WASHINGTON (BP)–Post-election events demonstrate religious conservatives in America have won the battle over the legitimacy of faith convictions being expressed in the public square, Southern Baptist public policy specialist Richard Land told a Washington audience.
Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, participated in a panel discussion focused on a new book by Jim Wallis on faith and politics. After Wallis, who is identified with the evangelical Christian left, spoke about the subject of his book to a standing-room-only crowd, Land explained the significance of the moment from his perspective.
“Jim’s book, this gathering, the discussion that it symbolizes across the country means that the so-called religious right has won its fight with secular fundamentalism,” Land said.
The effort “to censor religion from the public debate” is over, Land said. “[The secular fundamentalists] have lost, and I welcome their defeat. I am delighted that Jim Wallis and others have come forward to say, ‘Yes, there needs to be a debate and you cannot disqualify people of religious belief from bringing their religious beliefs and religious convictions, and how that forms their moral values, into public policy.’”
The November election was “sort of the final test” of whether Americans want religion to be a part of public life, Land said.
“The American people have decided, and they have a funny way of doing this, that they want religious values to be part of public policy,” he said. “Does that mean they’re always going to come down on the conservative side? No. Does that mean they’re always going to come down on the moderate side? No. Does that mean they’re always going to come down on the liberal side? No. But they have rejected at a national level this idea that some perverted understanding of separation of church and state means” religious people are to disqualify themselves.
Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a founder of Call to Renewal, and Land, a leader among Christian conservatives, both said they welcomed the discussion of faith’s influence on public policy.
“This is the right conversation,” Wallis said. “I want to say that I think values are the next wave of politics. They guide our moral, our political compass. I think the values debate ought to be the future of American politics. Probably whoever prevails in that debate will shape that future.”
Land said a “debate about which values and how those values are to be applied between myself, and people like me, and Jim Wallis is going to be a much more productive debate for the country than a debate between myself, and people like myself, and those secularists of the ACLU stripe and Americans United [for Separation of Church and State] stripe and People for the American Way stripe who want to disqualify people of religious conviction from even suiting up and coming out onto the field.”
Land said, “It’s one kind of debate when I say, ‘My religious convictions lead me to these moral beliefs and public values,’ and the other side says, ‘Well I think that you need to restudy that. My religious convictions and beliefs lead me here. Let’s talk about what is right and what is wrong, as we understand it, and what is the prudential decision.’
“It’s another kind of debate to say, ‘Your religious beliefs are irrelevant. Get off the field. You’re disqualified and ineligible from the debate.’ We’re not going to be shoved to the side of the field anymore, and we’re not going to let Jim Wallis be shoved to the side of the field either, and we welcome the debate. America will be better for it.”
Wallis said he wrote his new book, “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It,” to “spark hopefully deeper and better conversations on faith and public life.”
“Conventional wisdom now says that one party owns the language of religious values, and the other is just a bunch of secularists,” Wallis said during the panel discussion. “Now neither of those statements is true. When it comes to God’s politics, I really do believe that the right often does get it wrong and the left often doesn’t get it. Of course, [publisher] HarperCollins made me take out the ‘oftens.’
“We should remind people that religion does not fit neatly into categories of right and left,” Wallis said. “Neither party has it right, I don’t think right now. Republicans … like the language of faith and values but often narrow it to one or two issues…. Democrats are seemingly uncomfortable with the language and almost are saying, ‘Sure we have faith, but don’t worry. It won’t affect anything.’ Democrats need to recover a moral vocabulary, to put principles ahead of programs. You start with values, not politics. You start with values and then say how your policies flow from them.
“I don’t believe the right will be able in the long run to limit the values discussion” to abortion and same-sex “marriage,” he said.
Linking “personal ethics and social justice” is a “winning option in American politics,” Wallis said. The combination of a “morally based, family based, personal responsibility populism” with a progressivism that is “radical on poverty and racial justice, plus stewardship of the earth” would appeal to many Americans, he said.
Another panelist, Roman Catholic priest Bryan Hehir, said he thought Wallis’ use of “religion and morality interchangeably” in his book was a mistake. Morality should be the mediating factor between religion and politics, said Hehir, a Harvard University professor.
“[M]any people with very powerful moral insights have no religious conviction or affiliation whatsoever,” Hehir said, adding when the “moral factor is the mediating term between religion and politics it immediately opens the argument on an equal footing to all parties that they make their moral claims, wherever they derive them from, and then translate them into the political order.
“That means religious traditions are free to make all of the interjections that they are compelled to make in public affairs,” he said, “but they must somehow justify and translate those claims into the kind of moral discourse that others who do not share their faith may find value in their moral wisdom.”
Wallis acknowledged he may have used religion and morality “too interchangeably.”
Both Land and Wallis pointed to the late civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., as a model for how to bring faith to bear upon public policy.
King, a Baptist preacher, “took his religious convictions and how they informed his moral values, and he came out into the public square and he challenged America to live up to the principles and the promises of its founding documents, and he persuaded a critical mass of the society,” Land said.
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, also was on the panel but did not speak because of laryngitis.
About 230 people attended the Jan. 18 panel discussion, which was held at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.