given standards. And we can't transform the moral behavior of any society by doing it through edicts from the top; it has to be a slow progression of moral and spiritual improvement across the society. That's why, for example, I think the concept of what we used to call the Moral Majority comes at it the wrong way. The Moral Majority assumed that the kingdom of God is a Moral Majority. That's neither scripturally nor politically sound.
The Bible and other great religious scriptures talk about a "saving remnant." They don't talk about a Moral Majority; they talk about that remnant working within society to bring about the kingdom of God. It is made up of a small number of believers and faithful practitioners of good. They've probably never been a majority. God knows whether we'll see it in our lifetime. We certainly didn't see it in the 20th century, which is one of the most violent and turbulent and bloody god-awful centuries in human history. One thinks of the Holocaust as perhaps the most extreme example of that, but it's been a hundred years of slaughter and violence and discrimination and a long battle even to establish minimum rights for children in the workplace and elsewhere.
My own view is that we work toward the kingdom of God, not necessarily by trying to capture control of Congress through a certain political agenda -- although I have participated in those efforts and will probably continue to do so. But it's unlikely that you're going to achieve it by capturing the Congress or capturing a moral majority or capturing those on the left or the right who think that they have a special formula that's going to transform society. You do it by struggling with people who may have differing views than you. You do it through political action, through the church and other organized religious efforts, through education, and perhaps most of all, through the family and the effort to rear your children according to certain basic moral and spiritual precepts. But this is a long, slow, uncertain process.
THOMAS: Prior to the emergence of the so-called religious right, there were many years of liberal religious activism in this country, some of it quite good -- such as civil rights, which you've already brought up. But as we look at some of the mistakes the religious right has made in trying to impose a righteousness from the top down, what, if any, shortcomings do you see that the religious left made -- not only in that period preceding 1979, but subsequently?
SEN. MCGOVERN: One mistake the liberal left made about political activism is assuming they should have a monopoly on it. Some of the great movements of religious and political activism over the 19th century took place around the issue of slavery, which split the churches down the middle, including my own Methodist denomination. That was not so much a case of liberals verses conservatives; they broke on moral grounds, but they also took political action to achieve their end.
Then came the great surge around prohibition after World War I, which, again, wasn't so much a liberal-versus-conservative issue as it was one fought out on moral grounds -- but they used political means to achieve it.
Then came the great struggle over civil rights, in which the churches were certainly the spawning ground of the movement, especially the black churches, but also the liberal white churches. Martin Luther King appealed to the white conscience as well as the liberal conscience. Then the great anti-war movement, which was identified sometimes with my role in politics in the '60s and '70s. I think all those movements had a strong religious, spiritual basis to them. I would have supported all of them -- and did support all of them except the ones that preceded me, slavery and prohibition.
But liberals were too defensive and too antagonistic -- and paradoxically, so, too, I think are the religious right, the fundamentalists (of which my father was one), when they take up political activism. I don't think anybody ever heard me say, as a liberal, that the religious right didn't have a right to speak. The religious left also had a right to oppose them. I always quickly added that, but certainly people on the religious right had every right to speak out and to use political means to achieve their goals unless it was in open violation to some tax considerations. I think that was the biggest mistake that we liberals made: relentlessly and unfairly criticizing the religious right when they became politically active.
THOMAS: Should ministers be involved in politics?
SEN. MCGOVERN: I think they should stay away from direct partisan endorsement. I don't think a minister of the gospel should proclaim from the pulpit that we need a Democratic or Republican victory, or that we need to defeat Jesse Helms or elect George McGovern. I think that's going too far. But I think that clergymen, on the left and the right, are perfectly within their rights in interpreting what they regard to be the great moral challenges within our society and to speak to those challenges. Where ministers get into trouble, I think, is when they beat the drums for a particular party or a particular candidate. The Judeo-Christian ethic transcends both political parties and all candidates, and I think that that's where the line ought to be drawn.
THOMAS: Let me pursue that point, because James Dobson is now complaining that the Republican leadership in Congress either is not doing what it promised it would in order to get their votes, or is abandoning the principles it claims to uphold. Even though he's not ordained -- he's a psychologist -- he still speaks for a lot of conservative, religious people on the radio and in his publications. Is that what you mean by a too-close association?
SEN. MCGOVERN: Maybe, because I don't think the agenda for America came out of the Ten Commandments or the New Testament. I think it's a mistake when one asserts that Newt Gingrich is disobeying his moral obligations when he doesn't fight for every last provision in that 10-point agenda of his. First of all, Newt knows as the speaker of the House (since resigned) that, while it's one thing to stand up on a political podium and lay out a program, it's quite another thing to figure out the mix of compromises and adjustments that will get even part of that approved. He may lose all of it if he isn't willing to make some kind of concessions to people who disagree with all of it -- but he might be willing to compromise on certain aspects of it. For example, he got the line-item veto, he got the balanced budget, he got the reform of the welfare system as it used to be. He's achieved certain things. He's maintained a fairly strong posture on national defense. Those are achievements within the framework of the Contract with America. But some of the other things that he's pressed for, he's found it's unrealistic to demand right now.
THOMAS: If you were advising young people who love God and want to serve Him and want their lives to count for something, what would you say to them?
SEN. MCGOVERN: I would try to convince them, first of all, that politics can be a noble calling, worthy of their participation. Whether they approach it from my perspective or from Jerry Falwell's is important -- that's an important decision. Politics doesn't have to be a seamy, rotten game. I would try to convince them that, next to loyalty to their church or their spiritual principles and their family, a consistent participation in government and politics is a very high responsibility, and one they should take seriously. They should vote after they're well informed, they should take that vote seriously, they should take the discussion of public issues seriously, and they should, if they're so inclined, talk to members of Congress and talk to the press about their views.
Those actions are worthy of the most devout Christian -- to participate actively in politics. That would be the first thing I'd tell people. I would say that I don't agree with Jerry Falwell on a number of things, but he has the right, as he has demonstrated, to participate in politics.
THOMAS: Has Jerry done some good things in terms of reawakening a lot of the fundamentalist community to their civic responsibility? Before this, they didn't vote at all. Politics was dirty.
SEN. MCGOVERN: He definitely has done so -- so has Pat Robertson, so have others. Now, Billy Graham hasn't gone in too much for political action, but he shows up at inaugurals and shows up at receptions for senators and congressmen. He's on good terms with political leaders of both parties. He sets an example, not of a religious leader who is necessarily trying to advance the program of the Moral Majority, or Newt Gingrich's 10 points, but an example that it's OK to be a friend of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and George McGovern, I think that's good. And in his own way, while I think he sometimes carried it to excess, Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority have sent the message that it's OK to be a Christian and be active in politics.
I would also have a second message: It's OK to be a liberal. A good Christian can be a liberal. And it's OK to be a conservative, and I can make a case for that -- perfectly respectable to be a Christian and be a conservative or a liberal. I can make the case either way.
THOMAS: But what do you do, then, when you get into matters of right and wrong? I mean, if you say it's OK to be a liberal --
SEN. MCGOVERN: Then you battle it out. It's the competition of ideas and the creative tension that moves our democratic society. That's what makes it move. It's the fact that there's always that creative tension between the liberals here and the conservatives there, between the modernists here and the fundamentalists there, that I think makes all of them better.
THOMAS: Good answer. You wouldn't suggest that -- I was tempted to get back to the debate mode we used to do, but we're doing a book, not a debate. But you wouldn't suggest that there are not some things that are not always right and other things that are not always wrong.
SEN. MCGOVERN: No, I would not. I don't believe in that kind of moral nihilism. I think that some things are right or wrong. It's always wrong to discriminate against human beings because they're women or because they're brown or yellow or black. That's always wrong. It's always wrong to steal from the public treasury. It's wrong to steal from the private treasury, too, although it's even worse from the public treasury since we're all involved in that.
I think it's always wrong to go to war and kill people unless all other efforts have failed and the wrongdoing of the people you go after, or the ones who attack you, is so clear that you have no alternative. But we never ought to commit a young life to the battlefield unless we are sure that that's the only reasonable course. If you can achieve the same thing by diplomacy -- what people sometimes call appeasement -- then go ahead and do it. If you can avoid the killing of human life, it's worth some humility and some risk on the diplomatic front.
It's always wrong, in my opinion, to exploit somebody else's labor unfairly, to make people work for wages that are an insult to human dignity, or to make them work under conditions that are unnecessarily dangerous. It's going to be dangerous sometimes to fly an airplane, but you at least can require the airplane be inspected -- that's the kind of thing I mean. It's always wrong to sell polluted food if you can prevent it. That's government with a moral tone. I would say this just as a general rule: Politics without some kind of a moral underpinning can be a very destructive and negative enterprise.
THOMAS: Can the religious right as we've known it succeed with their agenda by changing tactics?
SEN. MCGOVERN: I hope not, because I think they're wrong substantively. But I do think tactics are tremendously important. I must say that in the early stages of my career I tended probably to ignore them too much and to just assume that if I bought five minutes' time on television and sat down and talked reasonably about my views on agriculture or education or foreign policy, that was all there is to it. I later learned that that's not enough. You can be cut to pieces on television by cleverly devised negative advertising from the other side. It has to be answered. You can't assume that people are going to watch a blizzard of negative ads on television, adequately funded and kept up on a sustained basis, and still arrive at a victory at the end of the campaign.
I think I underestimated that in my presidential race. We had almost no negative advertising at all, and we didn't answer negative advertising. We took what I now think is a somewhat naive assumption that the attacks on me would bounce off, that no one would really believe I was weak on national defense, that no one would really believe I wanted to put everybody on welfare or that I wanted to turn my back on threats to America from communism. I now realize that a lot of people believed that then and believe it now because of the probably $300-million-dollar campaign that was directed largely at negative advertising.
So what I'm saying is that tactics count. President Clinton understands that -- he understands tactics. He may sometimes compromise conviction on a major issue, but he understands tactics so well that even in the face of an enormous opposition to him, he was re-elected easier than he was elected the first time. I think he stands higher today than ever in that regard, and it's partly because of tactics.
THOMAS: Do you have to be dirty to do good?
SEN. MCGOVERN: I don't think so, but I think you have to be shrewd and aggressive and opportunistic to achieve a victory at the polls today. Big money is a factor more so today than it ever has been in politics. It's very difficult to get into office today just on good will and candor and common sense, because information can be so easily distorted.
You have to have the resources and the money and the "smarts" to see where you are vulnerable to those attacks.
THOMAS: One of the slanders against you in the '70s was that because you were a liberal you must be godless. Just tell me straight up what you believe about God, about Christ, about eternal life, about salvation.
SEN. MCGOVERN: Well, I'm primarily a believer in what is called "the social gospel." But don't forget that that includes the word "gospel" as well as "social" I believe in the teachings of Christ that the central commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors. The second is likened to it: love our neighbors as we love ourselves. At a later point Jesus said, "How can you love God, whom you have not seen, if you can't love your fellow (humans), whom you have seen?" I take that as an invitation to make sure that we love our fellow human beings first and foremost. I think that may help lead us to an understanding of God.
My father would say that you first have to have what he would have called instantaneous salvation, instantaneous commitment -- being saved and then later being sanctified. That was his route. I took a different route -- one that I think is consistent with the New Testament and the Old Testament prophets. That is, putting the emphasis on justice and decency and love and kindness toward our fellow humans, always keeping in mind that we believe that each human being is a dignified, precious person who's worthy of that kind of respect and concern. The underlying assumption there is that we must have been created by some spiritual force across this universe that's worth preserving and worth protecting, worth admiring and worth loving.
I think probably we all have a different view of God. Some people have in their minds an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne. That was my view in childhood; I thought he was a male, obviously, and something like my grandfather -- sitting on a throne somewhere way up in the heavens, and someday we would see him -- but always watching us. That made me a little nervous, but I thought that if you were lucky, you could communicate with him through prayer and in other ways. I heard an awful lot more people say "God" than I heard say "help us God," but in any event, I've always had an unfinished view of what God is -- whether God is a "he," whether God is a personal being, whether God is a spiritual force that goes beyond personal characteristics.
I know about theology, but I keep room in my spiritual and theological and religious philosophy for a broad interpretation of God. I think the central commandment is to love each other as we love ourselves.
THOMAS: Now, it sounds as if you've elevated the second commandment to the first. Jesus said you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.
SEN. MCGOVERN: I suppose I've taken the excuse that Jesus is saying you can't love God, whom you haven't seen, if you don't love your neighbors, whom you have seen. A person confronted him late in life and thought he had screwed up everything and didn't serve God very well, and Jesus said to him, "No, inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you've done it unto me." You may not have known it, but when you fed the hungry, cared for the sick, ministered to the homeless and those in prison, you were actually serving me. I take that on a leap of faith to mean that if I live a life that's humane and loving, with concern for other people, maybe if there is a judgment out there someday, I can stand up and say, "Well, God, I wasn't quite sure what you were like, or how best to communicate with you, but I've tried to be a decent human being, I've tried to be honest and loving and compassionate to my fellow humans, and sometimes I have been, and so I stand here with that as my only recommendation."
THOMAS: You have just described salvation by works, yet Scripture says that salvation comes not by works, because man's righteousness before God is as "filthy rags" and we are saved only by grace through faith and not by works, "lest any man should boast." You are correct that there is a social application to the gospel, but it comes as a result of faith and, by itself, does not qualify one for heaven. So let me ask you a bottom-line question. The apostle Paul said that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we will be saved. Your father would want me to ask you, George, whether you can make that confession?
SEN. MCGOVERN: Yes, I can. I believe that.