In a recent editorial in The Weekly Standard, William Kristol writes that the distinctive legacy likely to be left by George W. Bush will be an end to government hostility to religion and a new era in which pluralism and faith are no longer at odds. This is a striking comment. Certainly no area of public life over the past several decades has been as divisive as the debate over the proper role of religion in public policy. Last year, two symposia on the subject caught my attention. One was the March 2000 convocation of The American Assembly on “Matters of Faith: Religion in American Public Life” and the other was a July 2000 American Enterprise Institute symposium emphasizing Alexis de Tocqueville’s views on the subject. The American Assembly convocation of 57 business, civic, and religious leaders produced a statement of general, albeit not unanimous, agreement that “….religious voices are a vital component of our national conversation and should be heard in the public square. We reject the notion that religion is exclusively a private matter relegated to the homes and sacred meeting places of the faithful….” The AEI meeting highlighted Tocqueville’s thoughts on the threat of tyranny, not from the guillotine or the gulag, but from a form of “perpetual childhood” brought about by a Faustian bargain – the state assures affluence and contentment in exchange for power over our lives. He believed this condition would reign when materialism and individualism led to power seeking through government. Ultimately, he believed this society would be forced to make a choice and that the only bulwark against this tyranny would be our voluntary, private associations informed by religious faith.
Norman Podhoretz has written of the “curious fear and loathing” of religious conservatives by the liberal elite. Their talk of fascism has been replaced by the sincere conviction that if the Christian Right ever got into power behind a Republican President, we would face an updated version of the Salem witch trials. (Incidentally, he finds a clue here as to how Bill Clinton survived impeachment.) He dismisses this paranoia by pointing out that the religious conservative communities have served as a reminder of the religious foundations of the country and the (rapidly depleting) moral capital on which the democratic system still draws.
Remember that the mantra of “separation of church and state” comes from a judicial perversion of the religion clause of the First Amendment, which was designed to limit what the state can do, not what the church can do. With any luck, this President, with his public faith witness and his emphasis on private, faith-based social initiatives, can introduce a neo-Tocquevillian era and replenish our moral capital. Politically, this may be what the liberals fear most of all.