One noisy nation, under God

Posted: Jun 21, 2004 12:00 AM

It's a lot easier to talk about sex and money at a Washington dinner party than about religion and spiritual matters.

Religion popped into a discussion of Renaissance art at such a dinner party the other night in Washington. I remarked, innocently, I thought, that certain paintings such as Massacio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, Raphael's Madonna and Child and Michelangelo's sculpture of the Pieta, inspired a profound spiritual reflection.

Several guests more accustomed to talking politics than religion seemed shocked to be dining with such a zealot, and argued that many quatrocento artists who created gorgeous "religious" works merely used religious themes as vehicles for sensual color and line because that's where the money was - in churches and rich Papist patrons.

The subject was quickly changed to the safer one of presidential politics, but the next day I received a call from one of the guests, who wanted to continue the conversation on the topic of "spiritual reflection." She remarked, sadly, that many Americans with sophistication and education could only talk about religion in "intellectual" terms.

Pundits mocked George W. Bush when, during the 2000 campaign, he told an interviewer that Jesus Christ was the most influential philosopher in his life, though this was not so remarkable to anyone actually conversant with our nation's history.

Time magazine notes in its current cover story, "Faith, God and the Oval Office," that Thomas Jefferson said the same thing 200 years ago. Spirituality and adherence to certain religions (like "sophistication" and "education") can be faked by artists, politicians and the rest of us for all kinds of reasons, but public religious expression seems to make those without faith particularly uncomfortable.

As this election season unfolds, it behooves all of us to be particularly judicious and discriminating in the ways we interpret what a person says about his faith. Those who criticize George W.'s religious talk fear that his faith determines policy. But a person's faith (or lack of it) is inevitably a factor in making important decisions, personal and political.

Stem-cell research and abortion are issues that atheists as well as the faithful can question because profound and complex issues determine how we value life. Not even a saint has all the answers to every question.

A young Catholic man once told me that he sought out a priest to tell him how to solve a problem that he had to solve for himself. The priest told him, "I know two things for sure," he said. "I know there is a God and I know that I'm not Him." Religion doesn't determine who we are; it guides us through the faltering steps of life. An atheist, like a believer, can have a deep ethical core to guide him in determining what's right and wrong.

When religion is used to justify violence and deception, abuse and exploitation, "faith" becomes a weapon of mass destruction. The president is correct when he says that terrorists may "couch their language in religious terms, but that doesn't make them religious people."

Americans are among the most religious people in the world - the nation was founded by men who sought a place to worship freely - and ours is among the most tolerant nations in the world. But the nation's roots are Judeo-Christian, and it's Christianity that most often carries the national ideals, first expressed in the Declaration of Independence, into the public square.

This confuses some people who ought to know better. "This is rapidly becoming the most religiously infused political campaign in modern history," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State."

Lynn never seems to hear a public religious expression that doesn't ruin his day. This observation is absurd. The doctrine of separation of church and state has never meant separation of a candidate from his religion, or a society from its spiritual roots. It was meant to be freedom for religion.

Alexis de Tocqueville understood this when he argued that religious mores mitigate and socialize self-interest and that only in America was "the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom" successfully combined, allowing a vital religious life to support public cooperation for the common good.

A candidate's religious references in a political campaign are fair game for debate, and when piety morphs into self-righteousness, we should note it. But when we look at a man's religion, we must be careful to see the whole man: how he orders his life and not just what he says he believes.

We live in dangerous times and spiritual reflection, whether driven by preacher, painter or politician should be welcomed. That's what it means to live in "one nation under God."