December 6, 2000 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Faith and Freedom:  The Missing Link

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.

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 Jefferson.

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 virtue.

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 character.

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 remember.

Joseph Loconte, a regular commentator for National Public Radio, is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

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