Is the Big Tent Too Small?

Is the Big Tent Too Small?

Christians in the Political Arena

February 11, 1993

The Washington Post made a terrible gaffe. In a front-page article last week about religious conservatives, it belittled them as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” Over the next several days, the paper tried frantically to explain and excuse the comment. But the bumbling efforts in damage control only pulled the curtain further back on a virulent form of anti-religious bigotry.

Anti-religious sentiment is running high in the aftermath of the past election. Some Republican leaders are acting as though the presence of religious conservatives in the party has become an embarrassment, like country cousins crashing the family picnic.

Especially bitter attacks have come from pro-choice Republicans, who blame religious conservatives for the defeat of President Bush. One leader recently compared Christians to the Nazis and accused them of “moral imperialism.” She seems to feel the Republican “big tent” is too small to include evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and their concerns. Some Republican leaders act as though religious conservatives are an embarrassment.

In fact, we’re witnessing a general retreat from moral issues as Republican leaders counsel pragmatism.

But not everyone is trying to shoo us out the door.  Political scholar Irving Kristol writes in the Wall Street Journal that religious conservatives are already too numerous and too influential to be “shunted aside.” In fact, Kristol predicts “they’re going to be the core of an emerging American conservatism.” Liberalism has created a voracious and inefficient welfare state, which undercuts individual motivation and responsibility. Today, Kristol writes, we need a “different view of human nature and human responsibility”–a view that comes from religion. “It’s the traditional spiritual values we need,” he says, for issues like crime, sexuality, welfare dependency, and health care.

Adam Meyerson, editor of Policy Review, agrees.  “Republicans can not and should not walk away from the Christian right,” he argues. Instead, he says, they should “point with pride to the many contributions” evangelical Christians make to American life. Here he mentions Prison Fellowship’s work in prisons, Focus on the Family’s support for families, and Christian maternity homes and adoption services.

If the Republicans do insist on walking away from moral issues, they are in danger of repeating history. In the 1840s, the major existing political parties–the Whigs and the Democrats–ducked the burning moral issue of the day: namely, slavery.

Though 20 percent of the Whigs were ardent abolitionists, the Whigs refused to put the issue in their platform. And the Democrats responded by calling for separation of church and state.

As a result, the anti-slavery Whigs split away, united with some smaller anti-slavery groups, and the Republican party was born. When Lincoln was elected, the Whigs quietly disappeared.

What an irony it would be if the Republican party, which was born of moral conviction, were now to surrender its moral convictions and call for political pragmatism.

If that does happen, the party will forfeit its moral claim to leadership and–just like 150 years ago–people holding strong moral convictions will march forth under a new banner.