Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait

Against Michael Kazin

In his call for left-wing moral revivalism as a counterweight to the ascendancy of the religious right in American politics (“A Difficult Marriage: American Protestants and American Politics,” Winter 2006), Michael Kazin cites the historian D.G. Hart’s argument that religion is “inherently useful in solving social problems because it yields moral guidelines that inevitably generate both a concern for justice and the welfare of all people.”

Inherently? Inevitably? Does the quote refer to an American religion that fought slavery over the opposition of many orthodox churches or to a religion that upheld slavery in the South and profiteering from slavery in the North? Are we talking about a minority faith that insisted women should have an equal voice in the house of God and man or a majority of clerics who denounced feminists, well into the twentieth century, as unnatural female infidels? Are Hart and Kazin referring to a religion that makes room for secular knowledge or a religion that refuses to listen to anything science has to say about the origins of life?

There is no such thing as generic religion or, for that matter, generic evangelical Protestantism, and most ecclesiastical leaders, whether evangelical or not, are interested in the welfare of all only insofar as welfare is defined in accordance with their particular faith. That is the fatal flaw in all proposals, whether from the left or the right, for a stronger religious voice in the public square. No one would deny that some religious spokesmen are capable of framing moral issues in transcendent fashion; the civil rights leadership provided by black churches is the prime twentieth-century example. But the voices of African American preachers spoke to a broader public morality precisely because they emanated from outside the government and the political establishment. Most southern white Protestant churches, by contrast—churches that helped spawn the present generation of Dixiecans who invoke the name of Martin Luther King in order to push the Republican faith-based political agenda—were closely allied with segregationist politics-as-usual and had no interest whatever in the welfare of blacks.

The absence of any common religious definition of welfare becomes evident in every political battle over “values issues.” Both supporters and opponents of ham-handed, faith-based attempts by the U.S. Congress to intervene in the case involving removal of the comatose Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, for example, would have said (and did say) that they were concerned about the welfare of Schiavo and those similarly situated. But the two groups defined welfare in irreconcilable ways, largely attributable to religious convictions about whether human beings have the right to “play God” with their own lives.

The limited, and often conflicting, definitions of welfare promulgated by various religions were very much on the minds of the framers of the Consti...

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