It was another neck-and-neck race, as Vice President Thomas
Jefferson edged out federalist John Adams but tied Aaron Burr for
electoral votes. A divided House of Representatives had to pick a
winner and, after some backroom politics, the federalists backed
The two campaigns are alike in another way: Both were awash in
religion. George W. Bush cited Jesus as his favorite political
philosopher. Al Gore called faith "the bedrock of my approach to
any important question in my life." And Joe Lieberman, the first
Jew named as a vice presidential running mate, likened his campaign
to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
During the election of 1800, Burr made no secret of the fact
that he was the grandson of revered theologian Jonathan Edwards.
Churchgoing Adams had spoken favorably of government support for
religion. Jefferson tried to conceal his Deism, but evangelicals
warned that a vote for him was a vote for an infidel. A Boston
newspaper opined that Jefferson's election would mean "the seal of
death" for Christianity in America.
Behind the religious clamor, however, lie a remarkably
enlightened view of church and state: the assumption that religion
was essential to democratic government. In France, the
revolutionaries had vowed to "strangle the last king with the guts
of the last priest." But the American Revolution produced a nation
that joined religious and political liberty at the hip; any threat
to one imperiled the other.
The reason goes back to the Founders' view of democracy. Freedom
depends on citizens who can govern themselves, which means freedom
requires virtue. But it takes more than laws to sustain morality.
It requires religion - not the enfeebled variety of an established
church, but the muscular faith of individual believers and
congregations exercised in the public square.
This was, more or less, the view held by virtually all the
Founders, even the most irreligious among them. "If men are so
wicked as we now see them with religion," remarked Ben
Franklin, "what would they be if without it?" Madison, champion of
the separation of church and state, called belief in God "essential
to the moral order." Even Jefferson, when asked as president why he
was attending church, replied, "No nation has ever existed or been
governed without religion. Nor can be."
True, the great temptation then was to make any political
contest a referendum on Christian orthodoxy. The temptation today,
however, is to neglect the bond between religion and republican
It is a bi-partisan problem. Many conservatives like the idea of
mixing more faith into public life, but often act in ways that
misplace the strength of religious belief. Why, for example, does
the religious right pour so much effort into reintroducing school
prayer or slipping Nativity scenes onto public property? These are
the trappings of belief, not the core. They serve as fiery
political symbols but do little to shape conscience or
Liberals, on the other hand, seem to think democracy can get
along just fine without religion or virtue. When Bush speaks of
restoring honor and dignity to the presidency, Democrats sneer.
When Lieberman quotes Washington to tout the power of faith to
shore up morality, civil libertarians rush to judgment. When the
Boy Scouts stand up for traditional views of sexuality and
marriage, they are hauled into court and dismissed as bigots.
Yale law professor Stephen Carter, in his latest book, "God's
Name in Vain," scolds those who treat religious zeal with disdain
while ignoring the religious campaigns against slavery, child labor
and segregation. "Politics needs morality," he writes, "which means
politics needs religion." Likewise, Librarian of Congress James
Billington recently lamented the "surreal indifference" of elites
to the historic, revitalizing power of religion. "Such knowable
facts are altogether absent from our history books," he said. "We
have let our collective memory fade."
What else is dissolving in the process? Perhaps nothing less
than the deepest source of America's social stability and moral
strength. However the election is resolved, the next president
should use his bully pulpit to help restore the vital connection
between faith and freedom. Sometimes the most important task of
statesmen is not to promise or proclaim, but simply to
Loconte, a regular commentator for National Public Radio,
is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at
the Heritage Foundation.
Our cliffhanger presidential race is being compared to the 1876
contest in which Rutherford Hayes lost the general election while
winning, barely, in the Electoral College. But the campaign of 1800
- the first contested presidential election - offers more important
lessons about America's political culture.