Great Awakening or Great Respecting?

We probably aren’t in a new Great Awakening, but we clearly have begun a new Great Respecting. Awakenings are dramatic changes in religious belief. Respectings are appreciations of the power of religious belief.

When George Whitefield, John Wesley and others preached in the 1730s and tens of thousands turned to Christ, that was a Great Awakening. When politicians in the 1950s told constituents to attend "the church or synagogue of your choice" because "the family that prays together stays together," that was a Great Respecting.

Today, when Democratic presidential candidates and legislative leaders hire religious outreach advisers and take less extreme positions on abortion, that is also a Great Respecting. I’m not knocking the change: Many of our nation’s problems have arisen from disrespecting the power of religion. Not only politicians, but foreign policy planners and Supreme Court justices have erred in that way.

Disrespect for the power of religion is one reason we’re in a mess in Iraq. John Agresto, a neoconservative who went to Baghdad to try to rebuild the country in 2003 and 2004, came away with this conclusion: "We acted as if democracy were natural — just get ride of the tyrant, hold elections, and look: a democracy." Agresto saw that planting democracy is not easy, in part because "not all religions have the same view as we do of peace, of brotherhood, or of justice."

According to Agresto, "We desperately kept looking for the supposed ‘moderates’ among the clergy in Iraq. Moderate as compared to what? Just because we believe that God wants everyone to enjoy equal rights, or that killing Jews or stoning apostates is wrong, doesn’t mean that our beliefs are shared by other faiths. We have so tamed and, in a sense, marginalized religion in the West that we consistently underestimate its ferocity and strength."

Agresto does not offer a master plan for Iraq. He merely concludes that our policymakers have misunderstood "the nature of religious passion." He’s right: It’s time for at least a Great Respecting. If we respect the power of religion, we won’t be surprised when many act in ways that do not maximize their income and their freedom. We need to understand Islamic teaching that lasting peace depends not only on spiritual submission to Allah, but on political and military thralldom as well.

Here’s another example: the abortion debate. Two useful new books, Anne Hendershott’s "The Politics of Abortion" and Ramesh Ponnuru’s "The Party of Death," show that liberals had so little respect for Christian values that they thought they could push abortion without taking a beating at the polls. Some did escape the judgment of man — Ted Kennedy after 1971 dropped his support for the unborn and has lived happily ever after in Massachusetts elections — but Democrats nationally did not.

Roe v. Wade moved many Democrats into the GOP; apart from that Supreme Court decision, it’s unlikely that either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush would have been elected president. Major news media these days tend to ignore abortion, except on the Roe v. Wade anniversary coming up next week, but it’s still crucial to millions of religion-based voters. Democrats now respect that enough to welcome the candidacies of moderate pro-lifers such as the new senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, Jr. Many colleges, including some religious ones, are pro-abortion centers, but Hendershott notes the formation of some new ones that "have a strong pro-life commitment already integrated into their academic culture."

The advent of a Great Respecting doesn’t mean that liberal media outlets will suddenly start playing fair. They’ll continue to state or imply that wacky pronouncements by marginal characters represent conservative Christian views. They’ll continue to puff liberal Christians who share big domestic government, anti-military outlooks. But at least they and their counterparts in politics and academia will be paying attention, for better or for worse.