A 1981 Warning About Religion and Politics

Tom Shipka

Through the 1970's a famous American political figure observed with deepening concern the increasing political activity of religious groups. He worried that religious groups posed a threat to individual liberty and jeopardized the separation of church and state. Finally, on September 15, 1981, he rose in the Senate chamber to warn the American people about the marriage of religion and politics. (1)
The Senator welcomed President Ronald Reagan's election as a sign that Americans had finally turned to true conservatism, one which prizes the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution over the promise of prosperity by a welfare state. But this rediscovery of the primacy of freedom in America, he predicted, will be short-lived if "single issue religious groups" continue to grow in influence and power. Before Americans inject religion into the affairs of state, he cautioned, they should reflect on the harm caused by religion in Northern Ireland, Iran, and Lebanon. He saw intolerance and factionalism on the horizon. He feared that compromise and the give-and-take essential to American political life were in serious danger. Here are his own words.
&(O)n religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls his supreme being.
But, like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly.
The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using
their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their positions 100 percent.
In the past couple years, I have seen many news items that referred to the Moral Majority, pro-life, and other religious groups as "the new conservatism."
Well, I have spent quite a number of years carrying the flag of the "old conservatism." And I can say with conviction that the religious issues of these
groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics. The uncompromising position of these groups is a divisive element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system, if they gain sufficient strength.
Im frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in "A,"
"B," "C," and "D." Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate.
I am warning them today. I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism."
The great decisions of Government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. This was true in the days of Madison and it is just as true today.
We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of State separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we must not stop now.
To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.
Now, who said all this? Who issued this warning about religion and politics? It
was, of course, the five-term U.S. Senator from Arizona and the Republican Party's nominee for president in 1964, Barry M. Goldwater.
I leave to your judgment whether Senator Goldwater's warning was justified, and, if it was, whether we Americans have heeded it.
1. All quotations and paraphrases are from Senator Barry Goldwater, "To Be Conservative," Congressional Record - Senate, September 15, 1981, pages 20589-20590.