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Land at Harvard: Religious right concerned about many issues

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (BP)–The religious right is a movement that consists of more than evangelical Christians, is still growing and is concerned about more than abortion and homosexual marriage, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land told a class in Harvard University’s religion department.

People of traditional religious values form a movement that has more similarities to the effort to abolish slavery than the one to end segregation, Land said in his visit to the Boston-area campus April 12.

“It is a movement,” the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said. “There is no Martin Luther King transcendent figure in the evangelical, traditional values movement the way there was in the civil rights movement. It is much more like the abolitionist movement.

“It’s yet to crest,” Land said. “It’s still growing, and we feel like we’ve got the wind at our back.”

At another forum that evening, Land said, “There’s been too much emphasis on evangelicals in the wake of the election. This was a victory for people of traditional religious values.”

In the 2004 election, religious traditionalists voted strongly for President Bush, according to the Pew Forum’s National Survey of Religion and Politics. Traditionalist evangelicals voted 88 percent for Bush; traditionalist non-Latino Roman Catholics went 72 percent for the president, and traditionalist mainline Protestants voted 68 percent for the incumbent, Land told the students, citing Pew polling data.

The charge that the religious right is concerned only about abortion and same-sex “marriage” is a “caricature, a straw man,” Land said.

“We have been engaged for a good while on a whole series of human rights issues both here and abroad,” he said. Evangelicals were the “driving force” behind the passage in recent years of federal legislation to promote global religious freedom, combat sex trafficking and prevent prison rape, Land said.

“We’re going to continue to be concerned about those two issues, but those are not the only two issues we’ve been concerned about and they will not be the only two issues we’ll continue to be concerned about,” he said. “But that’s sort of like criticizing Dr. King for only being concerned about racial equality and racial justice.”

Many evangelical and Roman Catholic traditionalists share a common belief that motivates them to involvement on international issues, Land said.

“We believe that America has a special role to play in the world,” he said. “Now we do not believe that America is God’s chosen nation, but we do believe that God’s providence has blessed this country, and that that is a belief that brings with it obligations and responsibilities and that America has a special obligation and responsibility to be the friend of freedom and the friend of democracy in the world.

“And I cannot tell you the number of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals and Catholics who told me that they were moved to tears by the president’s second inaugural address and the statement that we are going to be the friend of freedom,” Land said. People of traditional religious values “believe America has a special obligation and responsibility because of the blessings we have received to be the friend of the oppressed … and to help those who want freedom for themselves.”

The “divide in this culture” is traditional moral values, Land said, adding, “I have a lot more in common with Pope John Paul II than I do with [President] Jimmy Carter [a Baptist].”

Some forces in society, however, “want to exclude religiously informed moral values from taking part in the debate,” Land said. That view conflicts with the distant and recent tradition of American history, he told the class.

“Dr. King took his profoundly Christian beliefs about what was right and what was wrong into the public arena to condemn and to seek to transform a great social evil in our culture,” Land said. “Segregationists were trying to impose their immorality on Dr. King and were doing a fairly successful job of it, by the way. Dr. King, based on his convictions as a Baptist minister like the abolitionists before him, used his religiously informed moral values to challenge that immorality, and when he convinced enough Americans that he was right, it changed. And by the way, they did change the law.”

In a talk and dialogue with leaders from the Cambridge community in the evening, Land rejected the notion that the country’s forefathers “ever intended the separation of church and state to mean the separation of moral values from public policy — religiously informed moral values and non-religiously informed moral values. In other words, they believed in a secular state; they did not ever imagine a secular society. I believe that every major social issue … that has been an evil has been corrected primarily because people of religious faith brought their religious convictions to bear on public policy.

“I believe that we have a right and the obligation to bring our religiously informed convictions to public policy,” he said. “We don’t have the right to have the government to sponsor our religion. That’s my obligation, that’s my responsibility, that’s my privilege.”

Forum participants questioned Land about his opposition to same-sex “marriage.”

“I think it will shatter marriage as it’s been defined,” he said. “I also would argue, as [Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin] Scalia did and as Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School has, that if you legalize same-sex ‘marriage,’ there’s no way you can legally stop polygamy. I don’t want to open that Pandora’s box. I don’t think most Americans do.

“Marriage is not just a personal thing; it’s not just a personal relationship,” Land said. “It has enormous civic consequences and enormous civic responsibilities. That’s why most societies, including this one, give benefits to marriage they don’t give to other relationships. And they are called benefits by the way, not rights.”

He cautioned supporters of homosexual “marriage” “from trying to ram this down the throat of the American people through the judicial system.” If the federal judiciary were to force upon the American people a decision like that of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalizing same-sex “marriage,” “there will be a significant rebellion that would take the form of a very quick passage” of a federal constitutional amendment limiting marriage’s definition to the union of a man and a woman, Land predicted.

“I’m more than happy to debate this issue in every state legislature in the country,” he said. “I’m more than happy to debate it to ratify a constitutional amendment, if that’s what’s necessary, and ultimately we have government of the people, by the people and for the people. So I would say, make your case. Just don’t try to disqualify people of religious faith from the debate and don’t try to force this on the American people against their will. It won’t work.”

The class Land spoke to was “Choreography of Social Movements,” which was attended by about 20 students and taught by Swanee Hunt, director of the women and public policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She served as U.S. ambassador to Austria during the first administration of President Clinton.

The evening forum was part of the Cambridge Conversations, a series of discussions hosted by Hunt and her husband, Boston Landmarks Orchestra conductor Charles Ansbacher, in their home. The participants, who numbered about 25, included leaders from the religious, academic, judicial, nonprofit and social work fields, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.