On a recent Sunday, my church bulletin ran this edifying announcement: “Is cutting health, income assistance, nutrition and safety guarantees of millions of children and shredding the national safety net for children the kind of reform we support? Call President Clinton to let him know what you are for. ‘I was hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and you . . . ‘” So Our Lord and the welfare state are on the same side. Funny, I don’t recall Him telling the Roman authorities to extend the grain dole to Judea, or Zacheus to go and collect more taxes to make it possible.

Today, the social democracy gospel is not only the mainstream opinion among the ecclesiastical elites. It is the prevailing orthodoxy of virtually every organized religious body in the United States. This represents a repudiation of history. For example, the Catholic tradition is steeped in the defense of private property, localism, and, with the neo-Scholastics, antisocialist economic thought. But today, American bishops hold press conferences to denounce any cuts in welfare. God, they assure us, opposes the balanced budget, and the press packs the room to take down every word.

The bishops—unaware or indifferent to their use by a secular elite that despises Christianity—love the attention. They also like the fact that political campaigning gives them an excuse not to do what they are supposed to do.

While the bishops are politicking, virtually every parish in the country is sinking deeper into the mire of modernism, with liberal liturgies, rampaging feminism, awful music, and doctrinal confusion and ignorance. Even blasphemy is no longer rare. Yet the far-flung political activities of the leaders only seem to grow, and the problem is not limited to the left. The right is in danger from the same model of political activism, as it neglects the faith itself. In some religious institutions, the leaders understand the priority that the City of God must take over the City of Man. In others, however—and I am thinking now of the Christian Coalition, the established pro-life organizations, and the U.S. Bishops Conference—they do not. For these leaders, the faith has become a means to an essentially secular project, involving heavy doses of political and doctrinal compromise.

Before the Christian right decides to replace the Apostles Creed with the Contract with the American Family, it should consider the associated dangers. Once the social gospel became a tenet of mainline Christianity, the entire body of doctrine began to fall apart, and the consequences were destructive for both Protestants and Catholics. Christians came to believe that their first job was public policy. They looked toward the state and incorporated specific political doctrines into their body of belief.

Consider the entanglement of Christians in civil rights. The primary concern of the founders and funders of the civil rights movement was not faith or justice, but envy and egalitarianism. Yet they knew that their best hope was to cloak hatred and raw state power in religion, and hope that Christians could not tell the difference.

For too many it worked, and Stanley Levison is the reason. As David Garrow reports, Levison was Martin Luther King’s control. He wrote King’s books and speeches and managed his finances, even paying his personal bills (which King could not be trusted to do). Yet Levison was also a communist, a probable agent of the KGB, and a rich benefactor of communist causes. He was also extremely smart.

Religious imagery was the mainstay of Levison’s vocabulary, and he was a master of quoting Scripture to make political points. As a result, many noncommunist followers of King did not know what was behind this apparent man of God.

The social gospel movement, culminating in the civil rights movement, succeeded, of course, causing Christians to incorporate Levisonianism as a key moral teaching. The Catholic bishops—who otherwise have almost junked the sacrament of penance—now tell Catholics to confess the sin of racism, whatever that may be. The Evangelical group Promise Keepers lists love of all races among its six rules for living.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Christian right will talk on television and radio for hours about the destructive effect of welfare, abortion, etc. But they do not seem to understand the corruptions associated with the City of Man, nor the danger of neglecting the core concerns of the faith.

The entry of orthodox Christians into the public square may, for the most part, have been good for the country; but it may not have been good for Christianity. A fine example of the problem is a recent issue of the American Enterprise magazine. It features short profiles and interviews with some 60 different religious conservatives. There are good people here, and perhaps the trouble with the interviews can be blamed on the editors or the forum. Every person had provocative statements to make about public policy or the charitable missions he is undertaking to make up for the failures of the welfare state. But what is strangely underplayed, or lacking entirely, is the faith. There’s virtually no talk of salvation, grace, sacraments, or sin. Moreover, there’s no discussion about the disastrous state of the church today, theologically, liturgically, and musically.

Apparently, things like the salvation of individual souls are concerns for Neanderthals. Moderns, to be in vogue with the media elite, are supposed to be more public-spirited than that. They are first to take positions on the welfare state, vouchers, abortion rights, the death penalty, the balanced budget, the family cap, etc.

But this is a trap. Religious leaders can and should speak on matters of politics, but filling the public square with collared policy wonks is not the reason the church was established. The clergy’s preeminent job is to tend to the private space of the church, where the sacraments are administered and the soul cared for. And it is this space that is being neglected, with disastrous results.

What led to Christian conservatives getting stuck in this trap? Many have Lincoln envy and King envy. Those political figures used religion to advance a social cause, and became national icons in the process. Why can’t the religious right achieve the same status with other social issues? Thus Ralph Reed compares himself to abolitionists or civil rights protesters and thinks he is confounding his critics. In fact, he is only strengthening the social gospel and thereby corrupting the faith.

Political work is necessary, but it can never replace the intellectual and spiritual efforts that sustain a robust faith, a virtuous clergy, a beautiful liturgy, great music, or any of the other markings of the Christian faith of old. And I do not care how many ten-point plans the Christian Coalition passes at its board meetings. They can never substitute for an orthodox view of the Trinity.

Yet Christianity is now thoroughly politicized. The bishops and Mr. Reed have no trouble speaking about the importance of pro-family legislation, or the glories of religious pluralism, but they are shy about such basics as the Christian teaching on salvation.

The longer the process of politicization continues, the thinner the faith gets. Political ambition causes people to water down their beliefs for the sake of gaining favor. The hazard is especially prevalent in a society with competing religions. The first stage of the sellout comes with the exaltation of political pluralism above doctrinal truth, the second stage with the denial of doctrinal truth altogether for achieving political goals.

Richard John Neuhaus provided us with a classic example last year. His magazine First Things printed a long manifesto signed by prominent Protestants and Catholics. In page after page, it chronicled our troubles with family breakup, crime, declining respect for authority, growing permissiveness toward sexual deviance, the public schools, etc. There was truth in much of it. But then there was a surprise ending, and some of the signers claim to have missed it. The signers pledged themselves not to engage in “sheep stealing,” that is, proselytization.

Yet there are real differences between Catholics and Protestants, and they are larger than mere subjective preference. No social crisis should be allowed to drive either side to promise, for example, not to bring up the nature of the Eucharist. If we do put aside essential beliefs to improve, it is said, the social order, where do we draw the line? Should we agree with “socially conservative” Muslims not to discuss the divinity of Christ?

Politicization has had an especially pernicious effect on the Catholic faith. In our times, the problems began with Vatican II. Its documents were highly political, and they precipitated three decades of liturgical and theological disaster. Why didn’t conservatives protest? Some did. But many more did not, on grounds that they wanted to support Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s letter on abortion and birth control. Conservatives hung onto this document for dear life. Eventually, the Catholic right came to focus on the single issue of abortion, and developed an enormous industry to do it.

During the welfare debate, Republicans faced some fierce opposition to the idea of cutting off subsidies to women who have children out of wedlock. Initially, the opposition came from the left. But it was National Right to Life, in conjunction with the bishops, that defeated the idea. The reasoning was that the women might abort their children if they were not paid to have them.

The Family Research Council desperately tried to explain that cutting off subsidies was an essential precursor to changing the lewd culture that governs the inner city. But National Right to Life merely expressed shock that any pro-lifer would disagree on welfare for single mothers. With that, it became clear that the pro-life establishment had joined the forces of socialism.

One wonders how far they will take this. Suppose someone introduced legislation to have the federal government pay $100,000 for every live birth. Would pro-lifers support that too? Thirty years ago, no. They would have understood there were other principles at stake. But today, they are afflicted with such myopia that they would surely say yes.

The Catholic bishops, too, mix their pro-life agenda with leftism, speaking, for example, of their duty to defend the “unborn and the undocumented.” In their recent “statement on Political Responsibility,” the bishops pledged themselves to the “continued defense of human life as the ‘preeminent human rights issue of our day,’ strongly opposing abortion and euthanasia.” They went on to call for a ban on “anti-personnel landmines,” an end to the death penalty, more affirmative action, more government jobs, more environmentalism, more Food Stamps, and more socialized medicine that “respects life.” They also oppose “anti-immigrant sentiment,” “isolationism,” abortion, and handguns.

In his recent address to the United Nations, John Paul II called on the organization to “become a moral center where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being.” But didn’t Christians once believe that the moral center of nations, and the shared awareness among all people, was the Church itself?

In her speech before the United Nations, Mother Teresa took a different route. She related how often people ask her how they can do what she does. She tells them: Don’t do what I do. Do what you are supposed to do. Be a good father and worker. Be a good mother to your own children. Be responsible for those in your care.

That is advice the Church needs as well. Christians do not need to leave political activism, although some leaders of the prominent groups represent as great a danger as any secular opponents. But Christians should not proclaim themselves as religious people tired of sitting in the back of the bus, and follow Rosa Parks in demanding their rights as a special-interest group.

Already, our religious leadership seems more interested in press conferences than defending the faith. Conservatives, at least, need to recognize that the essence of their faith cannot be found in the public square, for it is not the source of good families, good theology, authentic liturgy, and loving neighbors, not to speak of eternal life. Conservatives must not pretend to establish a Christian-friendly official culture in Washington, or get government to start subsidizing religious schools as opposed to public schools. Nor can Christians hope to impress the governing elites with the fruits of their religion, except to the extent that they fulfill the designs of that elite. Neither can they hope to gain greater tolerance for the expression of Christian values from a regime that is implacably hostile.

Instead, Christians should hoe their own spiritual row, avoid the temptation to become part of the Leviathan state, and refuse to follow those who would use the faith to curry favor with the central government and the official culture. If Christians have a special interest, it is not prime-time news coverage, but salvation.