“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
For those unaware of the growing influence of religious lobbies in the nation’s capital. Representing God in Washington should prove informative. It shows that religious lobbies of left and right are many and powerful, well-funded and well-staffed. They have learned the ropes of Washington power politics and are winning battles.
Hertzke believes that the overall impact of the religious lobbies is good, at least if we understand increased reflection of the views of ordinary people in public policy as “good.” Carefully documenting his case, Hertzke argues that Americans’ views on many public policy issues are tightly connected with their religious beliefs. Therefore, to the extent that religious lobbies reflect those beliefs, they reflect the desires and beliefs of a large majority of Americans. And many of the religious lobbies do represent their constituents’ views fairly closely, with the notable exception of lobbies of mainline Protestant churches, which Hertzke demonstrates to be almost invariably far to the left of their constituents. (Even this, it turns out, is not cause for too much concern, for, “The established Protestant denominations do not now appear to warrant the unqualified appellation ‘mainline’; indeed, the center of gravity has shifted,” i.e., the mainline churches now represent only a minority of America’s strongly religious people, so their divergence from their constituents’ views doesn’t count for much.)
Indeed, Hertzke’s study supports the view that fundamentalists and evangelicals are right when they “argue persuasively that, contrary to the notion that they are attempting to ‘impose’ their values on the rest of society, secular values have been imposed, not only on them and their children but on most religious Americans . . . the impact of fundamentalist mobilization in raising concerns about cultural and moral change has been to enhance, not detract from, the genuine pluralism of American political representation.”
Hertzke welcomes religious political activism as healthy for the body politic because it helps ensure that majority and minority viewpoints are heard and introduces religious ethical standards into analysis and formulation of public policy. Yet, like Tocqueville, he warns against too strictly partisan activity for religious groups lest ” . . . they risk being discredited by historical events, and thus may jeopardize their part in the moral socialization of American citizens.” But heeding that warning may be none too easy, for on the issues dearest to the hearts of most religious activists, “The Democratic Party, for the moment, seems institutionally wedded to a posture that symbolically and substantively appears to reject the cultural conservatism of many Catholics, evangelicals, and fundamentalists, as well as many members of the mainline Protestant denominations.” In consequence, many religious activists are forced by default to support Republicans.
Hertzke is aware of the growing tension this causes in the Republican Party. “The electoral efforts of fundamentalist leaders on behalf of conservative Republican candidates and their success in moving the white born-again constituency into the Republican fold have, paradoxically, created tension within the previously staid GOP . . . between the blue blood Republican establishment . . . and the conservative religious populists. . . . In the calculations of fundamentalist leaders the Republican party needs the evangelicals and fundamentalists, and not just their numbers but their fervor and superior grassroots organizations, in order to become the new majority party. . . . Said one leader, off the record: ‘We told them to have candidates embrace the Christian agenda. But the NRCC instead told their candidates to stay away from the Christian Right. Stupid advice. The only chance the Republicans will have is if we take over the party.’ Thus one of the most fascinating consequences of the electoral efforts of Christian fundamentalists, as we see here, is that the Republican party is now experiencing an internal contentiousness historically characteristic of the New Deal Democratic coalition.” This is a phenomenon whose future will be fascinating to watch. If conservative Christian activists become disillusioned with the Republican Party and conclude that it is using them without paying them back by pushing their agenda, might the Democratic Party become the small third party, far to the left, with the Republican Party in the middle and some new Christian conservative party—in substance if not in name—to the right?
One welcome attribute of religious interest groups, according to Hertzke, is that they seem to defy the traditional view of interest groups as exclusively self-serving. For disciples of One who insisted that they follow Him in a life of sacrificial service to others, ultimate self-interest is defined as self-denial. This makes for exceptionally effective workers—one reason why the impact of some religious groups far outweighs their numbers. But self-denial might also explain a phenomenon that Hertzke does not address: the propensity of some religious activists to espouse socialist economic theories and policies, oblivious to their detrimental economic impact. Like their older secular liberal counterparts who have forgotten that it is charity to give one’s own money but theft to give another’s, they have confused voluntary self-denial with imposed deprivation.
Hertzke hints at, but does not explore, a curious inconsistency in the lobbying approaches of the mainline church leaders. They justify their divergence from constituents’ views as “speaking prophetically.” But whose “mouthpiece” (the root sense of “prophet”) do they think they are? Not their lay members’, and their rejection of the inspiration of Scripture rules out claims to being a “mouthpiece” of God. Indeed, they sound more fundamentalist, but without theological underpinnings, than fundamentalist lobbyists themselves, who, Hertzke points out, have learned to speak in terms of classical human rights rather than divine decrees. No wonder one anonymous legislative director said that mainline lobbyists are ” . . . shadows of a religious past, echoes without authority. Secular liberals would agree with everything they stand for, but the nagging question: why are they religious at all? Why bother? Does this policy flow out of a profound, transcendental sense—or as a hasty addition to liberal politics[?]”
Though Hertzke does not reveal clear preference, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and conservatives will find more to celebrate in Representing God in Washington than their counterparts. “The consensus [among experienced Washington lobbyists] seems to be that, while fundamentalist groups have shaped the congressional agenda in certain respects . . . their real power is nascent.” Mainliners’ influence is waning. Repeatedly Hertzke shows that polling data indicate that the American public leans far more toward the positions of evangelicals and fundamentalists on social and economic issues than toward mainliners and liberals.
[Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity, by Allen D. Hertzke (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press) $29.50]