Thank God for Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech.
It's given Americans a solid week's break from the urgent task of sifting through Obama's kindergarten papers, Mitt's landscaper hiring practices or Rudy's views on whether presidential mistresses deserve the same Secret Service protection as wives, to consider one of the most fundamental of American questions: What is the role of faith in our political system?
Romney's surprisingly controversial answer? "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. ... Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone."
Amid the general chorus of praise for Romney's tribute to America's "symphony of faith," this statement struck many (including conservatives) as a false note. National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru was first to take Romney to task for failing to include nonbelievers in our national orchestra, but the same riff soon appeared from columnists as diverse as E.J. Dionne and Peggy Noonan.
"But does freedom require religion? Is religion always conducive to freedom? Does freedom not also thrive in far more secular societies than our own? Isn't the better course for our nation to seek solidarity among lovers of liberty, secular as well as religious?" asked Dionne in The Washington Post.
Good questions. As it happens, last week a three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was considering a version of the same questions: What the heck is God doing on our coins and in the Pledge of Allegiance that's recited by public schoolchildren?
"This is not a case of people who believe in God versus people who do not believe in God," Dr. Michael Newdow, our national village atheist, told the court. "It's a case of people who believe in treating people equally and people who believe in not treating people equally."
Of course, for Newdow, fairness means atheists like him get what they want, and theists do not, but put that aside for the really serious question asked by U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt during oral arguments: "If you took God out of the Pledge, would it be any less patriotic?"
Our Constitution explicitly endorses the right to religious liberty, which includes the right to be an atheist. Where, if at all, then, does God fit into our political order? Does freedom really require religion, and if so, in what sense?
The empirical difficulty with this argument is that market democracy seems pretty good at channeling human passions into relatively innocuous pastimes. European secular societies are at least as good as America at fostering bourgeois order. But will a people who do not believe their society has a transcendent dimension summon the energy to sacrifice their sons -- or their sex life --for the sake of the future? Can a secular society unwilling to make war or babies long endure? I wish Europe well, but the answer is not yet clear.
The deeper answer Romney gave is this one: "We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust."
He continued: "I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty."
The reason God is on our coins and in our Pledge is not that He is practically necessary to democratic liberty, but rather that He is the philosophical foundation of it. Our rights come from a sphere outside the reach of the state. Government may or may not recognize our rights, but it can never repeal them.
For better or for worse, this is truly the faith of our fathers -- yours, mine, Mitt Romney's and Michael Newdow's. Will we remain true to it?