Kristol identifies religion as primary issue in U.S. politics
Religion is becoming the defining issue of U.S. politics, William Kristol, editor-in-chief of the conservative journal The Weekly Standard, said yesterday. His lecture, "Under God? Is Religion at the Heart of America's Culture War?" was sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
"The idea that you can have a decent society that is totally separate from God is not really accepted by Americans . . . Communism and fascism represent the problems that arise when God is not considered at all," Kristol said.
As a result, he said, the question of religion is at the center of many political and social problems.
In the last two months, there has been a major assault on President Bush for misappropriating religious rhetoric, Kristol said. He defended Bush's message, characterizing it as mildly sectarian religious rhetoric and denied that it is "messianic militarism."
Kristol compared the current situation to the period before the Civil War when Lincoln appealed similarly to divine providence.
"Bush has been very careful in his use of providence," Kristol said. Like Lincoln, he said, Bush understands that divine providence is a "check on human pride and a guide, but [that] it does not guarantee victory."
Kristol criticized liberals for their focus on Bush's alleged messianic message and hoped that future debate would focus more on the war itself.
Politics used to be split along economic lines, but increasingly, religion is the most important issue in people's minds, he said.
"Beginning in 1972, cultural, social and religious divides began to become more salient, more important in explaining people's voting behavior," Kristol said.
He listed examples of voting patterns in the election between Kennedy and Nixon as well as the recent presidential race between Bush and Al Gore.
Kristol said that someone goes to church is now more important than what church they go to in terms of determining how they will vote. Religion is also important in determining the attitudes of Europeans and Americans towards the war, he said.
"America's population is about 30 percent churchgoing and Europeans are only about five to 10 percent churchgoing," Kristol said. "Any sociologist looking at these two places will tell you that they will have very different viewpoints on the world."
Kristol served as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of Education William Bennett under the Bush and Reagan administrations, respectively.
He opened the lecture by reminiscing about his work with Quayle, joking about Quayle's public misspelling of the word "potato."
"We had to spend the next month dealing with potato jokes," Kristol quipped.
Kristol has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he said he was the "token conservative."
"They always keep one on staff. It's useful for students to know what one looks like for later," he joked.
Kristol now teaches contemporary issues at Harvard.
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