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Spring 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 1 · pp. 51–57 

Political Theology or Theological Politics? An Analysis of the Institute for Religion and Democracy

John Fast

Every society engages in the social construction and definition of its world. That reality is determined by the degree of social support which our beliefs receive. Such support is created, confirmed, and maintained by various institutions within our society. And religious and political structures dominate that “social communication of symbols” which determine our reality. 1

A conservative political theology is not necessarily Christian . . . even when it claims to be

The Institute For Religion and Democracy (IRD) is a modern example of an institution that functions in a very sophisticated manner to legitimate a certain world-view within both the religious and political arenas of the United States. Beyond providing an understanding of the IRD’s purpose and goals, the following reflections will demonstrate the ease with which any political theology can become ideologically captive to one narrowly defined set of sociopolitical interests.


The IRD considers itself an independent policy research center. It was founded in April 1981 by a group of political activists and evangelical religious leaders to oppose and monitor the social action programs of the mainline Protestant churches. The IRD’s structure operates under the umbrella of the “Coalition for a Democratic Majority” (CDM), a conservative think tank closely connected with the Reagan administration. It also functions with an interlocking {52} board of directors from such conservative organizations as the “American Enterprise Institute” (AEI) and Ernest Lefever’s “Ethics and Public Policy Center” (EPPC).

The majority of IRD’s funding comes from the Smith Richardson foundation. This foundation also provides major funding for AEI; the Hoover Institute, a perennial source of Reagan appointees; the “Institute for Contemporary Studies,” a San Francisco based think tank founded by Edwin Meese III; the “Pacific Legal Foundation,” headed by James Watt until he became Interior Secretary; and the “Center for Creative Leadership,” an organization that has special relationships with the CIA and the Defense Department. 2

Three prominent IRD board members, Peter Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, seem to provide the intellectual framework necessary for its continuation and success. If measured by volume of publications, they are perhaps the country’s leading neo-conservative religious spokespersons. It is to their writings and thought that we now turn.


The guiding principle to IRD’s logic is their separation of the world into two camps. One is good, the other evil. One is Christian, the other totalitarian. In the IRD’s statement of purpose, Neuhaus identifies these two worlds:

The United States of America is the primary bearer of the democratic possibility in the world today. The Soviet Union is the primary bearer of the totalitarian alternative. . . . In this conflict we believe that the United States is a force for good in this world. 3

According to Neuhaus, the threat of totalitarianism becomes evident when a party state declares itself unaccountable to any transcendent judgment. This ability to define freedom seems to be an American Christian prerogative. Christians, therefore, must be unapologetically anti-communist. Neuhaus has succeeded in polarizing the discourse around an East-West confrontation and has identified IRD’s fundamental purpose by disqualifying his adversary. But because of its democratic nature and pluralistic governance, the United States remains a nation “under God,” that is, “under some sort of transcendent judgment.” Consequently the IRD is able to fill that faith claim with their own political and religious content.

That ideological content includes advocating a capitalistic market economy. Through a series of arguments, capitalism becomes equated with being “under God, democratic, anti-totalitarian” and, of course, the symbol of freedom, peace, and justice. It is the function of the church, Novak claims, to join in the ideological battle for democratic capitalism’s maintenance and ascendancy. 4 The IRD’s manifesto asserts that such an economy has proved to be to the greatest benefit of all and especially to the poor, both in America and beyond. In these evaluative judgments documentary evidence is noticeably absent. The IRD seems to assume that their arguments legitimate themselves as evidence and reality. They appear to be more occupied with ideological persuasion than providing information and religious reflection. {53}

Neuhaus’ vision for the political task of the church is noteworthy in that it totally rejects any positive collective programs or agendas. When he describes political involvement as Christian discipleship he is thinking of purely individual acts of charity and cultural, political, and economic involvement. According to the IRD, the church as a body has nothing to contribute toward domestic or foreign policies except to inform and help its members exercise their responsibility as citizens. Implicit in their argument is that nationalism has become an absolute end in itself. Freedom is redefined as national security and justice becomes the vehicle for maintaining that security and international order. In other words, security and order are defined by the United States’ self-interest. 5

The IRD originally intended to investigate and oppose certain social action programs of the mainline Protestant churches. Therefore, anyone favorable to liberation movements in the third world and church leaders who support these inevitable revolutionary changes is criticized. But their sharpest critique continues to be leveled at those religious leaders who feel other people must have the right to self-determination in choosing their own form of government even if that choice is not democracy. Allowing that right to exist is regarded as oppressive. Consequently, churches are called to address the “oppression” of self-determination. Unfortunately, the real causes of oppression are never stated, much less analyzed. Since “American power and opinion can be decisive,” the IRD seems to believe that only American foreign policy attempts can secure democratic change. Christian leaders who do not follow this mandate are libelled by the IRD as disloyal to the Church and to the Gospel of Christ.

The Institute for Religion and Democracy everywhere presents its political theology within a holy war framework.

The debate is between those who do believe and those who do not believe that there is a necessary linkage between Christian faith and human freedom . . . that in this moment of history democracy is the necessary product and protector of freedom . . . and that freedom, an end in itself, is also the surest way to a greater measure of peace and justice. 6

If taken out of context, this is a somewhat misleading statement, for the IRD never posits a substantive definition of “Christian,” and human freedoms are everywhere narrowly defined as national security. Believers are those faithful to IRD’s view of democracy whereas unbelievers are not. The religious terminology conveys the impression that the struggle lies between Christians and non-Christians or between religious people and atheists. This reduction of all political options into simplistic dualisms ignores or denies the very essence of politics with its moderation, compromise, relativism, and revision. By delegitimating real differences of opinion, the IRD’s political theology harkens back to medieval and early modern notions of theocracy. {54}


The key to IRD’s understanding of the state is the notion that order is the primary imperative of social life and that the propensity to order somehow reflects a basic ontological ground for universal faith. 7 The political state functions as a signal of transcendence whenever it witnesses to the protective order God wills for humans. According to Berger, without such an inclination and capacity for order, humans would be left to Hobbesian forms of brute violence. The resultant need for security against chaos and tyranny eventually determines the role of the state and definitions of peace and justice.

Berger’s social ethic seems based upon his own personal happiness and fear quotient. The danger of tyranny and chaos ending the American dream and a decent life for his family are paramount concerns. When writing in the sixties, the forces of tyranny were the Vietnam War, black militants, radical students, some labor unions and, in a generalized way, the entire youth rebellion. In the late seventies, Berger lashed out at the new anti-capitalist elite who he believed were out to dismantle the American dream. With renewed vigor he called for more patriotism, a reaffirmation of the American creed and greater measures of order and security. 8

As a sociologist Berger views religion as the highest legitimation of the existing order since it functions to provide that order with sacred meaning. However, as a theologian he claims that the “kingdom of God is not of this world—the Christian agenda has to do with what transcends this world.” Both are narrow interpretations. Religion is as much prophetic as it is legitimating. By choosing its world-maintaining function, Berger minimizes the sense of God’s holiness and justice. In 1968 Berger argued that

the task of the churches today is to call back our society to what is best (I would even say to what is God-given) in its values, including its political ideals. The central values of the American creed. . . .

Berger continues to make similar claims, insisting that the church must continue to legitimate the state since it embodies justice (that is, law and order). Yet he does not believe that Christians should sanctify political institutions or programs. That would constitute political involvement and violate the minimalist and individualistic personal charity by which he and the IRD define social action.

I believe that Berger’s writings pose major methodological problems, problems also inherent in the IRD’s material. Berger attempts to use a functional, value-free definition of religion while simultaneously holding a substantive view of faith. Such a dualism permits him to speak objectively and descriptively when he is wearing the sociologist’s hat and ethically-normatively when he assumes the role of the theologian.” 10 Yet, having defined religion as scientifically useful and a matter of taste, he proceeds to dismiss other political theologies as propaganda by the use of these functional criteria without applying the same judgment upon his own position. He wants his readers to accept his own ideas in terms of their value content (their ideological import), not their social function. To label all viewpoints as {55} relative while claiming empirical priority for one’s own is presumptuous at best and somewhat misleading. But that seems to be the result of his methodological ambiguity. It is the sort of claim that his own sociology of knowledge has taught us to suspect.

As meta-sociologist or theologian, Berger and the IRD provide no criteria governing their faith claims except for personal taste or their version of common sensibility.


In the following summary and concluding remarks, I wish to compare the major thrusts of the IRD’s political theology with the faith claims and assumptions from which the present analysis and critique are drawn.

The Wholeness of Truth

I believe that our symbol “God” summarizes the ultimate unity of all dimensions of human life and the entire ecological order. 11 Responsible responses cannot therefore lapse into easy dualisms. The threat of nuclear annihilation has underscored in a new way the total interdependence and interconnectedness of all humanity. Therefore any exclusive doctrine of national sovereignty would also be a false and destructive dualism.

Human Responsibility

I believe that the incarnation of God in human history means that God’s fate and human fate are irrevocably intertwined. That relationship mandates humans to be responsible not only to God but to the continuance of human life on earth. For the IRD, the human condition of self-preservation and the marked distinction of friend versus enemy not only functions in descriptive but also in normative ways to determine human relationships. Responsibility for others, for the world, and for God quickly become subsumed in a completely individualistic ethic. The IRD’s anthropology thus naturally endorses any power of the state to guarantee security for individuals, and peace and justice become redefined exclusively by that national security arrangement. I believe such a view of persons to be highly manipulative and self-destructive.

Social Ethics

If God is understood as that reality working through all of life and history, then our social relationships and work will also reflect that universally oriented vision. Hopefully such a vision can transcend our less inclusive loyalties, whether they be ideological, patriotic, or religious. Although the IRD talks of transcendence, the term as they use it tends to function as a mystification of their national security state policies.

As the ultimate point of reference, God also has a relativizing function for human life. All institutions and activities cannot be perceived adequately except in relationship to God. The traditional images of God as creator, sovereign lord, and judge express that relativizing dimension. God’s relativizing function is perhaps a modern way of re-formulating the first commandment. {56} It reduces all human institutions and constructs to a penultimate level, requiring constant and conscious self-criticism. By contrast, the IRD often assumes a holier-than-thou attitude and self-criticism seems entirely lacking.

The humanizing function of God summarizes the “shalom” of the Hebraic tradition and the “kingdom of God” of the New Testament. Both concepts include health, economic prosperity, political liberation, psychological freedom, and spiritual salvation in their holistic view of peace and freedom. That humanizing function resides in a positive charter given to all people and their institutions. But the IRD has no positive humanizing charter. Their social ethics function under a model where the sheer rationalization of national security force becomes the prevailing moral norm. Pragmatic and non-moral use of power for strategic interests rule the day. The IRD does include the universal moral norm of human rights. However, even here human rights are viewed as natural rights based upon the ethical principle of non-maleficence. Such a personal rights model that does not encourage the good (beneficence) leads to few moral norms for the government and cannot demonstrate how personal rights are more important than economic, political, or social rights.

Ultimately the adequacy of a humanizing ethic will be its effect on the life of the entire human community. A political theology that inspires greater acts of justice and joy, liberation and hope for all humanity can be called both useful and true. The IRD and all other theologically rooted political activisms must be held accountable to these standards.


  1. Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge is the methodological key in Invitation to Sociology (Garden City, NY. Doubleday, 1963), The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, NY. Doubleday, 1967) and The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967).
  2. A more comprehensive report was produced by Eric Hochstein and Ronald O’Rourke for IDOC (1982):17-32.
  3. Richard John Neuhaus, Christianity and Democracy: A Statement of the Institute on Religion and Democracy,” IDOC No. 8-9 (1982):13.
  4. Michael Novak, ed., Democracy and Mediating Structures: A Theological Inquiry (Washington: AEI Public Policy Research, 1980), p.198.
  5. Excellent discussions on security state ideologies are found in Jose Comblin’s, The Church and the National Security State (New York: Orbis Books, 1979) and Ana Maria Ezcurras The Neoconservative Offensive. U.S. Churches and the Ideological Struggle for Latin America (New York: Circus Publications, Inc., 1982).
  6. Neuhaus, p. 23.
  7. Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels. Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 55. {57}
  8. Peter L. Berger, Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
  9. Peter L. Berger, “Between Tyranny and Chaos,” The Christian Century 85/44 (1968):1370.
  10. For a more comprehensive critique see Gregory Baum, “Peter Berger’s Unfinished Symphony, Commonweal 107 (1980):263-270, and Harvey A. Van and Marie Augusta Neal, “Peter Berger: Retrospect,” Religious Studies Review 511 (1979):1-10.
  11. The following theological categories are more fully developed in a paper, “Reconceiving God for a Nuclear Age,” delivered by Gordon Kaufman at Boston University, February 22, 1984.
John Fast, former Bible and Theology teacher at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California, is pursuing graduate theological studies at Boston University.

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