Everybody loves to quote the famous dictum by Lord Acton, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Heads nod all around, and then everyone ignores what the wise old Englishman said. Power does indeed corrupt human beings: It compromises principles, it quiets conscience, and it mellows morality. Power tells us to just get along, instead of getting upset; it encourages us toward smooth sailing, and discourages us from rocking the boat.
But it’s bad theology to say that power, per se, is always bad. The Bible speaks of the power of God, the power of the gospel, and the power of truth. The New Testament word dunamis means "spiritual power." Even political power (which is what Acton was really talking about) isn’t always evil. Look at the moral power and authority that Nelson Mandela exercised to free South Africa or the power of the civil rights movement which changed the landscape of American life. Yet power, and especially political power, is very dangerous. It’s often riddled with the hubris and illusion to which we all are so susceptible.
Human beings seem not to handle power very well. Of all people, religious leaders ought to know that best. Instead, religious leaders are often among the most easily corrupted by power, especially when they get close to political power. Doug Coe, the father of the prayer breakfast movement, once told me that the best way to get religious leaders together was to invite them to a meeting with a powerful political leader. He said most church leaders generally ignored Jesus’ suggestion to take the humbler places at a banquet and wait until they are invited to "come up higher." Instead they jostle for the best positions and places at the events where the powerful gather.
WHEN I FIRST HEARD about a new book, Blinded By Might, written by two former leaders of the Religious Right, I was fascinated. And when I read their story of how the Moral Majority and their movement had been seduced by power, I was eager to speak with the authors personally about it. I’ve known Cal Thomas for several years, have been on his radio show a couple of times, and once invited him to speak at a Call to Renewal gathering. I appreciated a conservative commentator who would not only expose liberal shibboleths, but also try to hold his right-wing friends accountable to some moral imperatives they often miss—like how a society treats its poor. I’d never met Ed Dobson but heard stories of how a conservative Grand Rapids pastor had gotten high marks from black ministers and even local gay rights activists for evidencing a genuine compassion for the marginal and forgotten.
I recommend their book. It recounts the exhilaration many conservative evangelicals felt when Ronald Reagan was elected president in the 1980 landslide, and how many of them (the authors included) bristled with pride when the media gave the newly organized Religious Right a substantial part of the credit for the victory. Thomas and Dobson were as excited as everyone else at the post-election celebration at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. The ecstatic crowd, so proud of their pastor who had now become a major national figure, leaped to their feet when Falwell strode into the packed auditorium as a band struck up "Hail to the Chief." Hail to the Chief? The authors say it was almost as if Jerry Falwell had been elected president. All of a sudden, conservative evangelicals who felt ignored and ridiculed for so long in the cultural backwaters of American life, almost since the infamous Scopes trial in the 1920s, were now in the national spotlight and getting their pictures taken in the Oval Office with the president.
Reagan and Falwell spoke often, sometimes several times a week, as the fundamentalist minister became an insider to power. Revealing stories in the book demonstrate the cost of becoming a political insider. At one point, Reagan was about to appoint Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court—not the kind of unequivocal pro-life justice the Religious Right was hoping for. But Reagan called Falwell, saying, "Jerry....I want you to trust my judgment on this one." Perhaps anxious to be a player, a winner, an insider, Falwell went along, and a series of compromises began. Direct mail strategy and fund raising came to dominate the Religious Right’s political agenda over former moral concerns. Political success, defined as keeping political power, eventually became more important than the issues that initiated the formation of the Religious Right in the first place. It’s an old story.
Of course, religious conservatives are not the only ones to be mesmerized by political power. If the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition have loved the attention from the Republican Party, the National Council of Churches has often been satisfied with photo-ops at a Democratic White House. After 12 years in exile during the Reagan-Bush administrations, many mainline Protestant leaders were eager to be back in the loop with the Clinton-Gore victory. Many of them were reduced to defending his indefensible moral behavior in a sexual and political scandal. Access clearly has it limitations.
Now major spokesmen for the Religious Right lament how little of their agenda has actually been accomplished. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson say the Religious Right has failed. Critics of Thomas’s and Dobson’s new book say the two are suggesting a shift away from political engagement to personal piety and church building. But that is a misreading of their message. I hear Thomas and Dobson asking not whether Christians should be involved in the world, or even in "politics," but how. Our conversation this fall produced a fascinating discussion comparing the Religious Right of the 1980s and ‘90s with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Both were rooted in the churches, both advanced an agenda of "moral issues," and both sought to influence the direction of American life. But there were important differences.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLE succeeded because it first built a movement, morally based and politically independent, that certainly tried to change political structures and policies but operated outside of them. Its strength and base was not primarily inside of politics, but outside. The civil rights movement’s outside strength and moral argument proved key to the ultimate successes inside the political system, i.e. the civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Because the movement changed the way the American people thought about race and sought to impact the very cultural values of the country, it opened up the possibility of political change.
The Religious Right, on the other hand, went for political power right away. Their strategy was less movement building and values changing than immediate electoral organizing. In fact, their hope was literally to take over the Republican Party (and they were successful in several states and local areas), and then their legislative agenda would be implemented. But the critical step of persuading by moral argument and building a constituency for change was neglected. Ironically, a group that opted for an insider political strategy may now be relatively ignored by political power, in part because it failed to build the independent moral base and argument that is critical for real social transformation.
There have been countless books, documentaries, plays, television shows, and motion pictures telling the story of the civil rights movement. Does anyone really expect that we will be seeing anything similar about the Religious Right? The Religious Right went wrong by forgetting its religious and moral roots and going for political power; the civil rights movement was proved right in operating out of its spiritual strength and letting its political influence flow from its moral influence. Other great social causes led by religious communities—abolition of slavery, child labor reform, women’s suffrage, etc.—followed the same strategy.
The discussion precipitated by Blinded By Might is one of the most important ones for us to have together. Remember, the issue is not whether Christians should influence their society, but how.
JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.