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Religious conservatives in the Age of Trump

Religious conservatives shouldn’t kid themselves. The culture war isn’t over by a long shot. Aggressive secularism’s efforts to eliminate the religious viewpoint from America’s public square will resume.

U.S. President Donald Trump prays during the National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 2 in Washington. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

Many religious conservatives are looking to the Trump years with high expectations. R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, says Trump’s ascendancy marks a significant defeat for “anti-Christian” elites while offering religious conservatives an opportunity to speak up and be heard on behalf of their beliefs and values.

It’s too early in the game to make definitive pronouncements, but Reno could be right. Certainly we can expect the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, to refrain from pressuring religious conservatives to violate their consciences by collaborating with things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the transgender campaign.

On a positive note, moreover, the appearances by Vice President Mike Pence and Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway at the annual March for Life—to say nothing of the president’s own supportive tweet—carried important symbolic weight.

Credit Trump, too, with making a good start by issuing an executive order barring federal funding for abortion overseas. He has lived up to his campaign promise to name prolife jurists to the Supreme Court by nominating federal judge Neil Gorsuch. And meanwhile the Republican-controlled Congress has been moving forward on prolife legislation.

But religious conservatives shouldn’t kid themselves. The culture war isn’t over by a long shot. Aggressive secularism’s efforts to eliminate the religious viewpoint from America’s public square will resume. The secularist mindset requires no less.

That mindset has several overlapping components.

Part of it is a fundamental hostility to religion. “There can be nothing more abominable than religion,” Lenin wrote, summing up a basic tenet of militant atheism. Religion, in this view, is a dangerous delusion and an obstacle to human flourishing. The sooner religious faith is eradicated, the better.

To be sure, not all secularists propose to go that far. Probably more common is an attitude best described as conditional toleration. For those who want it, religion is okay in its place—but that place is in church. Religion has no meaningful role to play in the public square.

There is, however, still another variation on the secularist theme: religion and religious believers can be accepted as junior partners provided that they cooperate in promoting secularist values, not least because church people who toot the horn for abortion or gay marriage function as useful tools in the ongoing project of undercutting religious conservatives. It hardly needs saying that some church people feel no qualms about obliging.

But wrong and even dangerous as the secularist mindset is, religious conservatives shouldn’t demonize the secularists themselves. As long as no compromise of moral principle is involved, cooperation in pursuit of goals that truly benefit society as a whole remains a possibility.

Religious conservatives also need to keep in mind the wisdom of not getting overly identified with one political party or one political leader. In particular, it would be a serious mistake for the prolife movement to allow itself to be stereotyped as no more than a faction within the GOP.

People of faith did a lot to put President Trump in the White House, and he and his administration have begun taking praiseworthy steps to keep their promises to those voters. But politicians come and go, and political coalitions form and dissolve. Individuals are at liberty to make their own political commitments, but religious conservatism as a whole needs to keep an eye on the long term and maintain some daylight between itself and the new administration.

At this understandably heady moment, the faithful should remember that reaching the goal of an authentic, comprehensive culture of life in America requires that.

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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

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