August 28, 2000 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Lawmakers Should Avoid the Golden Calf

"The United States seems to be at once the most religious and the most secular of nations," sociologist Will Herberg wrote in his classic work, "Protestant, Catholic, Jew." The year was 1959. Church attendance had hit a new high, biblical epics were a Hollywood staple, and religious intellectuals were enjoying renewed cultural clout. And yet, Herberg noted, millions of ordinary Americans had learned to divorce faith from their everyday public lives.

Nowhere is this posture toward religion more conspicuous than in this year's presidential race. The nomination of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as Al Gore's running mate signals not the mixing of religion and politics but, rather, the enfeebling of religious belief as a guide to public policy. Despite all the God talk, a towering assumption goes unchallenged: Religious convictions ought not to influence the political process. While it is widely known, for example, that Lieberman earnestly observes the Sabbath, we don't know how his biblical faith leads him to defend partial-birth abortion, a threshold moral issue if there ever was one.

Nor are we likely to find out. "While I might personally argue against abortion," Lieberman said in 1990, "as a lawmaker I cannot impose my personal judgment on others." This recalls Mario Cuomo's 1984 remarks at the University of Notre Dame in which he agreed with the Catholic Church's teaching on abortion yet thought it improper to "translate our Catholic morality into civil law." This is the creed of a secularized political elite. At issue is not the sincerity of the candidates' faith but the fact that they have chosen to confine their beliefs to the sanctuary. This cannot be good for democracy.

Indeed, an earlier generation of leaders would have found it unthinkable. Teddy Roosevelt's faith fueled his opposition to corporate monopolies and his intervention for the rights of workers. "The thought of modern industry in the hands of Christian charity is a dream worth dreaming," he said. "The thought of industry in the hands of paganism is a nightmare beyond imagining." Likewise, it is hard to envision the civil rights movement succeeding--and remaining nonviolent--apart from Martin Luther King Jr.'s determination to join biblical justice with Christian love.

Conservatives are part of the problem. Too many are satisfied with shallow political symbols, such as a school prayer amendment, or with personal testimonials suggesting faith but not much else. Evangelicals were enamored with "born again" candidate Jimmy Carter, but President Carter's social policies seemed at odds with traditional morality. The love affair didn't last long.

In a way not seen in recent political history, the presidential campaign offers two competing visions of the role of faith in society. Gore has praised religious charities and invited them into a "new partnership" with government. That's important, but there is little sign that the regulatory grip of a Gore-Lieberman administration would be any friendlier to faith than the secularized left wing of the Democratic Party. In a speech before the Salvation Army, Gore suggested that religious groups would be asked to take on welfare tasks assumed by the bureaucratic state--provided they kept faith on the sidelines.

Though there are great political risks involved, George W. Bush is shaking up conventional thinking about church and state. He was the first governor to embrace the "charitable choice" law, which allows religious charities to take government money without expunging faith from their caregiving. He made Texas home of the nation's first Christian prison, where inmate volunteers are immersed in Bible-based rehabilitation. He pledges $8 billion in tax incentives for charitable giving to anti-poverty groups, religious or secular. "We will allow private and religious groups to compete and provide services in every federal, state and local program," he said last year in Indianapolis. "We must expand their role and their reach."

Is faith a civic virtue or a source of civic strife? Should religion function as a vital partner with government or a second-class citizen? "Despotism may govern without faith," French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after his 1830s tour of the U.S., "but liberty cannot."

That was then. Nowadays, politicians are content to marginalize religion as they launch new social programs. They concede only a "growing personal anxiety" as they protect a medical procedure hardly distinguishable from infanticide. This is the mischief of secularization, not the logic of the 1st Amendment. It is a distant cry from Tocqueville's America. And it bears little resemblance to the vision of great leaders, whose statesmanship is always stiffened by conscience and informed by faith.

Joseph Loconte Is a Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Web Site: http://www.heritage.org

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

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