It’s time to stop selectively using religion as a cudgel to attack the faithful and divide the nation. Recent examples are plentiful. Consider Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Tim Tebow. Each bears witness to the ongoing struggle to keep the faith in public life against a creeping secular tide that seeks to confine faith to the closet.
Gingrich’s supporters assert that he’s electable in part because he’s now Catholic: the intemperate, erratic and twice unfaithful Newt of 1994 fame, Newt 1.0, has been replaced by Newt 2.0: disciplined, faithful, Catholic Newt.
For Mitt Romney, many question the electability of a Mormon, even though there is no compelling or widespread evidence his faith stands as an impediment to his prospective nomination. Yet Newt Gingrich’s top aide in Iowa and a Texas pastor supportive of Rick Perry both caused a “controversy” when they called Mitt Romney’s faith a cult.
Little needs to be said of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose unabashed faith and understated “Tebowing” have inspired admiration and scorn in pundits in both sport and politics. However, the so-called controversy surrounding the faith of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, which is merely the political equivalent of the scorn heaped upon Tim Tebow, is much ado about nothing. On a deeper level, the pejorative characterizations and dissections of all three are deeply destructive of our culture because they offend our history, chill religious expression, and lead to an uncompassionate, brittle society.
Historically, faith has always been welcomed but not required in the American public square. While making generous allowance for such public professions of faith, America also retains a healthy separation that allows the faithful to operate without government control. Our founding documents reflect this divine duality. They both expressly invoke religion and also forbid any type of religious qualification for public office. Similarly, they permit public expressions of faith while simultaneously prohibiting any attempt to establish a national, state-sponsored religion. Acceptance of robust religious expression is deeply ingrained in our national DNA.
Recently, however, there has emerged – predominantly from the ideological left and its allies in the arts, the courts, and the academy – a historically unprecedented belief that religion should be a private matter, that one’s faith has no bearing upon or relevance to one’s public actions. Neither America nor any successful civilization has ever operated according to this dubious philosophy.
Moreover, this viewpoint is nonsensical. It does not, as it claims, privatize faith in the ostensible service of some overriding, “nobler” goal (e.g., tolerance). Rather, it merely replaces one kind of faith (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.) with a less desirable one: Enlightenment-based secular humanism or postmodernism, which breed narcissism. It replaces faith in revealed, transcendent truth with faith in the individual and his or her experiences, needs, emotions, etc. Indeed, the absence of traditional religion in public does not equal the absence of religious faith. As C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller have written, faith is always present because everyone operates according to a worldview replete with implicit assumptions about the meaning of the universe.
Therefore, when the culture penalizes people for public displays of traditional faith, the result is what’s been referred to as the “naked public square,” where no traditional faith is permitted because it’s driven underground by government regulation or elite, media-driven opprobrium. The resulting cultural fallout is very dangerous.
First, the glorification of self leads those who practice this me-first religion to criticize those who bend the knee to a higher authority. This criticism disincentivizes and deters genuine religious expression. When people attempt to discredit Tim Tebow for his Christianity, America’s majority faith, the implicit message to minority faiths (Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, etc.), is that private faith of all varieties is not welcome in public America. This is wrong. The devout of all faiths that excel at their profession should be applauded, not subjected to a cultural ethic that silently roots for their failure or revelation as hypocrites.
Second, and more problematically, when the individual becomes the sole “master of his domain” in pursuit of his own aggrandizement, society suffers and crumbles at its core. The tragic effects of this are seen across Western Europe, where increasingly secularized, individualized societies struggle with declining birth rates, high crime rates, high unemployment rates, scandalous abortion rates, etc. Individuals of religious conviction, by contrast, are often marked by an uncommon devotion to the plight of others and the betterment of society. In service of those convictions, they have been instrumental in ending slavery, passing civil rights laws, and establishing homeless shelters, food kitchens, halfway homes, pregnancy clinics, etc. Denigrating people of faith who serve their communities, as Mitt Romney and Tim Tebow have done, discourages faith-based civic service.
Finally, the false narrative of religion-inspired division evident in the media attention to Messrs. Romney, Tebow, and Gingrich is exceedingly disingenuous as it selectively targets biblically-inspired faiths. Consider the following. No similar electability concerns were raised when Keith Ellison, who became the nation’s first Muslim congressman, ran in Minnesota in 2006. Likewise, the media has faithfully peddled the Obama administration’s characterization of the Fort Hood massacre as workplace violence, rather than what everyone knows it was: domestic Islamic jihad. Lastly, if Tim Tebow was a devout Muslim and bowed in prayer following touchdowns, no media figure would dare call it “Tebowing.”
Centuries after its founding as a beacon of religious freedom, America remains a nation of faith. In politics and sports, then, some of our most talented, qualified people will come from religious communities, and will bring their faith with them. Rather than undermining talented religious people, America needs to encourage and applaud people of faith when their faith is part and parcel of their excellence. Faith has not, is not, and never will be a private matter. Our nation needs strong people of faith to lead in times of trial, and we should not ask them to check their faith at the door, or criticize them when they do not. As the old Sunday song goes, “hide it under a bushel? NO!”