Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville, foreign observers have consistently noted that the United States is one of the most religious countries on the face of the planet. Year after year, Gallup polls reveal that nearly 90 percent of all Americans consider religion either "very important" or "fairly important"--and even those who don't regard themselves as conventionally religious generally profess to believe in a Supreme Being. On any given Sunday, more Americans are to be found in church than the total number of people who attend professional sports events over the course of an entire year. Although Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued, a century ago, that "God is dead," here in the United States He appears to be alive and thriving.
Yet, at the same time that Americans confound secularist predictions about God's imminent demise, we are increasingly reluctant to make critical moral distinctions, when necessary. Whether things are true or false, right or wrong, good or evil doesn't seem to concern us very much any more--so long as we are all pleasant to each another and do nothing to call into question our collective self-esteem. Social critic Michael Novak writes, "I don't know if `judgmentaphobic' is a word, but it ought to be. Where conscience used to raise an eyebrow at our slips and falls, sunny non-judgmentalism winks and slaps us on the back."
In my remarks to you this afternoon, I will examine the paradox of a people that strives to be both religious and non-judgmental. How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when His moral code is flouted? To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes? How is it possible that there exists so little space in the public square for expressions of "faith" and the standards that follow from belief in a transcendent God? How is it possible to be a theist and a relativist, a traditionalist and a post-modernist, a believer and a "judgmentaphobe"--all at the same time? How is it possible to mantain liberty while banishing from the public square any reference to a transcendent moral code?
My answer to these questions is that it simply is not possible. In the view of our country's Founding Fathers and our greatest moral teachers, religion--and the truths to which religion points us--is essential to the success of the American experiment. The Founders believed that God is the source of truth--and that it is through religion that the light of self-evident truth will guide Americans in their lives, order their national affairs, and protect their liberty. If we are to resolve the problems that currently threaten to overwhelm us, I am convinced that we first must recover this traditional understanding of religion as the way in which we determine commonly agreed-on moral precepts--an understanding that has clearly been present throughout most of our history but has somehow grown obscure today--and make room in the public square for this discussion.
To illustrate the traditional American understanding of religion, I'll begin with the Pennsylvania experience, not merely because I harbor a certain partiality toward that great commonwealth but also because, as Paul Johnson rightly argues in his splendid History of the American People, "Quaker Pennsylvania was the key state in American history." And the principal reason for Pennsylvania's importance is the charter of government that William Penn gave his fellow Quakers in 1682, making religious freedom the law of the land. In his famous Frame of Government, Penn pledged that
all citizens who believed in "One Almighty and Eternal God...shall in no way be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever."
the center of Quaker influence throughout the world, a stronghold of Presbyterianism, the headquarters in America of the Baptists, an Anglican center, a place where many important German religious sects--Moravians, Mennonites, Lutherans, German Reformed--established their headquarters, and yet a place where large numbers of Catholics and Jews were tolerated.
Given the stereotypes about religion that prevail in America today, one might have expected that a state throbbing with so much religious enthusiasm would rapidly become a haven for bigotry and radical fundamentalism--a kind of 17th century Tehran. In fact, Pennsylvania became a center of liberty and learning, the seat of the American Philosophical Society and the home of some of America's finest colleges and universities--most of them church-founded. And it is from within Pennsylvania that we were given both the symbol of America's struggle for independence--the Liberty Bell with its exhortation from Leviticus to "proclaim liberty throughout the land"--and the classic statement of the American Creed, the Declaration of Independence.
How is it possible that a state filled with so much religion yielded such a bountiful harvest of freedom, tolerance, and reason? The answer to this question lies in Penn's charter of religious liberty. With no faith enjoying state support, the fires of religious persecution, which burned so fiercely in Europe, were quickly and decisively extinguished; and with each faith thrown back on its own resources, a free competition of religious beliefs ensued, with every church and sect striving to put its best foot forward.
Pennsylvania's successful experiment in religious disestablishment was eventually emulated by all the other states of the Union, and has come to typify America's approach to religion. But it's important to remember exactly what Penn--and all those who followed his example--actually set out to do, and what they did not set out to do. They did seek to sever all connections between a particular church and the coercive power of the state. They did not seek to exclude religion and expressions of faith from the public square and from public debate. In contrast, our country's founders acknowledged that religion, and the moral code it reveals for us, is necessary for the success of the American Experiment.
The American revolutionaries were convinced that the root problem in their great quarrel over self-rule with England was corruption. They eventually concluded that the whole British system of monarchy was built on corruption, and that it was held together by bribery and self-interest.
Consider the famous words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident": "Truths"--not "opinions," not "premises," not "assumptions," not "collective myths," not "accepted rules of procedure," not "value-judgments," not "working hypotheses"--but "truths." And what made them truths was that they accorded with what the Declaration calls the "laws of nature and of nature's God." To the Founders, these God-given truths--that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"--are no more open to discussion or debate than the laws of gravity. They are simply there, part of the created order. And because they are divinely sanctioned, it followed that even if a wicked and depraved majority tried to subvert them in the name of "democracy," the moral minority would be obliged to resist the majority's wishes in the name of moral truth. Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it in 1858 during one of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas,
The real issue in this controversy--the one pressing on every mind--is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong.... They look upon it as being a moral, social and political wrong; and...they insist that it should as far as may be, be treated as a wrong.
The Founders hoped that the majority would never become so misled as to reject the existence of the "laws of nature and of nature's God." For that reason, they constantly stressed the centrality of a divinely based moral code in instilling Americans with a sense of virtue. Listen to how George Washington made the case for religion and morality in his Farewell Address of 1796:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.... And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure; reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. 'Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.
But Washington was not the only one who stressed the importance of religion to the well-being of the republic. The Founders regarded the newly created United States as an "experiment in ordered liberty." Experiments, by definition, can fail--indeed, most of them do. For the American experiment not to fail, it was necessary for the power of government to remain limited, for only under a regime of limited government could liberty flourish. Yet how could government power remain limited if people regularly lied and stole, cheated and killed one another? If only to maintain minimal standards of order, sooner or later a lack of virtue among the people would force the state to expand its reach. Only among a virtuous people could limited government--and liberty--flourish. As Edmund Burke put it in 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed,
Men qualify for freedom in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power is put somewhere on will and appetite, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without.
The Founders' understanding of the relationship between faith and freedom is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which famously declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This was something new in the history of the world: A great country formally renouncing the very possibility of an official, state-sponsored and -supported church. But in no way did the Founders and William Penn view this opposition to an established church as hostility to religion per se. On the contrary, Washington and Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams all understood that the surest way to corrupt a religion, to turn its spokesmen into cynical and self-seeking apologists for the status quo, is to involve it too closely in the affairs of state. It is to strengthen religion's role in our society by keeping it clear of the state's fatal embrace that the Founders refused to create an official church. And that is pretty much the way things worked out. Indeed, if you want to know why America is such a religious country today, why the disdain that we periodically feel for our elected officials does not rub off onto our religious institutions, why anti-clericalism is so potent a force in Europe but so insignificant a factor here, I suggest that you look to the First Amendment, the product of a distinctly American political genius that helps to keep us a religious people--"one nation, under God."
Religion contributes to the American Experiment in at least one other way--it burns deeply in the hearts of men and women, emboldening them to confront injustice and improve the condition of our society. Being "one nation, under God" is not at all the same as being a godly nation. Our history bears ample witness to the fact that we Americans, like every other people who ever were or ever will be, are a community of sinners. But that same history also makes it clear that, in every generation, men and women with a fervent faith in God's word have valiantly sought to curb our evil impulses. The campaigns against "demon rum" and child labor, the efforts to protect women and Indians, the movement to advance the civil rights of African-Americans--all had their origins in the truth-claims of religious conviction. From its very outset, the campaign against slavery in the United States was based on the conviction that inasmuch as all men and women are created in God's image, slavery is an affront against God Himself. This appeal to the transcendent to confront injustice was reinforced when the Reverend Martin Luther King wrote from the Birmingham jail that
And, of course, today men and women motivated by religious conviction are at the forefront of the movements to defend the very lives of the most vulnerable in our society--the elderly and infirm, the handicapped, and the unborn--as they, to all, are created in the image of God.
The Founders, therefore, recognized the necessity of religion to the American experiment in the self-evident truths it gives us to guard against tyranny, protect liberty, foster freedom and tolerance, and better society. In the words of John Adams,
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.... Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
But we recently found ourselves in a different place. Fifteen years ago, Richard Neuhaus observed a "naked public square"--grown too small and intolerant to accommodate the convictions of religion. I believe that we are in a somewhat better place today. A level of access to the public square has been granted to "faith." There is a growing consensus, right and left, that faith has social benefit. Believe in God and you'll live longer. Go to church and you'll stay out of jail. Turn to God and you'll kick your habit. This utilitarian, therapeutic view of faith at least recognizes religion's value to society, and now public policy must recognize it. We are in a better place when, within a month, both the Vice President and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee publicly embrace the advancement of faith-based organizations through the expansion of charitable choice. Texas Governor George W. Bush has gone even further, proposing myriad policy proposals to empower and unfetter faith-based mediating institutions. "Compassionate conservatism," we call it, and it speaks of a better place.
But the fact is, despite the impressive statistics about church-going Americans and the rage over "faith," all that the gatekeepers have really allowed into the public square is an attenuated, watered-down version of religiosity that the Founders hardly would recognize as the genuine article. To them, religion had important and far-reaching public consequences; to us, religion increasingly has become strictly a private affair. To them, religion made stern, uncompromising moral demands on its adherents; to us, religion is just therapeutic, another way to feel good about ourselves. To them, religion pointed to an absolute truth; to us, religion gives us of many competing "truths," any one operative if the majority, or person with the gun, wills it so. But if the Founders would disapprove of the way religion in America today has been marginalized, modern secularists must be delighted. What passes for "faith" in judgmentaphobic America is little more than a toothless tiger, and even if it should wander off the reserve to which it has been largely confined and happen to enter the public square, it could not do much harm. Certainly, it cannot threaten the dominant elite that has banished from the public square the "laws of nature and of nature's God." It cannot challenge the postmodernists who proclaim, as the U.S. Supreme Court put it in 1992, that "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
But what if, under your particular concept of existence, certain races or classes were considered subhuman? What if, under your particular notion of meaning, laws affirming the equality of blacks and whites, males and females, became invalid? What if, under your particular understanding of the universe, other human beings were not created in God's image, had no inherent dignity, and were yours to do with as you pleased? And what if your particular response to the mystery of life happened to be the same as that of Eric Harris, one of the two young killers in Littleton, Colorado, who said, "My belief is that if I say something, it goes. I am the law"? or, as Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, "Without God, everything is permitted"?
Today, the consequences of an approach to public policy that does not seek to identify and accommodate commonly agreed-on moral precepts are to be seen all around us--the disintegration of the family, surging rates of juvenile violent crime, persistence of racial prejudice, and the endless nightmare of our inner cities.
To be sure, the federal government has spent literally trillions of dollars in trying to cure our social ills; it has raised an army of social workers, commissioned a host of research studies, and launched a vast array of programs designed to bring us a "great society." Too often, these programs have failed the very people they were meant to help.
The reason some of our more ambitious social programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, have not succeeded is that, as Chester Finn observes, the problems currently afflicting us reflect an "impoverishment of the soul more than the pocketbook"--and government is simply not equipped to address problems of the soul. That is asking too much of the government and too little of ourselves. Our appallingly high rates of illegitimacy and family breakdown, for example, will never be reversed until young males, in particular, take seriously the view of marriage as a sacred bond and of fatherhood as a God-given trust, a view shared by every major faith and virtually every society in history. Our soaring rates of crime won't come down until the teachings of all the great religions concerning the importance of virtue once again are widely and emphatically reaffirmed. And our culture will continue to grow coarser and more vulgar until all Americans come to realize that the Golden Rule, "Do unto others," and "Love your neighbor" are not just quaint sayings, but the basis of the ordering of our society.
Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in protecting the most vulnerable in, and the "least beneficial" to, society. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in maintaining the integrity of the family. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in building character. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in turning people away from drugs and violence, idleness and despair. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in helping all of us to lead worthy, decent, compassionate lives. And what gives religion this extraordinary power to turn human lives around? It is religion's claim to truth. To adapt a phrase of Bill Bennett's, Americans, after all, do not merely wish to live well; we also would like to live nobly. And a noble life is one ordered by, and oriented to, a transcendent moral code, not just one's own concept of existence and meaning and truth. Taking away religion's claim to truth is like shearing off Samson's locks: What's left is just a hollowed-out shell of what once was a great and vibrant force for good. It follows, then, that if we want a society that reveres life, that defends the family, and that discourages delinquency and promotes decency, we cannot force a privatization of religion; we must allow the truth-claims of religious faith to be uttered aloud in the public square.
But can we devise a means of doing so without opening up the floodgates of sectarian strife? Militant secularists claim that we cannot. Allow the different religions to stake out their differing claims to truth, they warn us, and it's only a matter of time before we all shall be at one another's throats.
I believe, however, that the American experience in general, and the Pennsylvania experience in particular, refute these fears. As I pointed out at the outset of my remarks, the co-existence in Quaker Pennsylvania of many thriving religious communities--none of them enjoying state support but all of them fervently invoking the word of God--led not to the extinction of liberty, but to its enlargement; not to the reign of religious bigotry, but to its dethronement; not to the extinction of knowledge, but to its advancement; not to oppression, but to justice. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is only in a culture that does not dismiss the truth about man--that we all are created in God's image; that each of us enjoys a God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that the laws of God always trump the decrees of tyrants and majorities alike--that liberty, tolerance, and knowledge will flourish, and our rights can be secure.
Surely, recognizing once again the binding truth of those "moral precepts...in which all religions agree" does not threaten the foundations of this great and good republic that Jefferson and the other Founders did so much to shape. On the contrary, re-opening the public square to the truth-claims of religion only will strengthen those foundations. Our religious landscape is very different today than it was 200 years ago. So room must be made in the public square for new voices. But this will serve only to secure the foundations of liberty, not weaken them. The great truths on which our country was built do not rest on the shifting sands of fashionable opinion, on the dubious claims of political correctness, or on the capricious judgments of the Supreme Court; rather, they rest on what Calvin Coolidge calls the "things of the spirit." Unless we cling to those things, Coolidge warns,
all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage that has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.
In conclusion, the challenge is now before those who begrudgingly have accepted the social benefit of "faith" and allowed it to clothe our public square. They must recognize that, when faith works, it is not faith in and of itself, but it is faith in something. Faith--from the Latin fides--means trust and belief. Trust and belief in something. In God. Religion--from the Latin religare--means to bind, hold back, and restrain. Faith works because it is faith in God. Faith works because it acknowledges a moral code, a transcendent truth, that makes a claim on us, individually and collectively. More to the point, to quote C. S. Lewis, "You cannot castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
Our challenge together is to refashion a public square that makes room for the voices of our Founding Fathers instead of silencing them, voices that lay claim to "self-evident truths" and proclaim that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. For without the voices of Penn, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Reverend King, we would not have the liberties we enjoy today. If the public square in 1776 had banished any appeal to the laws of nature and nature's God, our country's foundations would not have been laid. Our liberty would not have been secured. Our rights would not have been established. And we would not enjoy the freedoms we do today.
The challenge to all of us--liberal and conservative--is to construct a public square that tolerates--truly tolerates--Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic voices, each of which accepts the existence of truth, a transcendent moral code. As Czech President Vaclav Havel observes,
perhaps the way out of the current bleak situation could be found in the search for what unites the various religions and cultures, in search for common sources, principles, certitudes, aspirations and imperatives.
The Honorable Rick Santorum, a Republican, represents Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate. Senator Santorum spoke at The Heritage Foundation's Conference on Religion and Political Leadership.