Of all the triumphs of the Founding Fathers, the separation of church and state stands alone at the top. It enabled God-fearing men and women to worship -- or not worship -- as they please, and to let their impulses of conscience guide their votes.
The separation of church and state was specifically written into the First Amendment to protect the new nation from establishing a state church or investing a leader with divinity. Religious influences were left to flourish in our politics, but Americans would always be skeptical of established religion. Thomas Jefferson was attacked as an atheist, but John F. Kennedy was required by public opinion to assure Americans that his Catholic faith would not dictate how he would govern. He would take no orders from the pope.
Modernity began with the Enlightenment when science and reason pushed God from the center of the city, epitomized centuries later by Nietzsche's famous declaration that "God is dead." But religious faith remains at the center of culture and society, continuing to influence how we think about politics. Candidates for president cite the influence of religion on their lives, citing faith as a source of inspiration. The Bible is evoked with references we all understand, as both metaphor and truth.
Stylish and fashionable writers attempt to condescend to religious people, with titles such as "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (by Christopher Hitchens) and "The God Delusion" (by Richard Dawkins), but propagandists for atheism, often sounding as if they're trying to persuade themselves, know they're up against a formidable foe, an enduring faith in God.
One of the most provocative books on religious belief in modern times is "The Secular Age," by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. He recognizes that the religious spirit as it was fused with politics in the 16th century no longer drives Western civilization, but observes that the "desire for eternity" still guides man away from Nietzsche's soullessness. So, too, the discipline bequeathed by religious faith, difficult as that is. Even St. Augustine prayed, "Lord, make me be chaste, but not yet."Taylor writes that we live in a "new age of religious searching." This does not necessarily take on the coloring of the orthodox, but it's impossible not to see something going on when churches sprout in shopping malls where the people are, whether sinner or merely shopper. The Wall Street Journal reports that "Confession Makes a Comeback," with the rite expanding from Catholic to Protestant and Evangelical, an attempt to bring moral awareness and repentance back into everyday life. This can be faith reduced to Cliffs Notes, but it nevertheless speaks of a yearning for something beyond the materialism of the modern world. "Certainly the confessional is a lot healthier than Jerry Springer," says Orlando, Fla., Bishop Thomas Wenski.
America is the most religious society in the West, but faith flourishes in its pluralities and keeps us tolerant of those who believe something different. The robustness of faith gives strength to democracy. Americans were not susceptible to the messianic ideologies of communism and fascism because we enable faith to be the handmaiden of government, serving government and the common good through individuals who live their beliefs in different ways, enabling the still small voice of conscience to guide.
The strength of democracy rests not only on tolerance for many beliefs but a tolerance for no belief. It's precisely this tolerance that radical Islam detests. For radical Muslims there is no separation of religion from anything else. They use intolerance to dominate and destroy everything that deviates from oppressive religious law. For their part, atheists would do better to dissect the Islamist rationale than to pick on the religious folk whose faith guarantees not only freedom of religion, but the freedom from religion enjoyed by atheists, skeptics and other nonbelievers. This is the freedom the Founding Fathers regarded as a gift of God.