With five days to go until the election, John F. Kerry is arguing that he thinks Christianly (did you know he was an altar boy?) about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage but practices public policy as a secularist. That divide, he suggests, is mandatory for American political leaders.
The venerable liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. agrees with Kerry. As leadoff batter at an Oct. 22-23 Princeton conference on "the role of religion in American public life," Schlesinger lambasted President Bush as "the most aggressively religious president in American history" -- that's bad, very bad -- and went on to a larger target.
Theologically conservative Christians, Schlesinger suggested, are anti-democratic because they display "absolutist thinking" that fits poorly with the negotiation and compromise that are part of politics. He argued that things were better in the good old days when the nation's founders and just about all the presidents since were open, non-judgmental fellows.
If this conference were a normal university affair, every speaker after Schlesinger would have piled on the hapless Christians. Students would have walked off confirmed in the biases their professors typically attempt to instill. But because this conference was hosted by the James Madison Program at Princeton, a beachhead of sanity where a few professors stare up at the gun emplacements of academic liberalism, students heard a serious intellectual exchange.
For example, retired professor George McKenna (who is writing a book on the Puritan origins of American patriotism) responded to Schlesinger by noting that the Declaration of Independence has some downright absolutist language -- self-evident truths, unalienable rights. He pointed out how presidents in the past have regularly looked at the nation in providential terms that included some sense of God's judgment. (Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address suggested that every drop of blood drawn by the slave overseer's lash might require restitution in kind.)
Other speakers showed that theologically conservative Christians could press for a strong biblical position while at the same time accepting that in a democratic society their position might not win the day. Speakers pointed out that most Christians see no problem with engaging in negotiation and compromise when necessary, because political action clearly requires cooperation. (For example, some pro-lifers still say "all or nothing" concerning legislation protecting unborn children, but most say "all or something," with the goal of saving more lives.)
That's clearly not the liberal stereotype of Christians or of the politician most prominently identified as a conservative Christian. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for example, is blasting away at President Bush (and, by extension, his co-religionists) because, "The president has this strange notion that his belief in God means detailed and perfect knowledge of everything that God wants." Since nothing in Bush speeches indicates he thinks that way, I suspect that Dowd is taking the way a few arrogant Christians talk and broad-brushing all, including the president.
But even in The New York Times, as at Princeton, reality gained a foothold on Oct. 22. Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, noted in a guest op-ed page column that lawmaking inevitably involves a battle of beliefs: "If we say that we 'ought' to do something, we are making a moral judgment. When our legislators turn that judgment into law, somebody's ought becomes a ?must' for the whole of society. This is not inherently dangerous; it's how pluralism works."
He continued: "Democracy depends on people of conviction expressing their views, confidently and without embarrassment. This give-and-take is an American tradition, and religious believers play a vital role in it. We don't serve our country -- in fact we weaken it intellectually -- if we downplay our principles or fail to speak forcefully out of some misguided sense of good manners."
That says it well. Christians, like others, should compete democratically. Sen. Kerry regularly notes that faith without works is dead, but what about belief without advocacy?