God and government

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Oct 17, 2006 12:01 AM
God and government

When future historians try to explain the presidency of George W. Bush, his religious fundamentalism unquestionably will be a central focus. It has made him certain about the correctness of his policies, especially the Iraq invasion, and emboldened him to push forward where other presidents, including his father, would have been far more cautious.

Few writers feel comfortable discussing this aspect of Bush because tolerance for people's religious beliefs is deeply ingrained in American law, history and culture. Implicitly, we are therefore led to accept that we cannot judge others on the basis of their religious beliefs, no matter how crazy they may be. In effect, this gives a free pass for people to say and do things that would otherwise be condemned or even outlawed if motivated by something other than religion.

As someone who is not at all religious, it is particularly hard for me to interpret or even comprehend those with deep religious beliefs, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever. I have no frame of reference upon which to base an analysis that makes any sense to me.

Consequently, I am grateful when those who are religious raise the same questions I have in my mind about what motivates Bush and how his religion influences his policies. One who has done so is the well-known writer, editor and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who has just published an important new book, "The Conservative Soul."

Sullivan comes to his subject as a devout Catholic and a traditional conservative. It is also important to know that he is openly gay, which means that he necessarily stands apart from the Catholic Church and the conservative movement, both of which are operationally hostile to homosexuality. This makes Sullivan something of an outsider religiously and politically -- a useful position to be in for analytical purposes.

Basically, Sullivan's book is a brief against fundamentalism. As fallible human beings, we simply cannot know all the things that fundamentalists are absolutely certain about, he argues. Furthermore, although fundamentalists don't explicitly reject reason, in practice they do, making rational debate impossible. How can you argue with someone who believes that he knows absolute truth because it has been given to him directly by God through prayer or a sacred text? The answer, of course, is that you cannot.

As long as our religious beliefs are private and only affect our personal behavior, this is generally not a problem. Nor is it a problem when those beliefs are not inconsistent with principles derived from natural law. For example, our laws against murder and theft may have a religious basis, but not exclusively. It's easy enough for an atheist to see that such laws are justified.

But when we get into other areas of public policy, there are necessarily going to be conflicts. At one extreme, there are countries such as Israel that are explicit theocracies. They have state religions, and all their laws are consistent with that religion. At the other extreme is the view of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sees even the most innocent and innocuous references to religion in government as abhorrent. To the ACLU, allowing a high school valedictorian to mention God in a commencement address is little different from imposing a state religion to which all must belong on pain of death, as is the case in Muslim countries.

Obviously, there is a middle ground to which the vast majority of Americans have always belonged. They believe in tolerance for those with different religions or none at all, and see nothing wrong with token governmental support for religion in a general sort of way, such as allowing children to pray in school. But most importantly, government in this country historically has been constitutionally limited, lacking the power to control much personal behavior.

Unfortunately, over the last several generations, government has expanded in size and scope, primarily under secular liberals. Now, these liberals are appalled that religious conservatives like Bush are using the power and the governmental mechanisms that liberals themselves created to press a conservative agenda by suppressing pornography and gambling on the Internet, banning same-sex marriage, restricting abortion and so on.

Sullivan sees little difference between such governmental intrusions on human freedom and those that conservatives are more likely to object to, such as increasing taxes and spending, regulating business and restricting trade. He wishes that principled liberals and conservatives would both see that freedom is indivisible. In Sullivan's view, true conservatives should just as strongly oppose Bush's religiously based expansions of government as they would those promoted by liberals.

"The Conservative Soul" is a reminder that the left has no monopoly on faulty logic and the misuse of government. We would all be better off, Sullivan concludes, if those on the right and the left had a bit more humility and doubt.