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Commentary: Religious conservatives are right; but their call for government action may be wrong

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2011 - Hooray for Reese Witherspoon!

In the midst of the Anthony Weiner scandal, she made a clear statement about right and wrong. "If you take naked pictures of yourself on your cell phone, hide your face." Her forum was MTV's Movie Awards, the channel that targets an audience of 12-24 year olds with hit shows such as "16 and Pregnant" and "Jersey Shore." Witherspoon was promptly criticized on Twitter and other social media sites as being "judgmental," "a mean girl" and "hating everyone."

Would that Rep. Weiner's practice of texting salacious photographs were an isolated occurrence. It is not. Earlier this year, another congressman sent a photo of his naked torso on the internet. Twenty percent of teenagers have posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. For young adults between the ages of 20 and 26, the figure is 33 percent. Such behavior is so common among children that taking and sending explicit pictures warrants a new word in the lexicon, "sexting." Reese Witherspoon's remark at the MTV awards was directed to just these young people: If you do such a thing, hide your face in shame.

For years, religious conservatives have made the same point Reese Witherspoon made at the MTV awards: Americans have lost our moral compass. Much of our popular culture is sleaze. Much that is aimed at children on cable TV and in music promotes drug use and loose sex.

The way children behave reflects this culture. Thirty percent of 14-year-old girls have had sex. Fifteen percent of 10th-12th graders have used amphetamines.

Among the hip and sophisticated, it's considered good sport to make fun of religious conservatives for speaking out against this culture, just as the hip and sophisticated turned on Reese Witherspoon. But these conservatives persist in telling us that the wheels have come off society, and Americans should do something to restore our decency.

Hooray for religious conservatives! They are certain trumpets, calling America to battle in a cultural war. But the trumpet's call is not certain when the summons to higher values becomes a campaign for a political agenda.

When something goes wrong, the immediate response of many of us is to ask government to fix it, even when government is ill equipped to do so. A minister once told me that he had never attended a clergy conference that didn't end with a resolution to write members of Congress. This same readiness to turn to government presents itself in response to moral issues that turn more on societal values than on law.

Conservatives concerned about the integrity of the family ask Congress to pass a resolution that would amend the Constitution to define marriage, even though the Constitution, however amended, cannot save a single marriage. Liberals call the federal budget a "moral document," thereby implying that their opponents are immoral, even though the budget is the expression of legislative trade-offs, not moral principles.

While religious people would like government to advance their values, there are two good reasons not to ask it to do so, both related to the very different styles of religion and politics.

The language of religion is the affirmation of deeply held beliefs. The language of politics is compromise.

The nature of religion is to hold fast to one's understanding of divinely inspired truth. The nature of politics is to attempt resolution of controversy by accommodating conflicting interests.

If it is working effectively, politics will split the differences, which means not making the decisive stands on principle that religious witness requires. That is the first reason we shouldn't ask government to advance our values. It isn't capable of doing that.

The second reason is that when opposing sides take unmovable stands on what they consider matters of principle, political compromise becomes impossible. The result is impasse. This, I believe, is where we are in Washington today: Political positions are held with such theological certainty that there is no resolution of differences.

As religious people engage in politics, it's important to state that politics isn't religion. To transfer the creedal certainty of religion into the compromising nature of politics is to invite gridlock. From the point of view of religion, to treat political positions as though they were divinely inspired is idolatry.

John C. Danforth is an Episcopal priest and a former U.S. senator.