From the emergence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the late 1970s through the Christian Coalition’s heyday in the 1990s and on to Republican presidential aspirant Ben Carson’s declaration that he could not vote for a Muslim for president, the role of evangelical Christians in the nation’s political life has been a magnet for controversy. For Democrats and for the left more broadly, evangelicals represent a regressive force that, if left unchecked, would transport America back to a world in which a woman’s place is in the home and a homosexual’s in the closet. For Republicans and conservatives who do not think of themselves as “born again,” the challenge is how to keep conservative Christians voting right while presenting a modern political party with broader appeal.
Mark A. Smith is a professor of political science at the University of Washington, where he also teaches comparative religion. His “Secular Faith” is a spirited and contrarian entry in the debate over what to make of the religious element of the “culture wars.” Against the view that religion is a major influence on our politics, Mr. Smith sets out to argue, as his subtitle puts it, “how culture has trumped religion.”
Mr. Smith’s focus is on American Christianity, which is, of course, hardly monolithic. That mainline Protestant denominations have made peace with modernity and actively promoted progressive views will come as a surprise to no one. Mr. Smith’s assessment of Catholicism—which focuses on the gap between church doctrine on such matters as birth control and sexual morality and the attitudes and practices of Catholics themselves—is likewise familiar. The startling element here is his depiction of the changes in outlook among traditionally conservative, often evangelical Protestants.
His central observation is that “Christians are part of society, not separate from it.” They “have openly or tacitly accepted many modern ideas by either changing their long-standing positions or refraining from political action.” More, “Christians of earlier centuries would be shocked and appalled if they knew about some of the beliefs and practices of Christians today.” To make his case, Mr. Smith draws on sources ranging from the statements of religious leaders to the scholarly literature on Christianity in America and public-opinion survey research. Throughout, he strives to be attentive not only to what Christians are saying but also to what they are choosing not to talk about, a source of much of the book’s polemical zest.
Mr. Smith offers chapters on slavery, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and women’s rights. In the case of slavery, he rejects as too convenient the view that Christian teaching motivated opposition to the institution. It is true that by the mid-19th century those at the forefront of the abolitionist movement were Christians and understood themselves to be acting in accordance with biblical teaching. But for more than 200 years from the settling of the New World, one could also find Christians arguing that the Bible endorses slavery. Mr. Smith chronicles the competing claims but plays a trump card by concluding that when “slavery finally did encounter serious resistance, secular rather than religious ideas were the driving force”—namely, the ideas about liberty and the rights of individuals that animated the American Revolution.
Divorce was once a politically contentious issue, he notes, and the biblical strictures against it weighed heavily in the arguments. Yet as divorce became more commonplace and the law more accommodating, religious leaders and local clergymen devoted less attention to the issue. Mr. Smith calls divorce part of the “missing” culture war—a subject on which conservative religious spokesmen, not least prominent evangelicals, could focus their attention but, bowing to social and cultural trends, generally choose not to.
On women’s rights, evangelicals “resist the feminist label even as they embrace many feminist principles,” Mr. Smith writes. He notes the extensive scholarship showing that evangelicals, like other Americans, now “support equal pay for equal work, oppose discrimination in hiring and promotion, endorse the political equality of men and women, and demand that violence against women be taken seriously.”
These are indeed areas of social consensus today. Clearly the notion that conservative Christians seek to reorganize America along the lines of 19th-century social mores goes much too far. Rather, the view that women should stay home and raise children has given way, among religious conservatives, to the view that, while such traditional arrangements may be desirable, they are far from universally applicable.
Mr. Smith is generally persuasive in demonstrating that broad cultural trends have influenced religious views. Old-school religious ideas about such subjects as homosexuality and the role of women have proved to be no match for the spirit of freedom and equality that has been gathering force for centuries now. Second-class citizenship demands rectification. Religion is indeed a part of culture and often follows its direction.
But Mr. Smith’s observations on abortion, where, as he notes, public opinion has remained divided and stable instead of trending toward a social consensus, should perhaps lead him to temper his claim. Opposition to the practice is grounded almost entirely in religious conviction. Wrong as it is to see religion as a dominant element in American politics independent of cultural influences, it is likewise problematic to see religion as wholly under the sway of American cultural attitudes. The nexus of influence runs both ways.
Mr. Lindberg is a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the author of “The Political Teachings of Jesus.” His new book is “The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern.”