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Requiem for the Religious Right

By Deacon Keith Fournier
c) Third Millennium, LLC

The Religious Right is over... it is time to learn from mistakes and build a new movement

Rest in Peace

A requiem is a hymn, composition, or service for the dead. It is a way of honoring those who have passed on. I have chosen the word carefully. I do not want to insult any of the fine Christian people who have identified with the movement called the "religious right." However, it is time to be the like the little boy in the old fable, "The Emperor has No Clothes". It is time to state the obvious, the religious right, whatever is left of it, has failed.

Its impact on politics and policy is negligible. The mobilizing issues of the movement, for example, securing in law a recognition of the inalienable right to life for every human person including persons in the womb, have made no discernible political progress. Abortion, which is always and in every instance, intrinsically evil, the immoral taking of innocent helpless human life, is still legal in all fifty States. At least as of the writing of this article, even the most obviously barbarous practice, so called "partial birth" abortion, is still legal.

I remember the movement in its prime. I often found myself invited to speak at some of its events, a Catholic in a predominantly evangelical protestant crowd. I had some favorite lines. "I'm just a guy from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Pro-life, Pro-family Irish, French Catholic from a blue collar, Democrat family", I said. "Seems I woke up one day being called a "conservative" because I believe in the right to life at every age and stage... well, I am neither liberal nor conservative... maybe I am a "conservital", sounds more like a laxative...that is just what contemporary politics needs".

I had another one I would throw out, particularly in crowds that fancied themselves to be really "conservative". I would say "last thing I ever fancied myself, a former hippie who in the search for truth rediscovered my Catholic Christian faith, was a conservative. Even more odd to me... I am being called "religious right". Well, I am religious and on the issue of the dignity of every human life from conception to natural death, I know I am right!"

I would also, as a former Democrat (and now a reluctant Republican), make a point of saying that I did not leave the Democratic party, it left me and millions like me when it failed to hear the cry of the poorest of the poor, our neighbors in the first home of their mothers womb.

These kinds of comments were crowd pleasers, but they were more. They helped me to speak in these settings because I was uncomfortable. I, and many Catholics like me, never felt at home in that movement. As a Catholic Christian I know that you simply cannot "fit" faithful Catholics (and I would argue this should be true of faithful Christians of any confession or communion) in the contemporary political categories of "left" or "right", "liberal" or "conservative." Nor should either major party ever have a "lock" on our support.

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The Make Up and Methods of the Movement

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Far too many efforts calling Christians to political participation have ended up being co-opted by partisanship. Unfortunately, the religious right is no exception.

Let's face it, much of the "religious right" movement ended up becoming a politically conservative, republican and was mostly an evangelical Protestant movement. Though it claimed to include both Catholic Christians and evangelical Protestant Christians, most Catholic Christians never joined; and even those who worked with the movement on pro-life and pro-family issues did not fit in with the culture or model of the religious right movement.

Though faithful Catholics and Protestants certainly shared what has been called the "socially conservative" agenda, the 'religious right" movement was built upon --and thrived within --a "persecuted minority" model of activism. Some of the movements' efforts were premised upon an "anti-" approach to effecting social, political and judicial change. The emphasis was placed on opposing the current problems and less on proposing alternatives and solutions. The movement spoke more of what was wrong with the culture and failed to articulate a better way. It focused on criticizing what was unjust and wrong and little on offering a compelling vision for a truly just social order.

One of the most negative effects of the movement has been that the very term, "religious right". It has become a label now used as a verbal weapon against all faithful, orthodox Christians who, compelled by their faith and their sincere understanding of their baptismal obligations to be faithful citizens- seek to influence the social order.

The term "religious right" is now routinely used to marginalize and denigrate well intended Christians who engage in any form of political activism that does not fit a socially "liberal" agenda. That practice, using a disparaging term to demonize people of faith, continues to this day even though the religious right movement has waned in both influence and numbers.

Some of the voices identified with the movement were politically "conservative" and ended up verbally wrapping Christian language around their polemics and their politics. Unfortunately some leaders of the groups put biblical proof texts on their own political ideas. They failed to develop a hierarchy of values within which to posit which of their political positions were actually "Christian" (a position compelled by the Christian faith -like the right to life) and which ones were discretionary or fell within the large area of political concerns that are really left to the exercise of prudential judgment.

Whether any of this was intentional, I cannot say, it may be due to a lack of a cohesive social teaching in the particular Christian tradition of training of the individuals involved. However, the sad effect was that much of the rhetoric made it sound as though all of their conservative ideas were somehow "Christian". In so doing, they did not respect the exercise of prudential judgment that lies at the heart of both human freedom and the call to mature efforts of political participation by Christians.

I remember one day when I took exception to a conservative icons' claim that the Second Amendment (protecting the right to bear arms) secured what he called the "first freedom". I insisted that the first freedom was not owning a gun but rather religious freedom and that the first right was the right to life. Based upon the reaction of one leader of the religious right, you would have thought I had blasphemed, He apparently felt that the right to own a gun was on the same level as the right to life. I further upset him when I said that good Christians could come down on either side of the gun issue, but never on the dignity of every human life from conception to natural death.

I also found it troubling that some of the materials from these groups lumped "pro-life" and "pro-gun" together in their evaluation of political candidates. That still happens. No matter how one feels about owning guns, I cannot find any basis in the Christian tradition for holding that faithful Christians must take a certain position one way or another on that issue. There are numerous other examples. In some of these groups, opposing "campaign finance reform" or opposing "more taxes" are seemingly "Christian" issues. They are not. In fact, good Christians can be on either side of them as well.

This failure to develop a hierarchy of values and respect freedom and prudential judgment was only one of the root errors that weakened the religious rights impact and longevity. Worse was a failure to articulate principles of engagement as to why Christians needed to be politically involved.

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Flawed Principles of Engagement

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The "principles of engagement" that often motivated the religious right in its social and political action were limited at best. Perhaps it was because some of the efforts associated with that movement were built upon on a model of engagement with the "world" that was hostile; this is itself at odds with many Christians and a classical Christian worldview.

In some instances, these groups adopted a model of cultural participation that was actually antithetical to a Christian worldview and founded instead upon a notion of freedom that was infected with the autonomous individualism of the age. For example, in what is left of some of these groups you can actually find people who are Christians touting the political lines of the libertarian movement. Yet, the Christian faith asserts that we are not fully human, not fully the "Imago Dei", in isolation. We were made for family and made for community. We only find our fulfillment in giving ourselves to the other. Authentic freedom is not about the isolated autonomous individual being able to do whatever he/she pleases, but rather about our relationships, with God and with one another and the obligations we have in solidarity.

Many good people in what is left of the movement are now discouraged and looking for direction. They did not start out to become "conservative" or "right wing" (or worse "libertarian") when they entered the world of social and political participation, they started out trying to be faithful to the Lord! Some now have begun to feel, as I did long ago, that they "woke up one morning" being called a 'conservative" or "accused" as members of a "religious right." They are seeking another model of Christian action.

Let me clarify at this point that Christians who take the classical teaching of the Christian faith seriously are even less at home in what is left of the "left" in America. That is, of course, if they understand what the Christian Church teaches - and has taught for two thousand years - and actually believe it- and not what some "agenda-izer" on the contemporary political "left" tries to tell us that the Christian Church should teach.

The contemporary American "left" or "liberal" movement has also left faithful Christians behind, even on issues that once attracted some of us, like economic justice. When the left ceased speaking of a "living" or "family" wage, or proudly defended the unborn, the elderly, the impoverished and both the un and the under employed and catered more to the elites in the current Hollywood establishment along with the crowd who define "choice" as unimpeded abortion on demand, they left most thinking, self aware, faithful Christians out of their tent.

The bizarre eclectic collection of contemporary "liberals" has co-opted a once decent label. They now also populate and control much of the Democratic Party. Ironically, in their embrace of license as liberty, they are meeting the libertarians in the other party. A party that once built its influence among many socially concerned American Christians on a commitment to the "poor", now champions as a "right" the killing of children in the first home of their mothers womb. It simply is NEVER compassionate to fail to hear the cry of the poorest of the poor, those who have no voice of their own.

Christians need to rediscover that we are not first Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals - we are first, last and always Christians. Christian is the Noun. Because we are Christians we carry on the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ as His body on earth. That mission has a social dimension. We need a new--actually quite old--model for a new Christian action, one that will not lead to compromise, despair or being co-opted by any political party or agenda.

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Four Pillars or Principles of Engagement and Participation

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Informed, faithful and engaged Christian citizens need to rediscover the connection between the "social teaching" of classical Christian thought (which is true for all persons and not just those "who believe") and their own call, as individuals and communities, to faithful political participation.

I have proposed that we come together around what I have called four pillars of political and social participation; the dignity of life, the primacy of family, authentic human freedom and solidarity with the poor. These pillars of participation can form a firm foundation for our social and political action.

Some of the past approaches to political participation, both on the "right" and on the "left", were "outside in" rather than "inside out" in their approach. For example, even some Catholic Christians who got involved with the religious right ended up trying to dress up conservative political positions with the social teachings of the Catholic Church. It was a mistaken effort, even if well intended. It sometimes ended up confusing both those who listened and those who tried to make it work. Catholic faith and identity is not a coat that you put on. Our identity as Catholic Christians forms the very core of our identity and it must inform all of our participation in the social arena, including politics.

Similarly, in the last decade, some evangelical Protestant Christians tried to "christianize" the politically conservative agenda. This was not unlike what other Christians had done with certain ideas associated with the "left", a generation earlier. In either case, whether it is the old "religious left" or the fading "religious right", both worked off of limited principles of engagement, poor theology and a lack of an understanding of the unique social mission of the Christian Church. They used political ideology to explain and motivate social and political action from Christians.

In some instances, a limited or lacking theological and philosophical foundation gave little basis for leaving the safety of religious subcultures and even engaging the culture at all. Those who held this model of the Christians relationship with the world often proceeded from a notion of the "world" as so corrupted that it was to be abandoned or, at most, protected against. Perhaps it is the deep effect of this kind of limited understanding of the Christians relationship with the world that is part of the reason the religious right is dying.

The concept of "defending our rights" was a motivation for social, legal and political action that permeated some of the largest efforts of certain politically conservative, evangelical Protestant Christians in both political and legal activism. Unfortunately, though these efforts accomplished (and continue to accomplish) some good, this principle of engagement misses a deeper truth, one that lies at the heart of the Christian vocation and mission - Christians are called to give our rights away if it means bringing others to the Lord whom we serve.

Then there was the call to secure a "place at the table" that operated (and still operates) as a mobilizing principle for some grass roots political efforts led by politically conservative mostly evangelical Protestant Christians in the last decade. This is still the prevailing model of political action that mobilized many Christians associated with the "religious right."

Many involved in beginning or leading the movement came from a conservative evangelical community that had been almost "apolitical" in its cultural approach. By moving into this kind of cultural engagement model, they too often made a worse mistake then what they opposed. They initially arose out of their apolitical complacency to "protect themselves" - that may be understandable as a starting place given their "worldview"... perhaps. However, it was -as a principle of cultural engagement - limited and consequently very ineffective. Christians are always more than another interest group in any society. We are a redemptive community.

Many Christians, across the confessional spectrum, have now come to see the limiting value of these models of political and social action and are now searching for a deeper response to the cultural mission, political, legal and social task, one that is first, last and always, subordinated to their Christian vocation to carry on the redemptive mission of the Lord whom they follow. We need to learn from our past in order to build a better future.

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Called to be the "Soul of the World"

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Christians are never simply one more "interest group" in America or in any other nation. We are called, in the words of an ancient second century Christian manuscript entitled "A Letter to Diognetus", to become the "soul of the world." Or, to use the Biblical imagery, we are to become "leaven" and "salt", transforming the "loaf" of the culture from within in whatever country they live in.

Examining the words of that first century writing, written to a pagan inquirer to the Christian faith, is helpful. They are as extraordinarily relevant in the first century of the Third Christian millennium as they were in the first century of the First Millennium:

"For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life.

Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.

They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.

They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.

Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.

They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor.

They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect Doing good they are punished as evildoers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. The Jews wage war against them as aliens, and the Greeks carry on persecution against them, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.

In a word, what the soul is in a body, the Christians are in the world.

The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through the diverse cities of the world. The soul hath its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world.

The soul, which is invisible, is guarded in the body, which is visible: so Christians are recognized as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible.

The flesh hates the soul and wages war with it, though it receives no wrong, because it is forbidden to indulge in pleasures; so the world hates Christians, though it receives no wrong from them, because they set themselves against its pleasures.

The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and the members: so Christians love those that hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, and yet itself holds the body together; so Christians are kept in the world as in a prison-house, and yet they themselves hold the world together.

The soul though itself immortal dwells in a mortal tabernacle- so Christians sojourn amidst perishable things, while they look for the imperishability which is in the heavens.

The soul when hardly treated in the matter of meats and drinks is improved; and so Christians when punished increase more and more daily. So great is the office for which God has appointed them, and which it is not lawful for them to decline."

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"Go into all the world"

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Christians still "go into all the world" (John 3:16), because the Lord still goes into the world through us. The Christian mission to the world has social implications because the Incarnation, life, death, Resurrection, Ascension and coming return of the Lord Jesus Christ, has social implications and obligations. As the Lord told His early followers, the "fields are ripe for harvest". In our day, those fields must include the fields of economics, culture, and even politics!

Christians are called to carry on the redemptive work of the Lord by humanizing, transforming and elevating all of human society. The first obligation is to give to all men and women the "Gospel" (good news) of Jesus Christ and lead them to a relationship with God in and through Him. Christians will always have that as our first and primary mission.

However, we are also called to demonstrate the compassion and love of the God whom we serve and represent. This is done by also proclaiming the gospel through our lives and service to the broader human community. A great Christian, Francis of Assisi once said: "I preach the gospel at all times and sometimes I use words" The two are to become one in all of our lives.

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The Common Good

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The primary purpose for the evangelization of culture and the social mission and effort is not to "protect" Christians against the "world" or even to "advance" the "power" of Christians within human society, but rather to promote the common good.

Perhaps one of the oldest references in the Christian tradition to this concept is found in the "Epistle of Barnabus", an early Christian Church document dating back to 130 A.D.

"Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together"

The living of this concept requires the embrace of a vital Christian social "hermeneutic", a lens through which Christians are to view the very meaning of human existence and all of their efforts in human society. Christians should, if they understand the Christian faith, know that we were made for family, for community, and for social participation. We are invited to give ourselves away in service. This service of the common good should be the mobilizing principle of a new alliance.

Though it is derived from Christian social teaching, this concept of "the Common Good" is also one of the foundation stones of the political philosophy and patrimony of Western civilization. Lying at the foundation of our understanding of the nature of freedom, both personally and as a nation, is an understanding of an idea that helped forge the very existence of the American experiment, this concept called the "Common Good"

Contrary to the individualism and atomism of the age, the individual is not the measure of all things. Freedom is not found in solitude. Nor is it found in retreating into our little enclaves and fighting to protect "us" against them. This entire approach, no matter what the political label or feigned justification, is a recipe for division and despair. This is especially true when such an approach is followed by Christians- who of all people should follow in the footsteps of the one who gave Himself up for all!

Christian anthropology (the understanding of the nature of human person) introduced the very concept of "person" to our civilized discourse. It is classical Christian thought that insists that we cannot be fully human without living together in family and community. We are social by nature and design.

We are also bound to one another by an obligation of solidarity (we simply are our "brother's keeper") and we have a duty to one another, and most especially to the poor. We have a duty to participate in the social order and find a way to build a just society with all men and women, even those who are different then us or with whom we do not agree.

To not only understand all this but to live it and help foster an authentically just and human society wherein others can live freely-- is what it means to promote the "Common Good."

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Conclusion

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Our nation, indeed the whole world, is desperately in need of an authentically Christian social, cultural and political outreach. Past efforts at organizing and engaging Christian citizens have accomplished much, but have also failed to accomplish all that was hoped. I believe that this is partially because they had a faulty foundation.

We need new "works", new movements that understand and embody the classical Christian worldview in their call to social, political, cultural and economic participation. Those who bear the name "Christian" carry on the redemptive mission of the Lord. That is our "apologetic" for authentic social and political action and public service. We are to be "in the world" in order to transform it from within.

We are called to serve the "Common Good".

The values we proclaim- and seek to both live and work into genuinely "good" public policy and discourse- are good for all men and women. They are not simply "religious" in the sense that they are to be held only by those who hold to a distinct religious tradition. They are a part of our common human vocation. They are the glue of a truly just civilization.

These values that many "religious" people hold so dear are actually not really to be held at all-in the sense of clinging. Rather, they are to be given away and worked into the leaven of the whole society so that we may share this bread with every man, woman and child. In that way we can promote the "common good" of all.

These values are founded upon a respect for the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death. They require that a special esteem, protection and honor be given to the first cell of society, the family. They are founded upon a love and respect for authentic freedom, which includes the first freedom, religious freedom. This kind of love for freedom recognizes that freedom isn't free! It was birthed in the sacrifice and the bloodshed of those who have gone before us. It still obligates us to one another in bonds of solidarity. We are our brothers' keeper!

While many ask about the dwindling influence of some efforts that seemed so vibrant only ten years ago, such as the religious right, it is time to look forward, not limited by the labels that have all too often marginalized and trivialized our Christian convictions and muddled our sense of duty to God, Church and country.

It is time to build new alliances for the Common Good; a new public philosophy that re-discovers and re-presents the Common Good as the hinge and the hope of our future freedom and flourishing -- and our path to authentic peace. This philosophy must inform movements committed to true social justice, human rights, authentic human freedom and solidarity.

In an age when many are asking what happened to the "religious right" and what will become of the Christian political and social activism that characterized the efforts of some Christians in the last years of the second millennium, we need to come together dedicated to promoting the common good.

It is time to offer a requiem for the "religious right". A requiem is a hymn, composition, or service for the dead. It is a way of honoring those who have passed on. The religious right is dead. May we honor what was good about its short life and may it rest in peace.

May those Christians who have left the movement, some disillusioned, remember what was good and well intended. And, having learned some hard lessons, find a new home in other new (actually ancient) movements now being built around the rediscovery of the common good.

The continuing redemptive mission of the Lord whom we love and serve compels us still to "go into the entire world"

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Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is the founder and Thomas More Fellow of the Common Good Movement and is a Contributing Editor to Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports. The author of seven books, he recently wrote "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life". He recently concluded his PhD coursework in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.

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