TCS Daily

The Academic Left and the Christian Right, Part II

By William J. Stuntz - January 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Five weeks ago, I wrote a column ("Faculty Clubs and Church Pews") that suggested an odd political coalition: intellectuals and evangelicals. A lot of people have e-mailed me about that column, and a number of blogs have commented on it. For which I'm very grateful -- especially so since the comments have mostly been kind and generous. In the midst of all the kindness and generosity, though, one criticism crops up again and again: the idea is nuts. There simply can be no common ground between these two groups. Mutual hatred is inevitable. Sullen contempt is the best we can hope for.

Being accused of mindless optimism is an odd sensation for me. My whole life, I've believed in the power of negative thinking. My motto is, assume the worst - you'll never be disappointed, and sometimes pleasant surprises will come along. If I'm more hopeful than most people, something is haywire. Or else the drugs have finally kicked in. (I have a bad back, and take some, well, interesting painkillers. Always with appropriate prescriptions, in case any federal prosecutors are reading this.)

So I've thought hard about it, in between reading Christmas letters and law review articles. And I've come to a conclusion: The situation is even better than I'd thought. The intellectual left and the religious right not only could come together. Given the right kind of political leadership, they will.

So what would this coming-together look like? What ideological territory, what issue space, can secular academics and evangelical Christians both occupy? Here's a short list:

1. Abortion. Begin with the hardest nut to crack. The secular left believes strongly in abortion rights. Conservative Christians believe passionately that abortion is evil. Surely common ground can't exist here.

Yet it might. The key is that the two sides don't need to agree on premises in order to buy the same conclusion. Pro-life Christians want to see fewer abortions. That is already happening: the abortion rate has been falling since 1981; from that year to 2000 the rate fell by 27 percent, according to census data. Among teenage girls, the decline is greater still. The abortion rate is probably lower today than in 1975; it might be lower than in 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide. What lies behind these trends? Strangely enough, the answer has a lot to do with the law being pro-choice. When the culture is sharply divided on some kind of behavior, the side that wins the law's endorsement tends to lose ground, culturally and politically. Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement's friend. Those who want abortions to be rare would do well to keep them safe and legal.

Consider some history: In the 1960s, even first-trimester abortions were crimes. No one knows how many illegal abortions there were; a conventional estimate is one million per year, and the number may be higher. The culture was growing steadily more tolerant of the practice. Media attention focused on the downsides of criminalization: The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek ran stories claiming (falsely) that thousands of women were dying each year during botched abortions. Even conservative politicians like then-Governor Ronald Reagan supported a measure of legal tolerance. Today, abortion is a constitutional right. Back-alley abortions are no longer a story; partial-birth abortions are. And since the pro-life movement stopped focusing all its energies on changing the law, the culture has moved steadily in its direction. Few medical-school students learn how to perform the procedure, not just because they fear protests but because they have qualms about it. So do millions of young women. When I was a college student in the 1970s, abortion was talked about, and often done, casually. I don't think that's true today. But if the Supreme Court overruled Roe and a couple dozen states criminalized early-term abortions, those trends would quickly reverse. Abortion would become not a moral question, but a civil liberties question - just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

This phenomenon -- legal victory that leads to cultural and political defeat -- has a long history. In the 1850s, slaveholders collected some huge legal prizes: the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision. Those victories produced an anti-slavery movement powerful enough to elect Lincoln and win the Civil War. Sixty years later, the temperance movement won its long battle for national Prohibition. Within a decade, the culture was turning against temperance; Repeal came soon after. In America's culture wars, the side with the law's weaponry often manages only to wound themselves.

A lot of pro-lifers understand this, and their number is steadily growing. For the near future, the movement is likely to keep doing what works -- finding ways to encourage young women to "choose life." The old Clinton slogan -- safe, legal, and rare -- may actually become a reality. The compromise here is simple: let's agree to leave Roe alone, at least for now, and to fight this cultural battle on a cultural battleground. Not a legal one.

2. Poverty at home. Urban poverty should be America's number one domestic policy issue. Right now, it's a non-issue: Republicans do nothing because there are no votes to be had in poor city neighborhoods; Democrats do nothing because they have those votes locked up (also because they fear angering powerful interest groups). Making urban poverty a major issue requires that some class of voters outside poor city neighborhoods demand action. Secular intellectuals and evangelical Christians could fill the bill.

The idea that intellectuals could play a large role in poverty policy might sound naive. But intellectuals had a lot to do with the War on Poverty of the 1960s. Michael Harrington's book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, got the political train rolling. That could happen again. If it did, a lot of evangelical Christians would get on board. Urban ministry is a hot topic in the churches I've attended; evangelicals are eager to get behind people and programs that aim to ease the suffering in inner cities. That includes government programs, if they actually accomplish something. In the churches I know, there is real hunger for a politics that is about something nobler than tax cuts and tort reform.

All the more so since the best anti-poverty programs would not cost massive amounts of money; what is needed is not wealth transfer so much as wealth creation. Three elements are key: incentives, education, and crime reduction. Welfare reform has turned out to be a much bigger success than liberals predicted. We should build on that success, make it easier for the urban poor to find and hold private-sector jobs (and make it easier to live on the wages). I don't know the best ways to do that, but I bet Mickey Kaus does. (For the uninitiated, Kaus is a journalist and public intellectual who writes brilliantly about welfare reform and its effects.) Congressional Democrats and Republicans should be beating down Kaus's door, and competing for the support of people like him. That happened in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon proposed his Family Assistance Plan as an alternative to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It could happen again, if the intellectual left and the religious right demanded it.

As for urban schools, we should be trying everything under the sun. Cities won't do that on their own; interest-group opposition is too strong. (Public employees' unions are always more powerful at the local level than at the state or national levels.) Congress and state legislatures should make them. Raise standards and introduce competition, either with vouchers or through some other market mechanism. The right should like this approach because it uses the market, and demonstrates the compassion part of compassionate conservatism. The left should like it because it would give poor kids a better education.

Crime may actually be the biggest factor here. Private enterprise can't flourish without safety, and young men won't devote their talents and energies to legal wealth creation when a lucrative illegal drug trade beckons.

One possible response is to ratchet up punishment for crime, especially drug and gun crime, in the roughest city neighborhoods. But we've traveled too far down that road already. More than 2.2 million Americans live in prisons and jails. A hugely disproportionate number of them come from places like Anacostia and the South Bronx, Dorchester and Chicago's South Side. There is a kind of Laffer curve to criminal punishment -- at some point, more bodies in the state penitentiary mean less deterrence. When a prison sentence is a rare event, it carries great stigma. Make it common, and it becomes a rite of passage, even a badge of honor. That does nothing to lessen the allure of crime and drugs for the young men who still live outside prison walls. In many high-crime city neighborhoods, we are either approaching that tipping point or already past it. Among people who study our criminal justice system, there is widespread agreement -- across the ideological spectrum; even John DiIulio agrees -- that the prison population needs to come down. We need less punishment, not more.

But we also need less crime. High-crime neighborhoods are safer than they were a dozen years ago but nowhere near as safe as they were fifty years ago. There is still a lot of progress to be made. How can that progress happen without sending more young men up the river? One way is to hire more cops with the money we save on prison beds -- not to catch and punish more criminals, but to keep crimes from happening, to keep young men out of jail. A bigger police presence on America's most violent street corners would make those street corners less violent. Open-air drug markets can't operate when cops are standing nearby.

That requires federal and state dollars. Cities can't afford to spend more than they already do; that is why most American cities are underpoliced. The academic left would support that spending, if it were coupled with a reduction in prison terms. When I started teaching nineteen years ago, most professors were hostile to the police. I don't see as much hostility today; academics, like the rest of the citizenry, have benefited from the crime drop of the 1990s. Bill Clinton's effort to put another 100,000 cops on the street attracted more support from the left than from the right.

And I think my friends in evangelical churches would embrace the idea of scaling back prison sentences. Chuck Colson is a hero to American evangelicals. Colson has made a second career (the first landed him in prison for Watergate crimes) out of ministering to prison inmates -- and telling anyone who will listen that many of those inmates should not have been incarcerated in the first place. The message resonates. Compassionate conservatism turns out to be quite popular with evangelical audiences, even when the objects of compassion are convicted criminals. After all, Christians believe we are, each one of us, "objects of mercy who should have known wrath," to use the words of a popular praise song. Christian churches are one great sea of condemned prisoners who just received word that a pardon has been granted. Passing out mercy to those who have stumbled, even while striving to keep others from stumbling, fits naturally with the Christian message. It's also wise policy.

3. Poverty abroad. The worst moment in last year's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was not Howard Dean's scream or John Kerry talking about voting both ways on money for Iraq. It came when John Edwards made an applause line out of opposing trade deals with sub-Saharan Africa. The idea that the richest nation in human history should adopt trade policies that make the poorest region in the world poorer is morally outrageous. Unless the left has lost all sympathy with the world's poor, that proposition is one both sides of the political aisle should be willing to embrace. The Christian right is already there -- partly because the world's poorest places, including sub-Saharan Africa, are also the places where Christianity is spreading most rapidly. That fact offers a political opportunity for those who want to ease suffering elsewhere in the world. If John F. Kennedy could win broad political support for programs like the Peace Corps more than forty years ago in a less favorable political climate (Southern white evangelicals weren't as keen on helping poor Africans then), it should be possible today to win support for programs that help poor democracies fight poverty and disease. We could start by making it easier, not harder, for those same poor democracies to sell their goods here.

4. Spreading freedom, and nation building. The academic left is naturally cosmopolitan, not isolationist. So it isn't surprising that, by the end of the second Clinton Administration, most intellectuals had embraced the use of American armed forces to topple murderous regimes and plant democracy where dictatorial killers once ruled. That's a less common stance in faculty hallways today (probably for the same reason that conservative Republicans once attacked Clinton for intervening in Kosovo). But given a different President, either a Democrat or a less polarizing Republican, the earlier view is likely to return.

Meanwhile, I haven't noticed any groundswell of opposition from evangelicals to nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have noticed that Tony Blair has become a hero among many evangelicals over the past couple of years, because he speaks so eloquently about the hellish suffering that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein inflicted on their peoples, and about the moral obligation of the rich world to do what it can to stop that suffering. Blair is a man of the left. He also appears to be a more-than-nominal Christian. That combination sounds contradictory only because we are too accustomed to the usual political categories. If the categories change, we might see a good many Tony Blairs -- on this side of the Atlantic.

* * *

Blair's popularity in the U.S. captures something important about today's politics. Left and right have no clear meaning anymore. Which was the more progressive stance a decade ago -- supporting Newt Gingrich's welfare reform, or supporting the welfare status quo? Which is more progressive today: vouchers for parents of inner-city school children, or keeping public education the way it is? Who should be more committed to fighting fascist Middle Eastern dictators, conservatives or liberals? Should liberals oppose cuts in Medicare and Social Security, even if showering money on the middle-class elderly blocks spending that might improve the lives of the youngest and poorest Americans?

Michael Barone is right (as usual) to call the left's politics nostalgic. An even better word would be sclerotic. The status quo is pretty good: America is rich, strong, and free, and freedom and democracy are expanding all over the world. But it could be so much better -- especially for those among us who are most vulnerable. The left should aim higher. For that matter, so should the right.

I can think of two groups that would welcome bigger dreams than prescription drug benefits and dividend tax cuts. Academics dream for a living -- we think about ways the world might change, and how the change could happen. And evangelicals believe we live in a world afflicted by sin and filled with wrongs that need righting. I bet both groups would welcome a politics that aimed to right some of those wrongs. I know I would.

William J. Stuntz is a Professor at Harvard Law School.



TCS Daily Archives