Other than helping Bob Dole win the Republican nomination for president, religious conservatives have had virtually no impact on this campaign. Only with excruciating reluctance has Dole addressed abortion, and on other social issues of paramount importance to religious conservatives -- such as imminent court rulings on same-sex marriage -- Dole has been silent.
If Bill Clinton wins re-election, religious conservatives will be forced to make a fundamental choice. Should they look for another candidate within Republican ranks who will espouse their agenda, or should they end their rocky marriage to the Republican Party -- either forming a third party or withdrawing from politics to focus on building a kingdom not of this world?
The Supreme Court has agreed to revisit the church-state issue and examine the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress passed and President Clinton signed the measure to reverse a 1990 Supreme Court decision that allowed certain state infringements on religious liberties. The bill had widespread support.
Some court observers believe the act will be struck down and finally place the state in a position of supreme authority over all matters deemed to have religious origins. But without being guided by a moral code with a source other than the mind of a judge, what is to keep a judge from becoming a mini-deity? Examples of that self-declared omnipotence have been seen in rulings on school prayer, abortion and the coming battle over same-sex marriage. Without immutable moral laws "endowed by our Creator," a society quickly implodes as pleasure and materialism become paramount.
Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide who heads the Prison Fellowship Christian ministry, has an important essay in the November issue of First Things, a journal that considers contemporary moral and ethical concerns. Colson says we are approaching a time when Christians, especially, may have to declare the social contract between Enlightenment rationalists and Biblical believers -- which formed the basis of the Constitution written at our nation's founding -- null and void because it has been breached. So as not to incite militia groups, Colson frames his argument with admonitions against violence.
Citing a systematic usurpation of power by the American judiciary, Colson questions whether the current political order, underpinned only by an intolerant secularism, should continue to command the allegiance of believers. Are they, he asks, still part of "We the People" from which democratic authority presumably derived?
"Cultural conservatives," writes Colson, "stand convicted of unspeakable crimes in the eyes of most of America's media commentators. The opponents of abortion on demand, in particular, have felt the whip . . . . Hostility against pro-lifers seems now to have spilled over into a distrust of any group of citizens seeking to connect public policy with a transcendent moral order."
There are many avenues people can take short of separation, even revolution, and Colson does not believe we have reached the point of grabbing the guns. But he thinks "a showdown between church and state may be inevitable. This is not something for which Christians should hope. But it is something for which they should prepare."
Conservative religious believers are now faced with a clear choice. They can abandon their political interests and claim resident alien status in a land that has forgotten their God, no longer, in Colson's words, "considering this land their country." Or they can continue in frustration to try to restore a moral order from the top down, which seems to me like building the house before the foundation is laid. Or they can remember what the Founders said: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them . . . ."
Again, Colson says we have not yet reached the point of revolution: "Calmness and seriousness of demeanor are necessary both to prevent the media dismissing us as fanatics and to prevent individuals from taking matters into their own hands . . . . But we must -- slowly, prayerfully and with great deliberation and serious debate -- prepare ourselves for what the future seems likely to bring under a regime in which the courts have usurped the democratic process by reckless exercise of naked power."
Which course religious conservatives choose will have profound political and social consequences for those living in the 21st century.