WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin. Broadway Books: 1997. 418 pages with index.
William Martin begins his book with a description of the origins of the modern American religious right in the Puritanism of 17th century Massachusetts. He concludes it with a passionately dispassionate defense of the fundamental American constitutional p rinciple that church and state must be kept separate and apart, for the ultimate benefit of both.
Other reviewers have described this book as "evenhanded" and "sympathetic." Professor Martin is scrupulously factual in his narrative. He lets the leadership of the religious right explain their own position through the extensive use of quotes. He does no t engage in the character assassination that often infects the rhetoric of members of the religious right, whether they are attacking leftist liberals, or fellow reactionaries who do not happen to precisely agree with them on some point of politics or the ology.
He goes out of his way to humanize certain leaders of the religious right. For example, he relates how the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell consciously excluded the theologically charismatic Pat Robertson from the leadership of the Moral Majority when it was formed in 1980. Robertson believes in speaking in tongues, faith healing and prophesy. As Martin tells us, "Falwell once facetiously attributed tongue-speaking to eating bad pizza."
However, he definitely has a point of view on one of the three major challenges to traditional American constitutional democracy we face today: the religious right's central dictum that the 200-year-old constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state should be rescinded in favor of a particular religious doctrine — that of American, biblically inerrant, primarily Protestant, right wing Christian theocratic fundamentalism. (The other two major challenges concern the continued existence of an inde pendent judiciary, and the drive to return to the pre-Civil War concept of Federalism, a concept that permitted slavery.)
As Professor Martin writes at the conclusion of his book:
"As a basic premise, we must remember that the Founding Fathers intended that the state be neutral toward all religions, but did not intend that religious people or their organizations be neutralized... Of course, religious people have a right to be invo lved in political activity, and they cannot be expected to leave their religious convictions behind when they enter the political arena... [They] may all legitimately work to shape public policy, within the limits of the Constitution which has served us s o admirably in avoiding society-rending religious conflicts.
"There are, however, real and reasonable limits to that shaping process. The most important of these is that a religious body does not have the right...to bind its specifically religious doctrines on others...
"Nobody [in the view of the Founding Fathers] has a corner on Truth, Justice, and the American Way."
This is a carefully researched, well-referenced, well-written, highly informative book. In a brief, but factually and analytically rich introduction, the author places the modern American religious right in its historical context from the 17th century thr ough the World War II era. The main body of the book deals, in detail, with its second-half-of-the-20th-century major variants, and its major and minor leaders — from Billy Graham to Pat Robertson — often in the context of American presidential politics.< p> One of the most important historical lessons of this book is that, at least from the time of the founding of the republic, the religious right has presented virtually nothing that is conceptually new, from the notion of the supremacy of some "natural law" over constitutional law, to the notion that only laissez-faire capitalism can and should stand as the foundation of the US economic system.
Fundamentalists of every era have held that the nation stands on the brink of, or has already descended, into moral disaster, and that only a massive religious revival, on their terms, can save it. Further, they have held, variously, that if only abortion , "smut," homosexuals, sex education, contraceptives, drink, or non-Christians were banned from public and private life, then all of the nation's problems, real and imagined, would be solved.
One characteristic of the contemporary religious right described in detail by Professor Martin may be its ultimately fatal flaw: the inability of certain of its key components to accept any kind of political or theological compromise, even among themselve s, much less with the mass of the American people. That has been a characteristic of the forever-splintering, "inerrant," Protestant evangelical movement since the Great Revival of the early 19th century. In the absence of any effective Left in this count ry, that may be all that those of us who believe in the wonders of American constitutional democracy have to hope for.
Johnathan Westminster is the author of The 15% Solution: A Political History of American Fascism, 2001-2022, published by Thomas Jefferson Press (1-800-882-7987).