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2 Burnside American Studies- Culture Wars

This title in other editions

The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country


The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country Cover


Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:


God in His infinite wisdom must have designed Tennessee as

the ideal place in which to argue the role of faith in public life.

In what sometimes is still called “the buckle of the Bible Belt,”

locals favor “strong preachin,” but also the evangelism of a secular gospel

called Jacksonian Democracy. Nashville is home to the abstemious souls

of the Southern Baptist Convention, but also to country singers keening

over lives ruined by drink and dissolution. In 1925 the mountains of east

Tennessee were the site of the infamous Scopes Trial, in which a teacher

was sent to jail for teaching the science of biological evolution. Yet those

same rugged mountains are home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory,

a leading center for advanced science, and to two nuclear power plants

that operate on the physics venerated there.

So Tennessee was the appropriate launching pad for the political career

of Senator William Frist, M.D.-and also the appropriate place for it to

crash to Earth. In Tennessee, the senator had to fly through the crosswinds

of cultural conflict, between the theories and demands of Bible Belt religion

and of ivory tower science. The bumpy ride ultimately reduced his image

from that of an idealistic, Greys Anatomy—style “superdoc” and presidential

possibility to a hopeless political hack. The trajectory of his public life illuminated

the power of an essential American Argument. We are a prayerful,

Bible-believing country, yet that same trait causes us to constantly

fret-and argue-over the extent to which our faith should influence decisions

about education, research, welfare, and other government activities.

Frist rose to prominence on the secular, science side of the argument.

His first calling card was medicine. His father and uncle were prominent

Nashville physicians who had made a fortune assembling one of the nations

first HMOs. He was a brilliant, meticulous student, excelling at

Princeton, at Harvard Medical School, and in internships at Massachusetts

General Hospital.

Frist had a need to exhibit his knowledge in dramatic circumstances.

He became a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon famous for steely nerves

and clinical derring-do, “cracking open chests,” as he put it, thrusting his

hands into thoraxes to remove diseased hearts and lungs. He owned a

plane, which he kept gassed up and ready to fly so he could ferry in replacement

parts-living hearts-for his patients. He piloted the plane, of

course. He was forever experimenting with new surgical techniques,

studying logistics, puzzling over the social consequences of the on-the-fly

triage necessary to match salvageable patients with salvageable hearts. A

committed runner, lean as a whippet, and blessed with an ability to concentrate

in an operating theater, Frist slept only three or four hours a night.

He used the wee hours to educate himself by writing medical tracts.

As he launched his campaign for the Senate in 1994, his religious faith

was not a visible part of his public profile. He rarely talked about his

standard-issue Presbyterianism, the denomination of choice among the

Southern business establishment. Rather, he advertised the healing power

of medicine. On the wall behind his desk, he tacked up a picture of a picnic

he had organized and attended earlier that year. He was surrounded

in the photo by a cheerful-looking throng of more than one hundred.

Who were they? “Those are my former transplant patients,” Frist said

proudly. “I feel a deep bond with those people,” he said. “I cant express it

in words.”

Even after he became a senator, Frist did not abandon his medical pursuits.

He was an unofficial doctor-in-residence in the Capitol. After the

9/11 terrorist attacks, he used his late-night study vigils to produce a

picture-and-text guide and instruction manual on how to treat injuries

and contaminations that might follow a chemical or biological assault. He

insisted that his full title be emblazoned on press releases and in brass on

his office door: Senator William Frist, M.D.

When he began fashioning his political career, Frist had little contact

with the Other Tennessee, the one controlled, or at least defined, by the

Southern Baptists. The states largest denomination, they had always set

the tone politically, but not always directly. In pioneer days they were a

liberating political force, opposed to hierarchical authority, especially an

“established” church, of any kind. They promoted democratic ideals by

insisting that man had free will, and by insisting that the route to salvation

lay in the simple, straightforward act of reading and believing the

Bible. Baptists had grown mighty on Americas frontiers, where settlers

had needed a portable, independent faith, one that validated their sense of

freedom but also gave them confidence that they were doing the Lords

work in the New World.

At first, Baptists and their brethren wanted nothing to do with direct

involvement in government, however, which they tended to fear (given

their history in Europe and in much of colonial America) as an instrument

of theological oppression. That attitude changed somewhat in the

1920s, as rural Americans came to feel themselves under assault by a new,

metropolitan modernity. The battle was joined in Dayton, Tennessee,

where a teacher named John Scopes was brought to trial for violating a

state law against the teaching of evolution. Clarence Darrow, the most famous

courtroom lawyer of his day, teamed up with an equally famous

journalist, H. L. Mencken, to make a national laughingstock out of the

laws chief defender, William Jennings Bryan, the “prairie populist.”

And yet it was Bryans side-the Bible-believing one-that won the

case at trial and on appeal. In New York City, textbook authors were

forced to delete evolution from their newest manuscripts. The Tennessee

law remained on the books, banning instruction in “any theory that denies

the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible” or that

suggests “man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Similar

laws existed in fourteen other states until the U.S. Supreme Court, in

1968, firmly and finally ruled that they were an unconstitutional imposition

of sectarian dogma in secular classrooms.

The national ridicule engendered by the Scopes Trial drove two generations

of Baptists out of the political arena. Despite their legal early

“victory,” the Southern Baptist leaders increasingly downplayed fundamentalist

teachings, even if their congregants did not.

But by the time Frist was thinking of running for office, a new generation

of hard-liners-more media-savvy and sophisticated, but no less dedicated

to Scripture-had reasserted control of the denomination. Luckily

for Frist (at least it seemed lucky at the time) the Baptists leading political

figure in the early 1990s was Dr. Richard Land, who had close ties to Karl

Rove, an ally of the late Lee Atwaters and the emerging kingmaker of the

Southern-based Republican Party. Land headed the Southern Baptists political

and grassroots organizing arm. He was theologically devout, but

had a doctorate from Oxford and enjoyed jousting with the Other Side.

And maybe the Lord had a hand in bringing him to the campaign: Like

Frist, Land was a Princeton man. He could educate Frist in the political

ways of the Word.

It was a slow, careful process. In Frists first campaign, in 1994, Land

did not press his fellow Princetonian on faith issues. It wasnt part of the

GOPs national game plan. Instead, the Republicans ran coast-to-coast on

Newt Gingrichs determinedly secular “Contract with America,” which

studiously avoided social and theological issues and instead focused on

anti-Washington themes: tax cuts, spending reform, and the iniquity of

the new Clinton administration and the Democrats who had ruled the

House of Representatives for forty years. Frist was anti-abortion-just

about everybody in the new GOP was-but otherwise had felt little need

to talk much about “the social issues.”

Frists focus changed once he arrived in Washington, especially after

George Bush became president, the GOP took control of the Senate, and

Frist, with a behind-the-scenes boost from the White House, became majority

leader. Suddenly he was the man in the middle of an American Argument.

Stem-cell research was the specific issue. Baptists and other

fundamentalists joined with the Vatican hierarchy to oppose the use of

human embryos in such research, even though many frozen embryos

were being discarded by fertility clinics and most scientists thought research

using cells from that source held great clinical promise in the

search for cures to disease.

Frist proceeded to ambush himself on the issue. In 2001, he supported

the presidents decision to limit federally funded research to cultures from

existing embryo “lines.” But under pressure from his erstwhile colleagues

in the medical community-not to mention former first lady Nancy Reagan,

who saw stem-cell research as the route to a cure for Alzheimers

disease-Frist reversed course. Now, he said, he considered the existing

“lines” inadequate, and would support the use of embryos that would otherwise

be discarded by clinics and perhaps other sources as well. Since he

was a doctor and potential presidential candidate, Frists 2005 switch was

major national news. “Its an earthquake,” said his Republican colleague

Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania at the time.

Frist garnered praise from the same medical and scientific community

that had denounced him earlier. But the GOPs religious fundamentalists

attacked him for supporting what they labeled “destructive embryo research.”

“To push for the expansion of this suspect and unethical science,”

said Dr. James Dobson, “will be rightly seen by Americas values voters as

the worst kind of betrayal of choosing politics over principle.” Dr. Land

had a simpler political reaction, but equally to the point. “Im heartbroken,”

he declared.

And so it came to pass that Frist was politically doomed, even though

he tried his best to reconnect with the “heartbroken” Land. The senator

sought to placate his religious “base” by championing the anti-euthanasia

cause of Terri Schiavo. Although he had not personally seen the bedridden

and severely brain-damaged woman, he offered a long-range “diagnosis”

of her condition, concluding that she was aware of her surroundings and

thus should be spared. He did so after watching a video of her moving her

eyes in what some had concluded was a purposeful, sentient fashion.

Then, as though burrowing into Tennessees antimodern past, Frist

showed up at a Rotary club in Nashville to talk about evolution. After the

Supreme Court in 1968 invalidated statutes that had banned the teaching

of evolution, Biblical literalists had developed a new strategy. Rather than

opposing evolution per se, they supported the teaching of a theory they

called “intelligent design.” The idea was that human beings and other

forms of life were so complex and elegantly arranged that only an intelligent

“Creator”-that would be God-could have made them. Scientists

generally dismiss the theory as nothing more than a faith-based tautology,

an assertion beyond the reach of experimental, factual verification, and

therefore not “science” at all.

But Frist was not one of those scientists. “I think a pluralistic society

should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith,” he

said. Exposing schoolchildren to intelligent design “doesnt force a particular

theory on anyone,” he said. A few months later, a federal judge in

Pennsylvania disagreed. He struck down a local school-board policy that

required that students be made “aware of the gaps/problems in Darwins

theory, and of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to,

intelligent design.”

By then Frist had bowed out of that debate-and most others in the

faith wars. He had said from the beginning of his political adventure that

he would serve only two terms in the Senate, and as his second term drew

to a close in the fall of 2006, the only remaining question was whether he

would run for the GOP presidential nomination. He was not a deft politician-

you could see the gears grinding with every move he made-but

even a Lyndon Johnson would have had trouble surviving in the riptides

of the faith-versus-science debate.

In his final few months, Frist almost literally wasted away, shrinking

from lean to gaunt, his normally chipper surgeons demeanor falling off

into what resembled absentmindedness. On the Senate floor, he seemed

almost lost. He had been chewed to pieces by the Eastern establishment

that had credentialed him initially; he was almost too easy a target for The

New York Times. At the same time, the Richard Lands of the world had

given up on him, looking elsewhere for Republican presidential candidates

to champion. Rove had once been a backer-had led the effort to

get him the majority leaders job-but Bush aides now privately derided

Frist as a ham-fisted amateur who had never learned to play the game, no

matter how adroit he had been in an operating theater.

In November of 2006, after the Democrats won back control of the

Senate, Frist limited himself to the occasional Washington social event as

he and his wife prepared to return to Nashville. He said he was building

a new home there. In a sad, unself-conscious parody, the new edifice resembled

a downsized White House, with pillars, portico, and all. He

could take shelter there from the argument that had overwhelmed him.

The land we live on was claimed in Gods name, but the worlds first

officially secular government sits on it. We invoked God in making

our Declaration of Independence, but not in our governing authority, the

Constitution. Only one clergyman signed the former; none the latter. Yet

we are among the worlds most devout people; most of us see the Bible as

literal truth, the Word of God. We base our nationhood on the unalienable

rights the Creator bestowed upon all of mankind. So what role

should He play in our public life?

Faith and its traditions and institutions can strengthen societys social

fabric, and amplify its commitment to family and justice. But if the Word

rules all, the faithful are duty bound to spread-yea, even enforce-it.

The result: sectarian crusades in secular realms. Some are noble (abolition

or the bioethics movement), but some foment intolerance (the anti-

Catholic Know-Nothings, the ravings of Louis Farrakhan), or warp scientific

inquiry, public education, and foreign policy. We are one country,

yet forever torn between two methods of understanding, Revelation and

Reason, and two sacred texts, the Bible and the Constitution. Of all the arguments

that define us none is more vexing-alternately troubling and

inspiring-than the one we had for four centuries over the role of faith.

America, the late Jerry Falwell proclaimed, was a “faith nation.” His

political foes disputed the specific term, but they cannot gainsay the basic

point. The polling figures are as familiar as they are immutable: 90 percent

of us say we believe in God; 85 percent believe in the personal power

of prayer; 70 percent are affiliated with an organized religion; 42 percent

say they attend religious services regularly; and 38 percent refer to themselves

as “committed Christians.” Senator Barack Obama summarized

these numbers in his tart fashion. “Substantially more people in America,”

he said, “believe in angels than they do in evolution.”

Looking back, it is clear that it is our destiny to argue about faith in

public life. History makes us do it.

One reason is the centrality of the Bible-not just what it contains, but

the fact of its new, wide availability at the time of our founding. Our earliest

seventeenth-century settlers arrived with Reformation ideas. They

came bearing new ways of thinking and guiding their lives created by

post-Gutenberg technology (the movable-type printing press) and individualistic,

post—Martin Luther theology. To these early Protestants, and

for those who came here over the next two centuries, the Bible-not

popes, prelates, or princes-was the arbiter of morality and the road map

to heaven. Whats more, it was within the power and the ken of any mortal

to read it and interpret it for himself. He could and did go forth into

the New World to seek its riches and master its dangers with a rifle, an ax,

and a Bible. “Those who believe that knowledge of God comes direct to

them through the study of the Holy Writ,” observes historian Paul Johnson,

“read the Bible for themselves, assiduously, daily. The authority lay

in the Bible, not the minister.”

The result was a uniquely American invention: a lively, supply-side

marketplace of religion. “The direct apprehension of the word of God,”

writes Johnson, was a formula for dissent-“for a Babel of conflicting

voices.” Diverse faith was, and is, like the energy from splitting the atom.

“Nowhere else in Christendom was religion so fragmented,” writes colonial

historian Gordon S. Wood. “Yet nowhere was it so vital.” It was all

the more vital because, in a New Eden of America, there was more ur-

gency in finding the right biblical path away from sin. The place was

pure; the temptations of freedom were great.

As with other parts of our heritage, this marketplace was so fervent

because it was based on freedom of the individual. As with other marketplaces,

it was buffeted by crowd psychology, the dynamics of salesmanship,

and the laws of supply and demand. Without the clerical structure of

an official church, preachers rose to power on the strength of eloquence

and marketing skill, convincing the layman of the wisdom of their interpretation.

Popular preachers were early fruits of our democratic thinking-“

in a sense, the first elected officials,” says Johnson, “of the New

American society.”

Philadelphia, birthplace of our Republic, was known through most of

the eighteenth century as the ultimate faith-based bazaar-site of the legendary,

building-packing sermons of George Whitefield, Americans first

revival evangelist. The Founders who convened there in 1787 to draft a

Constitution knew the history of the city. They were not hostile to religion;

indeed, they were not all firmly against some version of an official

church, if it could be democratically selected.

Just two years earlier, a committee of the Continental Congress had

come within a single vote of moving in that direction. Drafting rules for

selling land in the Northwest Territory, the committee voted to allot for

“the maintenance of public Schools” one section within each square of

surveyed squares. Then they voted to devote “the section immediately adjoining

the same to the northward for the support of religion. Profits arising

therefrom in both instances to be applied forever according to the will

of the majority of male residents of full age within the same.” In other

words, the public would pay to “support religion,” presumably by constructing

the church the locals wanted.

To James Madisons great relief, the “support of religion” clause was

voted down in the end. “How a regulation so unjust in itself, foreign to

the authority of Congress . . . smelling so strongly of an antiquated Bigotry,

could have received the countenance of a committee is a matter of astonishment,”

he wrote to James Monroe. Presbyterian clergy, Madison

reported, “were in general friends of the scheme,” but they had tempered

their “tone, either compelled by the laity of that sect, or alarmed at the

probability of further interferences of the Legislature, if they once begin

to dictate in matters of religion.”

In writing a Constitution, Madison and the other Founders took another

step back from the approach the Continental Congress had considered.

The idea of a state-supported church-even one democratically

chosen by local elders-would not even be considered. When it came

time to draft a Bill of Rights four years later, they hammered home the

point. “Congress shall make no law,” the First Amendment says, “respecting

the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise

thereof.” The framers were not banishing faith from the public square-

but they were banishing the possibility of state monopoly in the market of

creeds. They made the point in 1796 in another, but significant, context.

In the Treaty of Tripoli, they tried to soothe the Muslim ruler there by asserting

that “the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian

religion.” That wasnt quite right, of course. We were set in motion by

Christians in the name of Christian kings. But after 1776, the kings did

not govern us, and neither did their faith. No one faith could. You could

believe in any you chose-or in none at all.

The fact is that the focus of the Founders-what they thought the

country indeed was “founded on”-was not Christianity per se, or the

Bible, or at least the Bible alone. The focus of their intellectual, political,

and moral ambition was the world, history as it was lived, and the Enlightenment

spirit of inquiry and science. Many were Deists, skeptical of

Christian dogma about the divinity of Jesus. They studied Athens and

Rome-not Jerusalem-for most of their clues to the nature of government.

Their holy trinity was Hume, Locke, and Montesquieu. The decision

of the committee of the Continental Congress is a footnote in history,

but a crucial one, reflecting and foreshadowing an argument for the ages:

They concluded that the only kind of education that government should

pay for is the kind that takes place in a secular classroom.

But, as was the case in 1785, it was always a close question. In 1801,

Baptists, a minority in Connecticut, wrote to President Jefferson to complain

that their state viewed religious liberty not as an immutable right

but as a privilege granted by the legislature-as “favors granted.” In his

famous and carefully considered reply, Jefferson said nothing about Connecticut,

but noted that it was an “act of the whole American people” (the

Bill of Rights) “which declared that their legislature should make no law

respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise

thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Perhaps no single “thus” has generated so much controversy. To be

sure, Jeffersons “wall” means there can be no state-sponsored church. But

must it mean no role for faith in public life?

Probably not. Even in his letter, Jefferson seemed to make the point.

He closed his “wall of separation letter” to the Danbury Baptists this

way: “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of

the common Father and creator of man.” However guarded his words,

he was reciprocating something. Faith and public life are not a unity, but

Jefferson understood that here they are virtually inseparable in many


The idea of “revival” is one example of how faith and politics in

America are intertwined. Indeed, it is, arguably, our most important political

metaphor. We are a nation that operates by continual revival. Without

an established church, with each of us free to read the Word for

himself, we compete with each other to win souls, and revivals are our

unique method for doing so. The religious Great Awakenings were mirrored

in our politics, and vice versa. In a nation that prays for the advent

of Good News, every deal is New, every political campaign is a crusade,

and every crusade is a campaign. The mechanics of a Billy Graham event

(he no longer calls them “crusades”) and those of a candidate rally are indistinguishable.

Much of the language is the same, sign-up tables are the

same, prayer counselors and precinct workers are the same. Only the objective

is different: souls versus votes.

What we think of as civic life would not exist without the religious impulse

to lead, to educate, and to convince. That impulse fostered the

founding of our great universities and colleges, from Harvard to Notre

Dame to Brigham Young to Brandeis. It encouraged us to be the most

charitable of people, with faith-based institutions leading the way from

the time of the Puritans through Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker

mission to the mainline Protestant and Jewish settlement-house movement,

which in turn gave rise to the modern science of social work. The

abolitionists sprang from the churches of New England and Upstate New

York; the civil rights movement from the Baptist and African Methodist

Episcopal churches of New York City and the Southern Bible and Cotton

belts. The Reverend Jesse Jackson used his preachers status and rappers

gifts to launch successful voter-registration drives throughout the South

during the 1980s.

Mixing faith and politics-souls and votes-can be uplifting, but it can

be toxic, too. In the South, religion was a bulwark of slaveholding society,

with elders interpreting the Old Testament view of chattel, including

human chattel, literally. In the North, the captains of industry mixed in

their Union League Clubs a lethal cocktail of Calvinism, Darwinism, and

profit. They made their workers drink it in the mines and on the factory

floors. Literal readings of Scripture retarded the advance of equal rights

for women and, in more recent years, for gays and lesbians. Churches have

protested the moral blindness of science-of the eugenics movement, for

example-but also have stood in the way of worthy experimentation. The

Womens Christian Temperance Union launched itself with good intentions,

aiming to achieve a sober, God-fearing society, but wound up fostering

criminality and linking arms with anti-Catholic bigots.

Intolerance was and is a risk. In colonial times, the emotion of religious

conflict could be drained away by distance. This was a vast, open

country, and those with a different or controversial view of the Bible

could simply leave, or be banished, to a place where they could practice

their faith relatively undisturbed. (The Mormons were literally hunted as

they moved, until they found peace beside the Great Salt Lake.) By the

mid-nineteenth century, however, the flood of Irish Catholics was too

overpowering, too visible, and too economically vital, to be out of view.

The result: sectarian riots and faith-based discrimination.

Appropriately, the ballot box was and is an antidote to religious discrimination.

The Catholic example is instructive. In 1884, a clergyman

speaking to the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee

famously blasted the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, as an

agent of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” The GOP candidate, James G.

Blaine, did not immediately repudiate the remark, and he lost New York

City (and the election)-in large part due to Irish Catholic voters.

Protestants took to establishing their own secret societies, dedicated to

rooting out Catholic influence. In 1893, a group called the American Protective

Association promulgated a new secret oath for its members.

Among other things, they swore to “do all in my power to retard and

break down the power of the Pope” and “not vote for, or counsel others to

vote for, any Roman Catholic, but [to] vote only for a Protestant . . .” The

Catholic response was to plunge into politics that much more deeply; the

first fruit of their labors was the 1928 presidential candidacy of New York

governor Al Smith.

It took another generation, and the advent of the charismatic John F.

Kennedy, for the United States to elect a Roman Catholic president. That,

too, was a crusade, melding our fundamental metaphors for renewal and

hope-a Great Awakening, a move to the West-into the phrase “New


In domestic politics, the biggest story of the last generation is plain to

see in retrospect. In summary form, here it is: Dismayed by what they

saw as the loss of respect for biblical values, evangelical Christians abandoned

their aversion to electoral politics and joined with anti-abortion,

culturally traditional Catholics to build a new, faith-centered Republican

Party that elected Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and two

generations of Bushes.

It took a biblical generation-forty years in Old Testament reckoning-

for the trend to reach its apogee, in Bushs reelection campaign of

2004. Its influence began to wane thereafter (the unpopularity of the Iraq

War, sold in part by and for religious fundamentalists, hastened the

process), but the rise of the Religious Right remains a big turn in the road

of American history, and one of the most consequential developments of

our time. Like a coda on a symphony, the 2004 presidential campaign produced

the fast-rising candidacy of Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in

2008. He had spent much of his career in the pulpit, as a Southern Baptist

preacher. He had led one congregation. Now he was proposing to lead another:

the GOP.

This cycle of conservative Christian political awakening began at a time

of new beginnings in America, the 1960s, and it began, appropriately

enough, with the issue of Bible prayer. The proximate cause, ironically, was

not electoral politics per se, but six decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In New York, as in most other states, public school students began the

day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and either the Lords Prayer from the

Gospel of Matthew or the Twenty-third Psalm from the Old Testament.

Facing a challenge to that practice, New York State Regents prepared a

“non-denominational” substitute. It said: “Almighty God, we acknowledge

our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our

teachers and our Country.” But even that was too much for the Supreme

Court. In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, it ruled that requiring a prayer of

any kind in the schools was a violation of the First Amendment. In a Pennsylvania

case the next year, the justices ruled that the practice was unconstitutional

even if students could get permission not to take part in the

public praying.

Although civil libertarians and their Democratic allies saw the cases as

a victory, an emerging cadre of conservative Republicans immediately

saw it as a cause-and an opportunity. History tends to regard Arizona

senator Barry Goldwater as a libertarian who cared little about religious

matters and who, in later years, expressed alarm at the rise of the Religious

Right. But in his 1964 presidential campaign, Goldwater stressed

his strong belief in the need for a swift “return of prayer to the public

schools of the nation.”

Cases that followed over the next few years stoked the anger of religious

conservatives. In 1965, the Court struck down a Connecticut law

that barred the dispensing of contraceptives-at a time when Catholic

teaching still held the use of such devices to be immoral. In 1968 the Court

struck down a ban on the teaching of evolution. In 1973 the Court substantially

loosened rules governing the national distribution of pornography,

holding that it was up to localities to decide what was or was not

obscene by applying their “local community standards.” Finally, most famously,

the Court ruled in 1973 that women had a qualified, constitutionally

protected right to an abortion, most clearly at early points in


Taken together, the cases ignited a political supernova, the light from

which took years to reach the consciousness of the political establishment.

I caught a glimpse of its power in the mid-70s as a reporter in Louisville,

in Bible Belt Kentucky, in the audience of an ad hoc group called the Jefferson

County Commission on Obscenity and Community Standards.

The city of Louisville itself was not a fundamentalist hotbed, but the

surrounding blue-collar county suburbs were, populated for the most part

by rural folks who were drawn to the metro area to work at the industrial

plants of GE and Ford. The chief executive of the county, the county

judge, was up for reelection, and he saw a way to appeal to that crowd by

establishing the commission. The idea would be to set-in advance of any

court case, should there be one-the countys very own “community standards.”

It was a political stunt: The commission never did establish the

standards, if for no other reason than that no one was eager to be seen examining


But it was the citizens who came to testify who mattered. Politically, I

came to realize, they were harbingers of the new era, in which “cultural

politics” would be, or would seem, as important as the economics-based

politics that traced its roots to the New Deal. One by one, voters trooped

to the microphone in a school gymnasium to describe what they saw as

the decay of societys moral and religious signposts. They saw their families

as under siege, assaulted by an evil laxity. To them, the rapid spread of

pornography was just one example. There was no prayer in the schools.

No one respected the Bible.

This was the time of “Deep Throat” in two versions. In New York

and Washington, the Nixon administration was under attack, hounded

by leaks from an FBI man who had been given the porno-flick nickname

“Deep Throat” by editors of The Washington Post. The journalists were

out to expose the political evil of unconstitutional authoritarianism. In

Louisville, at least in that gym, they fretted more about the movie of the

same name, which they thought posed a greater danger than Nixon.

The disgust at the two “Deep Throats” sparked a reawakening of

overtly biblical language in mainstream-that is, white middle-class-

politics. The church-based civil rights movement was suffused with biblical

vision and verve; now the same faith-based emotion spread to the

suburbs in a different context.

The first to say so explicitly was Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia

who rose from obscurity to the presidency in 1976. He did so by

promising a post-Watergate moral housecleaning in Washington, and

sold himself as a truth-telling man of the soil and proud “born-again

Christian.” Carter was the first major candidate to declare his born-again

bona fides-and the first to directly appeal for the votes of fellow evangelicals.

Carters sister testified to her brothers spiritual quest for “total

commitment to Christ.” In a speech to the Democratic National Committee

that year, Martin Luther King Sr. declared: “Surely the Lord sent

Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back to where it belongs.”

In an interview in Playboy, Carter himself confessed to a lustful

heart. The metropolitan wise guys laughed, but his confessional, revivaltent

moment played well in the countryside.

The electoral-map results were astonishing: Carter, the born-again

Bible Belt avatar, swept the South-the first time a Democrat had done so

since 1960, and, it turned out, the last time since. The meaning was clear:

Even though millions of white voters in the South had migrated to the

Republican Party because of its “states-rights” stand on race, Democrats

could win the region if they could maintain, and build on, the new faith-

based activism of the evangelicals. Republicans and conservatives, led by

new RNC chairman Bill Brock of Tennessee, recognized the threat immediately,

and went to work countering it.

So began a new political war, this one based not on race but on religion.

It was actually a two-front war: one among conservative, antiabortion

Catholics in the North; the other among evangelical Christians

in the South. The former, based initially in Connecticut, was led by

acolytes of William F. Buckleys. The second was led by Brock and counseled

by Richard Nixons “Southern Strategy” guru, Harry Dent of South

Carolina, and by a new breed of preacher awakened to the call of politics-

ironically-by Jimmy Carter himself.

This new alliance had four goals: to undercut Carter with his evangelical

base; unite conservative Catholics and fundamentalist evangelicals

(who had feared and despised each other on theological and social

grounds throughout American history); build a new national grassroots

machine to turn out faith-based voters; and find an inspiring candidate

around whom to unite for the 1980 election.

Undoing Carter was the easy part, since he was perched uneasily atop

a national party that was, on most issues, at odds with evangelicals and

conservative Catholics. Baptists had expected him, as president, to champion

their causes-such as a return to prayer in public schools-and to

abandon other positions he had been forced to adopt during the 1976

campaign. Carter did not do either. He continued to support Roe v. Wade

and its progeny, continued to back the Equal Rights Amendment, which

evangelicals viewed as an attack on the “traditional” family-and continued

to allow alcohol to be served at White House functions, even if drinks

were no longer available in the White House Mess. “I hope you give up

your secular humanism and return back to Christianity,” a prominent

Baptist preacher told Carter.

Here was the opening the Republicans needed, and it was immediately

spotted by a group of religious conservatives that met regularly in

Washington to plot the counterrevolution among the faithful. Catholics

in the North had been stirred to action by Roe; the National Right to Life

Committee was gaining power. In the South they needed grassroots

groups with whom they could link arms over abortion and other issues

such as school prayer, gay rights, and “secular” science. All they lacked

was a public leader and motivator to gather the reins.

And that is how Jerry Falwell barged into the picture. New Right ac-

tivists in Virginia knew about him and were impressed. He was boisterous

and literally from the wrong side of the tracks in his hometown, home

base of Lynchburg. He was a born huckster who spoke in the deep,

hickory-smoked accent of Southside Virginia. His televised sermons

filled the pews of his Thomas Road Baptist Church to the acoustically

contoured rafters, and he had turned his local broadcasts into a nationally

syndicated powerhouse called the “Old Time Gospel Hour.”

As Falwell told the story years later, a delegation led by strategist Paul

Weyrich came down from Washington to see him and propose that he

launch a group to engage evangelicals in politics from a conservative Republican

angle. “They approached me and I agreed that it was a good

idea,” Falwell recalled. “The idea was to take the country back.” (In fact,

Falwell had been selling himself to the Beltway powers.) The name, Falwell

and the others decided, would be “the Moral Majority,” an echo of

Nixons “Silent Majority” from Dents 1970 “Southern Strategy” election

campaign for the GOP.

From the start, the goal was not only to register and inspire conservative

evangelicals, but also to win the presidential election, which meant

agreeing on a figure to lead the crusade. “We needed a candidate to rally

around,” said Falwell, “and we set about finding one.” Falwell, Weyrich,

and the rest of the group met with most of the Republicans who were

thinking of running for president in 1980. It did not take them long to

find the one they could agree on: former California governor Ronald Reagan.

His California record was not perfect. As governor in the 1960s, he

had not opposed state funding for abortions, and his professional roots

were in the Hollywood movie industry, a font of secularism and moral

corruption in the eyes of most evangelicals. But he had worked hard to

win their support in recent years, decrying the absence of prayer in

schools and backing, when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1976, a

“human life amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.

With a candidate to sell and a constituency to reach-the one that

Carter had identified-Falwell and his Washington-based media and

direct-mail advisers compiled lists and opened Moral Majority chapters at

the new suburban megachurches and old-fashioned rural outposts alike.

Adapting a technique used by labor and business lobby groups, Falwell &

Co. compiled “scorecard” ratings of candidates on moral issues. The

Moral Majority staged rallies across the South and Midwest to support

candidates, all of them Republicans.

The rallies were a powerful mix of rock concert, revival meeting, and

political rally. At one in Alabama, huge screens in the darkened auditorium

presented slide shows of examples of evil in the world of 1980, especially

what Reagan would come to call “the evil empire,” the Soviet

Union: shark-toothed rows of missiles aimed at the United States,

Khrushchev banging his shoe on the tabletop at the United Nations, Soviet

tanks rolling into Prague. Falwell took the stage to thunder a warning

against “godless communism” and-though he didnt say it in so

many words-its allies in America: the godless, heathen liberals who supported

abortion, gay rights, and secular science, and who opposed school

prayer, the family, and tax breaks for religious schools.

After the ominous music and scary pictures, after the speech about the

danger of liberals, Falwell talked about answers: God, of course, but also

right-thinking candidates. Lo and behold, two of them happened to be in

the audience: Jeremiah Denton, a former admiral and Vietnam War hero

who was running for the U.S. Senate, and Albert Lee Smith, local congressional

candidate. They stood at their places, the spotlights beaming

down on them as they were showered with applause. Reagan was not

there, but the Gipper was cheered, too.

The overall theme of the rally: God will rain down his wrath on us if

we do not elect these people!

On election day, Denton and Smith swept to victory in Alabama, and

Reagan swept the country, including the entire South except for Carters

home state of Georgia.

The pattern and the alliances were set. Only the names, candidates,

and technical expertise changed in the intervening years. The Moral Majority

faded but begat the more technologically sophisticated Christian

Coalition, which promoted the presidential candidate Pat Robertson in

1988. Falwell (who had no love for Robertson), supported George H. W.

Bush that year, the first step toward becoming what amounted to a family

retainer. The third and last iteration of this line was Dr. James Dobson,

who was not a preacher per se but a family counselor (better for the soft

sell) and a radio host who deployed the latest computer technology to service

his listeners and build his national following.

When it came time to build George W. Bushs political career from the

ground up, Karl Rove began by introducing his charge to the Bible Belt of

Texas: the small towns in the west and the new megachurches of Dallas

and Houston and San Antonio. And it was Bush, not Carter, who became

the ultimate in born-again presidents. He favored the teaching of “intelligent

design” as an alternative to evolutionary theory. He opposed the creation

and use of human embryos for stem-cell research. He supported a

Human Life Amendment to the Constitution. He opposed a gay-rights

constitutional amendment, and supported efforts in the states to define

marriage as a union of one man and one woman. He supported the use of

government money by churches to do social-welfare work. He opposed a

court decision to take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

He nominated two justices to the Supreme Court whom right-tolifers

trust and admire, even if those justices, now that they are confirmed,

are likely to tread carefully as they dismantle Roe.

Bush was the ultimate faith candidate in 2000. There was an even

more perfect iteration in 2008, however-a Southern Baptist preacher

turned politician named Mike Huckabee. The former governor of

Arkansas (from the town of Hope, no less) campaigned among evangelicals

in the Iowa Republican caucuses as a “Christian Leader.” Since he

was an ordained minister (he had pastored two congregations), that was

literally true. And he won the caucuses.

Though Bush had become a pariah to much of the nation by the time

of the 2008 campaign, the voters who got him elected remained as

important as ever-especially to Republicans eager to succeed him. One

of them was Senator John McCain, who in the 2000 campaign had denounced

Falwell, Robertson, and others as “agents of intolerance” and division.

Now McCain wanted their support. Some rethinking on matters

of science was required. In the very earliest stages of the 08 campaign,

when the bidding wars already were well under way among evangelical

activists, McCain gave a speech at the Discovery Institute, the worlds

leading proponent of intelligent design. Seeking to run on the base that

Bush and Rove had built, McCain at times depicted himself as a proponent

of teaching the theory in public schools. “I think there is nothing

wrong with teaching different schools of thought,” he said in 2005. But a

year later, he qualified his support for intelligent design. “Should it be

taught in science class?” he said in a conference in Aspen, Colorado.

“Probably not.”

A few months later, McCain issued what he hoped would be his definitive

statement on the matter. He did it in a book he cowrote with his

longtime aide, Mark Salter. McCain praised Charles Darwins work, and

argued that the “only undeniable challenge the theory of evolution poses

to Christian beliefs is its obvious contradiction of the idea that God created

the world as it is in less than a week.”

As far as McCain was concerned, the Bible in that case was metaphor,

not literal truth. “Nature does not threaten our faith,” he wrote. “On the

contrary, when we contemplate its beauty and mysteries we cannot quiet

in our hearts the insistent impulse of belief that, for all its variations and

inevitable change, before its creation, in a time before time, God let it be

so, and thus its many splendors and purposes abide in His purpose.”

If that was a little too murky, McCain was back in the fall of 2007 with

a clearer declaration-not on intelligent design, but on the design of

America. “The Constitution established the United States as a Christian

nation,” he told the website Beliefnet.com in an interview. Surveys showed

that a majority of Americans tended to agree. That would be news to the

Founders, Christians all.

McCains bid to secure the allegiance of evangelicals fell short. Two

other 2008 candidates worked hard to woo them. One, ironically, was a

Mormon-Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. As earnest, devout, and cleancut

as he was, Romney had a hard time keeping up with Huckabee, who

had spent ten years pastoring churches as a Southern Baptist preacher. He

ran an ad in Iowa proclaiming himself a “Christian Leader.” Not surprisingly,

the ad started an argument.

From the Hardcover edition.


Howard Fineman, one of our most trusted political journalists, shows that every debate, from our nations founding to the present day, is rooted in one of thirteen arguments that-thankfully-defy resolution. It is the very process of never-ending argument, Fineman explains, that defines us, inspires us, and keeps us free. At a time when most public disagreement seems shrill and meaningless, Fineman makes a cogent case for nurturing the real American dialogue. The Thirteen American Arguments runs the gamut, including

Who Is a Person? The Declaration of Independence says “everyone,” but it took a Civil War, the Civil Rights Act, and other movements to make that a reality. Now, what about human embryos and prisoners in Guantanamo?

The Role of Faith No country is more legally secular yet more avowedly prayerful. From Thomas Jefferson to James Dobson, the issue persists: Where does God fit in government?

America in the World In Iraq and everywhere else, we ask ourselves whether we must change the world in order to survive and honor our values-or whether the best way to do both is to deal with the world as it is.

Whether its the nomination of judges or the limits of free speech, presidential power or public debt, the issues that galvanized the Founding Fathers should still inspire our leaders, thinkers, and fellow citizens. If we cease to argue about these things, we cease to be. “Argument is strength, not weakness,” says Fineman. “As long as we argue, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, we will argue.”

About the Author

Howard Fineman is Newsweeks senior Washington correspondent and columnist. His “Living Politics” column appears regularly in the magazine, on newsweek.com, and on MSNBC.com. An award-winning writer, Fineman is also an NBC news analyst and a regular on Hardball with Chris Matthews and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. Once a regular on CNN, Fineman now reports exclusively for NBC, and has appeared on most major public affairs shows, including Nightline, Face the Nation, Larry King Live, Fox News Sunday, Charlie Rose, and Washington Week in Review. Fineman lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Fineman, Howard
Random House Trade
History & Theory - General
United States - General
History & Theory
Politics - General
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Trade paper
Publication Date:
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8.06x5.32x.72 in. .52 lbs.

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"Synopsis" by ,

Howard Fineman, one of our most trusted political journalists, shows that every debate, from our nations founding to the present day, is rooted in one of thirteen arguments that-thankfully-defy resolution. It is the very process of never-ending argument, Fineman explains, that defines us, inspires us, and keeps us free. At a time when most public disagreement seems shrill and meaningless, Fineman makes a cogent case for nurturing the real American dialogue. The Thirteen American Arguments runs the gamut, including

Who Is a Person? The Declaration of Independence says “everyone,” but it took a Civil War, the Civil Rights Act, and other movements to make that a reality. Now, what about human embryos and prisoners in Guantanamo?

The Role of Faith No country is more legally secular yet more avowedly prayerful. From Thomas Jefferson to James Dobson, the issue persists: Where does God fit in government?

America in the World In Iraq and everywhere else, we ask ourselves whether we must change the world in order to survive and honor our values-or whether the best way to do both is to deal with the world as it is.

Whether its the nomination of judges or the limits of free speech, presidential power or public debt, the issues that galvanized the Founding Fathers should still inspire our leaders, thinkers, and fellow citizens. If we cease to argue about these things, we cease to be. “Argument is strength, not weakness,” says Fineman. “As long as we argue, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, we will argue.”

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