Religion and the public squared

Posted: Oct 24, 2005 12:05 AM

Religious faith is alive and well in the public square. It's central to the debate of who we are, what we expect to achieve, and where we're going in pursuit of happiness. The wall of separation of church and state has not been breached or lowered, but the public accepts as desirable a dialogue between Americans on both sides of the wall.
This religious debate once more confirms what Alexis de Tocqueville observed when he visited America in 1831. The force of faith arises not in spite of the separation of church and state but because of it: "By diminishing the apparent power of religion one increases its real strength."

 Since de Tocqueville's visit, faith as a public issue has worked through several stages -- for better and for worse -- but it has never been absent from politics. In a book tellingly titled "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?" the contemporary philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain puts the subject into perspective. "Separation of church and state is one thing," she writes. "Separation of religion and politics is another thing altogether. Religion and politics flow back and forth in American civil society all the time -- always have, always will. How could it be otherwise?"

 The White House spinners were clumsy and opportunistic in the way they stressed Harriet Miers' evangelical Christian beliefs, but the idea that religious commitments should be considered as qualifications for public office is not new. When William Jennings Bryan ran for president -- as the Democratic candidate, twice -- his faith was a force that inspired both the candidate and his followers. When he came out of retirement to argue against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes trial in 1927, his use of religious faith destroyed his credibility.

 When John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith became a crucial issue in his campaign for the presidency in 1960, he welcomed questions about it so that he could set the record straight. "[I]f the time should ever come -- and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible -- when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office," he told the Southern Baptist pastors of Houston, "and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same."

 Catholicism was the controversial religion for John Kennedy because many Americans feared, as they had when Al Smith was the Democratic candidate in 1928, that a Catholic would take orders from the pope. Today religious faith becomes the focus of controversy for Harriet Miers because her faith plays a part in her attitude toward abortion. The thinness of her record pushes her faith center stage in a way that Chief Justice John Roberts' Catholic faith did not. Her faith became a sideshow, and that's too bad.

 Critics of the way religious faith plays out in the public square are mostly on the liberal side of politics, attacking the moral fervor of the "religious right." That was not always the way it was. Religion enjoys a long lineage in our liberal tradition, especially as it was espoused by the contenders for the 19th-century anti-slavery movement, women's suffrage in the early 20th century, and in the civil rights struggles in the 1960s led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his clerical colleagues. Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, has called on his party to restore the connection of liberal politics to the religious spirit: "Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don't have to start from scratch." Maybe not, but it's a long way down the sawdust trail.

 How faith is exploited usually depends on the politics of who's exploiting it. It can convey authenticity of motive or the hypocrisy of exploitation. In their book, "Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America," Hugh Heclo and Wilfred McClay trace the ways faith can enrich or impoverish the public conversation. Mr. Heclo offers a warning: "Thinking about religion and public policy requires thinking in complex rather than simplistic ways. Doing so means harkening to what might be taken as a prime commandment of all religions -- to 'pay attention' -- that is, to look past the surface of things and not assume that what meets the eye is all that is going on."

 Just so. Harriet Miers' faith is of considerably less relevance than her judicial philosophy. Alexis de Tocqueville saw religion in America as essential to democracy, offering the strength of moral discipline, a restraining influence on unbridled freedom, and a source of vitality for "good citizenship." He could not imagine America without religion. Who among us can?