This is not a column about who should be on the U. S. Supreme Court. It is about how various religious groups in pluralist America, this time particularly the agents of the Christian Right, conceive their contributions and hoped-for payoffs. It is occasioned by the stream of reports in print and voicings on talk radio from enraged members of this Right, who feel betrayed because they did not all get a candidate who would declare him- or herself on controversial Court issues.
David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times quoted a friendly expert, Professor David Green, who said of Christian conservatives that "they kind of expect to be betrayed. They see themselves as an embattled minority. They feel the culture is moving in the wrong direction ... they half expect to lose" ("The Crisis of the Bush Code," October 9). Marvin Olasky, editor of an evangelical magazine, says that "a whole lot of evangelical conservatives were eager for a rumble, to really fight it out with the devilish Dems," and now instead they have to fight each other about strategies and their place and fate.
The perception that Christian conservatives are an "embattled minority" will strike many as strange. In contrast to all other religious minorities, they "have" the Senate and the House, the White House and many agencies of foreign policy, and want to have -- and almost do have -- the Supreme Court. Can Catholics, mainline Protestants, African-American Protestants, Jews, Mormons, or any others match them for influence? We may be seeing in their frustration the education of this largest, most potent "minority" as it comes to understand the limits of its still very, very strong influence.
A history lesson: Catholics got "their" president in 1960, but got little out of it. Their bishops issue forthright statements on nuclear arms, the economy, and capital punishment, and get zero response. And they haven't gotten to "run the show" under the national political tent. African Americans and other racial minorities won much in the Civil Rights movement, 1954-1965, but the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon B. Johnson most of the time moved grudgingly and trudgingly; African Americans did not get to run the show. Jews, through lobbies, have tremendous influence in foreign policy respecting Israel, but not on any other parts of their programs. They don't get to run the show. Mainline Protestants might have run the show in an earlier century -- but even while, in their mid-twentieth-century prime of activism, they may have contributed to change, they were easily overlooked and bypassed in the halls of power, and were not able to run the show.
"Running the show" is a way of saying that a religious group seeks to call the tunes, hold the vetoes, overwhelm other religious groups (and "secular" forces), and have their religious motifs privileged in public places, etc. In the nineteenth century there was an earlier "Christian Party in Politics," but it, too, was frustrated. James Madison pretty well described an America in which no interest, faction, or sect would get to run the show (see References, below). If a group reached too far, others would thwart it.
Lord Acton's cliché about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely still has relevance. Though "others" have not organized against the "embattled minority," pluralism itself may act as a check.
James Madison, Federalist Paper X: "A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy [meaning the federal republic]; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source"; Federalist Paper LI: "In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 17, 2005.]
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.