Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America
3:00 – 5:00 p.m. (reception to follow)
Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Chair of Humanities and Professor of History, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Hugh Heclo, Robinson Professor of Public Affairs, George Mason University
E.J. Dionne Jr., Co-Chair, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution; and columnist, the Washington Post.
JOSEPH BRINLEY: We’re here today to discuss the publication of Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, edited by Huge Heclo and Wilfred M. McClay.
The Woodrow Wilson Center is the living national memorial to President Wilson, established by Congress in 1968, headquartered here in Washington. It’s a non-partisan institution supported by public and private funds, engaged in the study of national and world affairs. The Center establishes and maintains a neutral forum for free, open and informed dialogue.
Sometimes the Wilson Center’s attention is turned toward the most urgent issues of public policy, but today we’ll be working on the other side of the Wilson Center’s street, where we reflect on the underpinnings of our lives together as human beings and citizens. These foundations require recurrent attention, and they can’t simply be assumed silently. That’s shown in the very title of the book we’re launching today, Religion Returns to the Public Square, which really describes the stimulus for the whole project.
In the middle of the 20th century it was widely assumed that the public role of religion was dwindling and that religion would be relegated to a private role, ignored by some people and taken care of by others, but largely, like a large pet, sometimes comforting and sometimes inconvenient. But as the 20th century went on, towards its end, religion showed a resilience. Today we had an example. At the Wilson Center there was a mid-day celebration of Black History Month, and it was so absolutely clear how in one moment in the 1960s, both the inspiration and the language of religion were crucial to the civil rights movement. This afternoon’s speakers will describe in more detail how this project came about and what it means for our understanding of our history, society and politics.
I’m Joe Brinley. I’m director of the Woodrow Wilson Center Press. We’re the publisher of this book, together with Johns Hopkins University Press. Hopkins is one of the most important scholarly presses in the United States, and we’re very happy to be working with them on this project. Part of Hopkins’s job is actually selling the book, and so it is available from Johns Hopkins at their Web site, at their 800 number and through other things like that.
I also want to welcome you on behalf of the Center’s Division of United States Studies, which sponsored the original workshops that led to this edited volume, and is one of the sponsors of this afternoon’s session. That division’s director, Philippa Strum, couldn’t be here. She is on her way to Tunisia to deliver lectures about the U.S. judiciary – something about Muslim women immigrants in the United States – but I’d like to thank her for helping us to set up today’s session.
I also want to thank Susan Nugent, who is on the division’s staff, who did really all the legwork of setting up this afternoon’s events. Susan Nugent is also one of the people to whom this book is rightly dedicated. She was essential to getting the original workshops organized, then to pulling the manuscript together and then, finally, was also key to today’s proceedings.
The other person to whom the editors dedicated this book is Michael J. Lacey, who was Philippa Strum’s predecessor as director of the division of United States Studies. He retired about two years ago after a long and very productive career at the Wilson Center. Along with Hugh Heclo and Bill McClay, Mike is certainly one of the intellectual authors of this project and this book. Mike is a person of a number of intellectual passions. One of them is the study of religion, but another is the study of government institutions, and the reason that he can’t be here today is that he has gotten involved in teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, a course on creating a department of homeland security. Anyway, his students’ projects are due at the end of this weekend and he felt that he had to be on hand to help them out with that, so he was unable to travel to Washington today.
I’d like to acknowledge a few more people before getting down to business. Major support for the Religion Returns to the Public Square project came from the Wilson Center’s Federal Conference Fund, and I’d like to thank the Center’s director, Lee Hamilton, and the other people at the Center for turning their support to this project. Other funding came from the Siemens Corporation and from the Pew Charitable Trusts. In the same vein, the Journal of Policy History and its editor, Donald Critchlow, who’s a professor of history at St. Louis University, originally invited Hugh Heclo to commission six of the essays that are published here. Those essays appeared in earlier forms in the spring 2001 issue of the Journal.
The Wilson Quarterly, which is another product of the Wilson Center, has published versions of two of the chapters in this book, and I’d like to thank the Quarterly and its editor, Steve Lagerfeld, for sharing this work with their audience. I’d also like to thank the Center Press’s Millie Kahn for her good work in putting the manuscript through the steps that turned it into this book.
There are 11 contributors to the book in all, and I don’t want to name them all, but I’m grateful to them all, and I hope they’re pleased with the results of this project, which spanned several years. A couple of them are here today, in addition to Bill, and I’d like to recognize them. Jim Reichley is a senior fellow at the Graduate Public Policy Institute, Georgetown University, and Darryl Hart is here, too. He is academic dean and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. I think that’s everybody.
MR. BRINLEY: Anyway, the full table of contents is visible at the Center’s Web site, along with the names of the other contributors. The most important people in seeking out and gathering and coordinating all this work are the book’s two editors, Hugh Heclo and Wilfred M. McClay. We publish many collected, edited works like this one at the Center, and I know that the editors’ task is very difficult, requiring creativity and enthusiasm at the beginning, and a combination of tact and firmness throughout the whole project to bring all the authors into line and to complete a thoughtful, original, well-integrated book as this one is.
Hugh Heclo unfortunately is snowed out of Washington today, so we won’t be seeing him, but we’ll miss him. He’s the Clarence J. Robinson professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University. He’s a former fellow of the Wilson Center, and he’s a longtime collaborator here.
We are, however, happy to have Bill McClay with us, who this afternoon only had to travel a couple hundred yards from the Old Post Office, where he was serving on the National Council on the Humanities, which is the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bill has been SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he has also been a professor of history since 1999. He has also taught at Georgetown University, Tulane University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Dallas. He’s the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, published in 1994, which won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians. He was selected for inclusion on the 1997-1998 Templeton Honor Rolls, awarded by the John Templeton Foundation for distinguished teaching and scholarship in American higher education.
He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and has had other fellowship awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Academy of Education, the Howard Foundation, the Earhart Foundation and the Danforth Foundation. He is co-editor of a book series at Rowman and Littlefield Publishers called American Intellectual Culture, serves on the editorial boards of the Wilson Quarterly, American Quarterly and Continuity, and is a frequent contributor to journals such as the Public Interest, First Things, American Scholar, Commentary, Reviews in American History and the Wilson Quarterly. He was educated at St. John’s College in Annapolis and received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.
After Bill, we’ll hear from E.J. Dionne, who contributed the forward to the book Religion Returns to the Public Square. E.J. is a columnist at The Washington Post and a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. He’s also co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which is another sponsor of this afternoon’s session. We’re grateful for your help in organizing.
E.J. spent 14 years with The New York Times, reporting on state and local government, national politics and from around the world, including stints in Paris, Rome and Beirut. The Los Angeles Times praised his coverage of the Vatican as the “best in two decades.” In 1990 he joined The Washington Post as a reporter, covering national politics, and in 1993 he began his op-ed column for the Post. The column is now appearing in some 90 newspapers. He’s the author of two books: in 1999, the bestseller Why Americans Hate Politics, which won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a nominee for the National Book Award; and in 1996, a book on which he had worked here at the Wilson Center as a guest scholar called They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era. He’s the editor of two other books from the Brookings Institution Press. The first is called Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America, and secondly, What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment? E.J. is a graduate of Harvard University and received a doctorate from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
So we’ll hear first from Bill McClay and then from E.J.
WILFRED MCCLAY: Thanks, Joe. I am delighted to be here. It’s always great to be back at the Wilson Center, which I think of as sort of a second home. And by the way, one thing you left out is I’m very proud that I’m an adjunct Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center, so I’ve sustained a connection there, however tenuous, and I intend to hang onto it as long as I can, as long as Lee Hamilton will have me.
I don’t want to do a sort of Ishmael routine about all the people who aren’t here, and I alone have survived to come and speak to you, but I am very sorry that Mike Lacey couldn’t be here. He was an extraordinary spirit here at the Center, and that influence has lasted. This book certainly wouldn’t exist without him, and it wouldn’t exist in the form in which it exists. And Hugh Heclo, who is a very eminent political scientist best known for his work on social welfare policy and comparative perspective. My field is American intellectual history, so this is a very unlikely book for the two of us to have undertaken, and the blame – or credit – belongs, I think, principally, with Mike Lacey, who encouraged this.
And we had a series of conferences, as Joe mentioned, that were not necessarily intended to lead to the creation of this book. A lot of times the favorite expression around Washington is about how such-and-such an enterprise is like herding cats, and usually being the editor of a volume is like herding cats, but this was a case in which the cats all came to the same place, and so we decided, why not call it a herd? So the volume really almost edited itself, as we collected eminent contributors who all seemed to be saying things that reflected a certain theme.
And there are two ideas, I think, that I can abstract from the whole, that I think were guiding ideas or that end up being a consistent thread. One is that there has been, and continues to be, a kind of re-emergence of religion in public life, in American public life, in recent years. Certainly the presidential election of 2000 is one of many examples one could give, in that the candidates of both major parties were very vocal in expressing religious sentiments, and the fact of how sincere they were on either side is, in a way, not really the point. The point is that there’s a legitimacy accorded to that kind of rhetoric in public life that is greater than what one would have seen 20 years ago, let us say. And I wanted to give a lot of other examples of this, and of course we do in the book.
A corollary to this re-emergence is a view shared by, I think, almost all of the authors that this is not an entirely bad thing. In fact, it may in some respects be a good thing, something about which one can be guardedly optimistic. E.J. Dionne has a very nice phrase in the forward, which I wish I had thought of – that’s why he’s such a great phrasemaker – that this reassertion of religion represents, and I quote, “an expansion of the sphere of liberty,” which is another way of saying that it’s not just a means to an end but that religious liberty itself is an end. It’s one of the ends for the sake of which democracy and free societies exist – not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
The return that’s described in the title of the book is – and here I borrow from Mike Lacey a phrase he used again and again as this was coming together – “this is not the return of the repressed.” It may be in some respects, but it’s not merely that, and it’s not adequately described in those terms. One evidence of that is what a wide consensus there is across partisan, even to some extent ideological, lines about the desirability of this return of the presence of religion. Something seemed to have changed. There seemed to be something like a de-secularization of American public life, or a post-secular era coming into view. So this was one of the themes shared by our various authors, who approached from a variety of different policy and intellectual perspectives on that subject.
The second theme of the two things I’m going to identify is that it seemed to most of us that much of the debate that goes on in our culture about secular versus religious forces was a muddled debate. It was unnecessarily harsh. It was couched in winner-take-all terms, like so many of the arguments that are held in our public culture, that they’re like legal briefs or often like fundraising letters in which you have to convince the people who are going to give you money that the other side is at the gates and threatening to obliterate your point of view. James Davison Hunter, by the way, a sociologist, has written brilliantly about this, about the way in which public debate has been coarsened and polarized. And so the debate between secularism and religion seemed to us to be similarly polarized and coarsened.
Part of the problem is that, I think, we all felt that both sides of the debate had a piece of the truth. We are not simply apologists for the pro-religion camp in this book. I think all the contributors – and I wrote on this explicitly in my own contribution – see a place for secularism, rightly understood. No one in the book questions in any serious way the principle of the separation of church and state.
What we did question, however, is the notion that this implies the need for a separation between religion and public life, which is a very different thing. One example, I think, just to illustrate, without going into a long discussion of the positive aspects of secularism: I have a story that I relate in my essay about an organization in India called Citizens for Secularism, which was really endorsing not anything like what we would call secularism in the West, but simply a non-theocratic state. And we are so used to that notion that it seems to me important not to lose sight of it, of its many benefits, and affirm it as a friend in support of religious liberty. So we do that.
There was also – and I think Joe implied this – much of the book was conceptualized and written before 9/11 – a lot of revision and revisiting after that – and some fear, on my part, and I think Hugh Heclo felt this as well, that when we went back and looked at what had been done we would find it obsolete. But not so, not at all, and, in fact, I think we may exaggerate the degree to which 9/11 represents some kind of decisive turning point. It’s an easy thing to do.
But it also is the case – because what we were identifying, we believe, is a long-term trend – that this is not the product of one administration under one party. In fact, one of our contributors is mainly concerned with initiatives undertaken in the Clinton administration, the Charitable Choice provisions for the dispensing of social welfare. So it’s not tied to a party, it’s not tied to an ideology, it’s not tied to a particular perspective. I think if you just looking at the Supreme Court, it suffices to say, it’s not a terribly coherent development, that a lot of things are going on at the same time, moving in different directions, and you have to stand back from the phenomenon to see it is steadily progressing in the direction of a return. So that’s what we believe is going on. I think all the authors share the sense that secularism in its purest form may well have passed its high tide, partly, I should add, as a victim of its successes as well as its failures and inadequacies.
But there’s a difference between being anti-secular and post-secular, and I think that the latter term is the one we would use to describe the perspective in our book. It’s not a vision of rolling things back to the status quo antebellum; it’s a book that acknowledges that history has happened, that the results of history are important and valuable, necessary, but also in some way deeply insufficient. We see us moving toward a posture of a more full neutrality between religion and non-religion in public life. This, I think, is well expressed, if controversially at the moment, by the faith-based initiatives, which represent, I should add, the culmination of a long movement under several administrations, and in fact doesn’t represent something entirely new, even in recent American history.
One of our contributors, John Coleman, has written a very long and thoughtful exhaustive essay about the history of Catholic Charities and its relationship to the public sphere. The Zelman case, the Cleveland school vouchers case, I think, is properly understood in this light, the light of religious neutrality, not as a movement towards theocracy. Again, a couple of – I’m trying to touch on our contributors. I won’t touch on all of them, but Stanley Carlson-Thies, who actually served until recently in the White House in the Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives, John DiIulio’s former perch, has an essay about Charitable Choice. And Charles Glenn has an essay about education, both arguing similar perspectives to the kind of perspective of neutrality in the Zelman case.
We see very little likelihood – and perhaps this is something that some of you may want to take issue with – but we see very little likelihood of a movement towards theocracy in American life, although there’s plenty in the book to remind readers of some of the dark periods of American history relating to intolerance and religious conflict, particularly intolerance towards Catholics, which is easy to forget if you don’t know much about 19th century or 18th century American history, but it was pervasive. Jim Reichly, who has a masterful essay about the relationship of faith and politics, talks about this. It reminds us of these kinds of factors in American ethno-cultural history.
Some of us are more enthusiastic than others. Darryl Hart, who’s here today and is dean of Westminster Seminary in California, offers a good reminder of some of the dangers posed to religion by an excessive entanglement in public affairs. And I might add that there’s a long American tradition of this concern going back to Roger Williams, not so much that religion would corrupt politics, but that politics would corrupt religion. It’s a good and useful corrective to some of the enthusiasm that some of the rest of us have expressed in the book and highlights the fact that there are good and bad, better and lesser ways of being a public religion.
My own chapter argues that there are two distinct forms of secularism, which I explain by relating the concept of religious establishments, as in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Secularism can be understood, first, as an opponent of established beliefs, including a non-religious established belief, and a protector of the rights of free exercise, as expressed in the First Amendment, and free association. That’s one alternative, and I think that’s the way secularism is rightly understood. Or secularism can be a kind of non-religious establishment, an establishment, if you will, of unbelief, which officially favors irreligion over religion and regards religion as strictly an individual affair, a private affair with no appropriate social or public role whatsoever.
Clearly our book argues for the former understanding of secularism, and sees that secularism as supplanting the latter. This, again, is not to deny concerns about the reentry of religion into public life, and I think we’re actually quite moderate about that. I think there’s a strong willingness in the book to credit what might be called the secular moment that had its value as a kind of a ground clearing and as a way of opening up the concept of religious liberty in a more inclusive way in American life. But on balance – well, I think we all agree – I hope I’m not herding cats here; I’ll get scratched if I am – on balance we, I think, all agree with the concluding words of an essay by the distinguished political scientist, Wilson Carey McWilliams, in our volume that, and I quote, “American democracy has worse things to fear than faith.” We contend that there’s a lot to be said for that proposition. In fact, I think we’d put it a lot more strongly than that.
There’s a theme that runs through the book, and it goes something like this: that there are pathologies in our society – and I don’t mean just American society; I really mean the West – to which religion uniquely addresses itself at this moment historically. There’s a certain irony at work in this, that liberal, secular modernity arose historically, in more or less the 17th century or so, as a counter to the terrible religious wars that had preceded it. And it made perfect sense – it was a great liberation, in that sense, from the terrors of religious antagonism.
But now it may be the case that liberal, secular modernity needs the foil of religion to correct its own excesses, its own tendencies to exaggerate itself, and thus exaggerate its inadequacies. Actually, one of our contributors is a sociologist named Jose Casanova, and Casanova’s written a very important book, unfortunately not the easiest read for the lay audience, called Public Religions in the Modern World, and we got him to write an essay called, “What is a public religion?” And let me just – indulge me and let me read you a few sentences from this essay:
Religion is … one of the primary resources we possess in facing these new challenges [of the modern world]. The penetration of all spheres of life, including the most private, by public policy; the expansion of scientific-technological frontiers giving humanity demiurgic powers of self-creation and self-destruction; the compression of the whole world into one single, common home for all of humanity; and the moral relativism that seems inherent to multiculturalism – all these new transcendent issues engage religion and provoke religious responses. At the same time, the great world religions in particular, as the stored collective normative and moral memories of humanity, are bound to become a valuable resource for dealing with these issues. Thus, the interconnectedness of religion and public policy is only likely to increase in the future as we enter uncharted moral territory.
In other words, the need for religion as a moral resource in support of morality, in support of human dignity, fundamental human dignity, at a time when the signposts available to us are so few in the forms of social and political-economic organization that increasingly dominate the world, and which are likely to be insensitive to these concerns. Modernity runs the risk of being devoured by the very inhuman logic of its own creations, unless it restores dialogue with the religious traditions out of which it sprung but which it has tended to eviscerate or abandon. I think this is symbolized for many of us by the fear that we have about the relentless march of technology, particularly biotechnology, which, at its most frightening reaches, threatens to deconstruct the human person completely into a lump of hamburger.
So what we’re arguing, again, is that there’s something more than a pendular movement here, a movement back towards the center, reasserting balance. There is some of that at work, but we also think that we’re into a new phase of things, a real departure in history, and that there won’t be a rollback to the status quo beforehand. Yet I think it’s also the case that what we’re seeing is, in some respects, a fuller realization of ideals that are very old, especially going back to E.J.’s notion of expanding the sphere of liberty.
In my essay, I use a quotation from Isaiah Berlin that I think is appropriate here. It is from an essay called “Two Concepts of Liberty”; I shamelessly stole the title of it for my essay, which is “Two Concepts of Secularism.” Berlin says, “In the end, men choose between ultimate values. They choose as they do because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are, at any rate, over large stretches of time and space, a part of their being and thought and sense of their own identity, part of what makes them human. And, after all, what is religion if not the most powerful expression of all ultimate values?”
Let me, in conclusion, say a word about the tension that exists – and I think it’s a necessary tension between this neutrality that I’ve been talking about and the public uses of religion. William Martin, a sociologist from Rice University, has a terrific essay in the book about religion and foreign policy, and I think it’s an essay that turns out to be highly germane at this moment in time. There’s a lot of concern – and I speak here as myself, and not Martin, but I think he’d probably agree with what I have to say – there’s a great deal of concern about President Bush’s use of religious language and imagery in the post-9/11 environment. For my own part, I think much of this is just fine, very much within our traditions of presidential rhetoric, even the use of the concept of evil, so long as it’s not used in a way that’s meant to imply that we, by contrast, are perfectly good. But what Martin’s essay reminds us of is the profound dangers in the possibility of identifying ourselves with God, our nation with God, or the American cause with God’s purposes.
I think it’s fair to conclude that the book would also offer accounts that there’s a danger of not holding the nation accountable in some way to God’s purposes, that is in completely secularizing the national experiment and holding our actions completely apart from larger moral considerations. But I think President Bush would benefit from emulating the way that Abraham Lincoln deployed religious imagery, and although this is not part of the book, I think it’s a good way to conclude my remarks and turn things over to E.J.
I’d argue that Lincoln offers the best example, the most judicious example, of a non-specific political or public or civic use of religion in all of American history. And maybe the high point of that is his second inaugural address, which is, of course, famous for the “malice to none” and various other ringing lines. But the sentiment of the speech – and, of course, he could afford to be generous at that point, at the beginning of 1865 when it was clear who was going to win; he might not have been so generous if he was on the ropes or if he’d lost the election in 1864 – but nevertheless, it’s a marvelous piece of rhetoric. And the upshot is that Lincoln did not claim to know God’s purposes. He did not identify the cause of the Union with God’s hand in history. He did not doubt the need of political leaders to take painful, difficult, even calamitous action in the pursuit of the greater good. He didn’t deny the evils that were done thereby were evil and intensely and eternally regrettable.
In short, there’s a tremendous humility about Lincoln’s deployment of religious imagery, and yet Lincoln – if you know anything about Lincoln, you know that he constantly invoked the Declaration of Independence as the bedrock of the American experiment, as being more fundamental than the Constitution, even. And at the bedrock of the bedrock is the notion of the God-given equality of all human beings as the basis of the American democratic experiment. The God-given part of that formula was not a metaphor for Lincoln; it was the basis of the dignity, of the equal dignity, of human beings. And it may be that the reason why religion has returned to the public square now is that once again something like that is needed.
But my final comment is this: Don’t expect the boundaries between the appropriate and inappropriate uses of religious language and imagery to be established once and for all and never traduced. This seems to me is something that intrinsically is contested and will continue to always be contested. Religion will not stay in a box, and yet in some way its public expression also will always need to be confined and channeled. How exactly to do that is not a formula that you can ever set once and for all and just let the machine run of itself.
E.J. DIONNE, JR.: This being Washington, I should make a disclosure, which is that Professor McClay was so kind to quote me, and I actually quote him in my talk. And this is not Washington logrolling. We did not make a deal on some piece of legislation, but he has a great essay in here. John Kennedy was once asked at a campaign event, how did you become a war hero? And he replied, “It’s easy; they sank my boat.” How did I get to be here? It’s easy; these great editors asked me to write the forward to this book. I just want to say at the outset that I’m very honored to be associated with this group of scholars.
You will hear people here talk a lot about Mike Lacey and Susan Nugent. I won’t go on for long about them, except to say, I liked the idea that tact and firmness are needed to pull a book together – tact, firmness, a lot of work, a lot of patience, that’s Susan Nugent. And Mike Lacey, who’s a friend of many of us, thought the subject of religion and public life was important before the issue of religion in public life became cool. And he spent a long time trying to persuade his friends in the academy to take religion seriously and his friends in the religious world to take the need to enter the intellectual world seriously. And Mike is a real treasure, and I am grateful that he is enjoying himself out in Seattle instead of having to be stuck in the snow with us today, although I wish he were here.
I always like to tell a story that I heard first courtesy of Bishop Hubbard up in Albany, New York. I like to tell this story because I think there is a tendency in our political life always to associate the word “religion” with either the word “right” or the word “conservative.” It is somehow assumed, ever since the late 1970s or early 1980s, that if someone cares about or is interested in this subject, they must have an interest in pushing politics to the right.
The Bishop Hubbard story is about a woman called Mrs. O’Reilly, who was 89 years old and was being taken to the polls by her son to vote. Mrs. O’Reilly had always voted straight Democratic; her son had become upper-middle class and voted for a lot of Republicans. He was a little frustrated with his mother’s voting habits. He asked her, Mom, how are you going to vote? And of course, she said, As always, straight Democratic. And the son said, You know, Mom, if Jesus came back to Earth and ran as a Republican, you would vote against him. And Mrs. O’Reilly looked at her son and said Oh, hush; why should he change his party after all these years? (Laughter.) So this is not a phenomenon unique to the Republican Party or unique to the political right.
And by the way, I was grateful also for Joe’s mention of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. We have tried very hard since we started up about three years ago to create an organization that would be broadly open to people from left to right engaged in this large public conversation. In fact, when you think about how to create a genuinely open dialogue on the subject of religion in public life, you begin to realize how unusually diverse our religious landscape is. It is not just all of the faith groups who have come – members of all the faith groups who have come to settle in our country. Remember Will Herberg wrote that famous book back in the ’50s, Protestant-Catholic-Jew. That book would now have to be called “Protestant-Catholic-Jew-Muslim-Sikh-Hindu” and we could go – Jain – and we could go on and on. So there’s that form of diversity.
Many of our denominations themselves are split along religious and theological lines, and obviously almost every religious group in America is split along political lines, so that when our great executive director at the Pew Forum, Melissa Rogers, and I were having a conversation one day about how we created a panel for a particular event, I looked at her at one point, and I said, “You know, Melissa, Noah had it easy compared to us.” (Laughter.)
And I think it’s very important when we talk about religion and public life to understand this new pluralism that exists in our country that is both new and not new. It is new because the number of groups in our country has expanded; it is not new because it is a struggle that has gone on from the very beginning of our republic, and I think it’s something worth keeping in mind.
I hope, by the way, that Jim Reichley and Darryl Hart will jump into this conversation. I work at the Brookings Institution, and Jim did some pioneering work on this subject many years ago, and his essay in this book is a really fine essay.
I’d like to begin with some polling data because I think it’s important to understand that there really is, among an awful lot of our fellow citizens, and, really, with all of us, a great ambivalence about this subject of religion and public life. It isn’t simply that we Americans are divided into opposing camps, sort of secular and religious; there is a great ambivalence within ourselves. And at the Pew Forum we team up regularly with the Pew Research Center to do an annual survey on religion in public life, and one of my favorite findings we have ever come up with in this work is the following. We asked the same sample of Americans two questions. We asked them if they would prefer to have someone who was a person of faith as president of the United States, and if they thought it was wrong for politicians to talk too much about how religious they are. In the same sample of Americans, 70 percent said they wanted a president with strong religious beliefs, and 50 percent, which means an awful lot of that 70 percent, said they disliked politicians who talk too much about how religious they are.
Now you might ask the question, how would Americans know about a politician’s religious beliefs if they don’t want him or her to talk about them too much? But I think that finding is a lovely indicator of the torn mind and conscience of Americans when it comes to the issue of religion and its influences. We respect and admire religion, and we worry about what can go wrong when its role is too public. My friend, David Brooks, noted in his great book Bobos in Paradise that we carry this out very much inside of ourselves. He coined the wonderful term “flexidoxy,” to capture the ambivalence so many of us feel about religion. Many Americans want the moral and spiritual certainty of orthodoxy, but being Americans of their age, they also want their orthodoxy to be flexible. They want orthodoxy but without its rules against women or birth control, or against whatever it is they happen to be for. Thus, the popularity of flexidoxy.
Now, it’s because of this very American embrace of flexidoxy that I am less worried than some about the new engagement of religion and the public square, and it’s one of the many reasons I welcome this great collection. I think this collection reflects a simple truth, which is that religion, if it is to be taken seriously, must inevitably become a public matter. It’s public in the narrowest sense, that those who believe that a tradition or form of spirituality is true and valid cannot help but have their own public behavior shaped by its inspirations and demands. It is public in sociological terms; those who share spiritual beliefs inevitably come together in community. Many religious and spiritual traditions may honor hermits and spiritual virtuosos who go off into the wilderness, but they are not sustained by them.
And because the rest of us live in community under some set of public norms, religion is inevitably public in the political sense. All serious traditions develop views of what is right and just. Some traditions might choose to apply their insights about justice through society as a whole. Others might be interested in narrower goals: the establishment of rules and conditions that allow their particular tradition to survive and prosper. In either case, public religion and, in the broadest sense, political religion, is inevitable.
Now, these claims may seem commonsensical, but they are not uncontroversial because they are all premised on the idea of taking religion seriously. And this is not what everyone does, and certainly not all intellectuals. And this is the citation from Professor McClay in the book that I like so much. He argues in the book that certain forms of secularism would confine religion to what he calls “a sort of cultural red-light district, along with other unfortunate frailties and vices to which we are liable.” He goes on in this view: “Religion is tolerated as a form of irrationality, and religious people are left free to believe what they wish, and even to act in private on their beliefs as long as they do not trouble the rest of us with them or bestir the proverbial forces.”
And I think whatever else is true in this book, it can be argued that this book is an argument against that. Indeed, it is a book designed to bestir not only the horses, but also both the hostile and the indifferent and those who support religion to the intellectual power and seriousness of what Jose Casanova calls “public religion.”
I think it’s very important, what Professor McClay said about the matter of how this book does not look down upon the periods that came before this – the gains in religious liberty that happened, say, in the 1960s or 1970s – but rather asks the question of how we can build on them. It’s why I use the phrase that Professor McClay kindly quoted about how we expand the sphere of religious liberty. I ike to look at this as the idea that we are living through a third stage in our great national debate about religious liberty. I have historian friends who argue that it’s actually four stages and that I miss the period when the Constitution was written, but trinitarian formulations work; and four stages would take longer, so I will just take it to three stages.
The first stage you might see as a time of white Protestant hegemony, and it lasted well into the 20th century. Now that term, Protestant hegemony, sounds really nasty, and I don’t mean it that way at all. I believe, in fact, that American Protestantism deserves credit for helping shape the very heritage of religious liberty all of us celebrate. Protestantism had a great deal to do with shaping the nation’s identity to the point where American Jews and Catholics and Muslims and Sikhs and atheists are all more than a little bit Protestant. By the way, when I used to cover the Vatican for The New York Times, that was something my friends inside the Vatican bemoaned with some frustration, the fact that, at some level, all Americans have been shaped by this Protestant history.
Our nation drew on this shared Protestant spirit to connect people to one another and to the institutions of their common democracy – we didn’t plan this, either – and Lincoln’s second inaugural may in fact be the finest statement of that shared identity. If not everyone shared in that identity, everyone did more or less identify with the institutions it upheld, and it was one of the great virtues of this American Protestantism, that it underwrote the very religious toleration and liberty which eventually upset Protestant dominance as, first, Catholics and Jews, and then Muslims and many others, settled here and found religious liberty.
Now, this first stage began to erode, I think, first, in the 1920s and ’30s with the Scopes trial and the end of Prohibition. It eroded some with the rise – the Al Smith candidacy in 1928, the political coalition created by Franklin Roosevelt in the ’30s, but I think the formal dominance of Protestantism was repealed in the 1960s with, again it must be said, the strong support of many American Protestants themselves. Thus began what I see as the second stage.
The second stage involved a hard push for separation, including many of the relevant court decisions such as the ban on public school prayer, and it’s no accident that all this was occurring as America was coming to terms with its historic treatment of minorities. John Kennedy’s election as president marked the full entry of Roman Catholics into American civic life. The civil rights movement sought to right historic wrongs done to African-Americans, and the era swept away longstanding barriers to Jews. It created new immigration laws which swept away barriers to other religious groups, and as they came to our shores, these groups expanded religious diversity in our country. All this brought the second stage to an end.
Now, I think we’re in a third stage right now because there is a concern – a widespread concern, not confined to the religious right – that the push to reduce Protestant Christianity’s role may have had the effect of marginalizing faith’s public role altogether. I think the question asked by this book and by many Americans is, Was the public square becoming not simply neutral – not simply more open – but actually hostile to religion?
And we could talk about where this came from; we could talk about the role of the religious right in this argument. Nathan Glazer, the great sociologist, argued the rise of the religious right was better viewed not as an “offensive” to create a Christian nation – although some in the movement talk that way – but was more what he called a “defensive-offensive,” as groups tried to keep a hold on the culture and some political power in a situation that they saw as hostile.
I think this third stage is not about rolling back the second stage; it is about preserving the great gains of religious liberty that characterized that phase in our nation’s public life, and yet also protect religion’s free exercise and its role in our culture. I think today’s commotion is a product of a vigorous renegotiation; this is reflected at many stages in this book.
I think the clearest symbol of the contrast between the second stage and the third stage is the sharp contrast between the way John Kennedy treated his faith as a public issue back in the 1960s and how Joe Lieberman treated his faith. Both, of course, broke barriers as representatives of minority religions – i.e. in our country, as non-Protestants – but John Kennedy made the case for his election on the grounds that his religion was not at all important to him. His central assertion, politically necessary at the time, was that if ever his faith came into conflict with the Constitution or the public interest, he would resign. And, of course, few outside the most anti-Catholic quarters believed that was remotely possible. Joe Lieberman’s approach could not have been more different. He praised God in public. He thanked God for his new public role. He spoke at length about the importance of his faith and about the legitimacy of a politician bringing his or her faith to the public arena. Unlike Kennedy, Lieberman said over and over, My religion is really, really important to me. He joked once that as a result of this he became known as “Holy Joe,” a title he said his mother quite liked and that he didn’t like at all.
Now, notice something else here. In order to win acceptance from Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, it was absolutely essential for John Kennedy to play down his faith. But when Joe Lieberman played up his faith and spoke of God, it was said he was doing exactly the opposite of what John F. Kennedy did in order to reassure or win over the very same groups of Americans, or perhaps their children and grandchildren. In Kennedy’s time, the fear to be addressed was that a politician was not Protestant; in Lieberman’s time, the fear that was addressed was that a politician was not religious enough. That, I think, is a characteristic difference between the second and third stage.
Now, I want to conclude by suggesting that those who worry about this new openness of the public square to religion are not being paranoid and they’re not being mad secularists who want to marginalize religion altogether. I think it’s very important to go back to the Kennedy story to understand these fears. I share the view of many of the authors in this book that privatizing religion can indeed promote, as one of the writers says, “a gag rule on the religiously engaged,” but I think the impulse to privatize religion does have some honorable motives. Many Americans who experienced the Kennedy campaign, not to mention the even more viciously bigoted campaign against Al Smith back in 1928, never again wanted what seemed like a patent religious test to be applied to a candidate for public office. When public religion came to mean public discrimination against a particular faith, many Americans said a very loud no, and they were right.
Similarly, many Americans, especially but not exclusively mainline Protestants, reacted to the rise of the Christian right of the 1970s and 1980s with unease and alarm. For many progressive Christians, the Christian conservatives seemed at times to be subordinating the Christian message to a very particular agenda. I once had a debate with Ralph Reed in which I said that I could not somehow, in the New Testament, find out exactly where Jesus said that we had to cut the capital gains tax. I think that my reaction to Ralph Reed is itself is a religious reaction.
I think the problem lies not with the questions about capital gains taxes, which, since I asked, I thought was fair, but a response that suggests that because you ask a question like that, one must sever all links between religion and politics. In fact, mainstream Protestantism, social justice Catholicism and Judaism have long insisted on a strong link between the religious and public realms. To cite the names Reinhold Neibuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, John Courtney Murray and Martin Luther King is to underscore the essential role religious voices have played in our public life over the last century, and in each case I just cited, on the progressive side of public life.
I worry – and I think this book, again, is an antidote to that – that the understandable reaction against certain aspects of the Christian right in many quarters had the side effect of proposing something untenable, which is that, because of what was wrong with the religious right, religious voices should simply retreat from the public square. That was not about to happen and, as this volume makes clear, it should not happen.
We have to be honest about this. Religion can create community and it can divide communities. It can lead to searing self-criticism and it can promote a pompous self-satisfaction. It can encourage dissent and conformity, generosity and narrow-mindedness. It can engender both righteous behavior and self-righteousness. Its very best and very worst forms can be inward looking. Religion’s finest hours have been times when intense belief led to social transformations, yet some of its darkest days have entailed a translation of intense belief into the ruthless imposition of orthodoxy. But I think in the end that the history of the United States, despite many outbreaks of prejudice and nativism and self-congratulation, is in large part a history of religion’s role as a prod to social justice, as a prod to inclusion, and as a prod to national self-criticism.
If we were to marginalize religion’s role altogether, we would lose the civil rights movement, we would lose the abolitionist movement, we would lose many aspects of the progressive era. It is a move the country should not want to make. It is a move I don’t think our country ever will make, and because it argues that we should go in a different direction, I am very honored to celebrate this book you have before you today. Thank you very much.
MR. BRINLEY: Okay, I think we can take questions for 10 minutes or so – 15 minutes. Okay. We have some microphones here. (Confers with colleague off-mike.)
MR. MCCLAY: While you’re doing that, there was one thing I was thinking of – this is not a criticism or anything but it is true that –
MR. DIONNE: Oh, go ahead. We can have Crossfire –
MR. MCCLAY: No, no, it was a just an observation that when Kennedy was dealing with the problem of anti-Catholicism, that was still a time when mainline Protestants were openly anti-Catholic, I mean, in a way that is just astonishing now to go back and read. But, you know, Paul Blanchard’s famous book attacking Catholic –
MR. DIONNE: American Freedom and Catholic Power.
MR. MCCLAY: Yeah, thanks. I couldn’t remember the title, but that’s an amazing book to think that that came out of the same world that is now the world of the National Council of Churches.
MR. DIONNE: Although I think in fairness to mainline Protestantism – and we could go back and forth – we need a good historian on the 1960 campaign. Is there one in the audience? (Chuckles.) I think that mainline Protestantism was in fact of a kind of diverse view. I think there were many mainline Protestants who came to Kennedy’s defense, others who joined that –
MR. MCCLAY: And I’m not even sure Blanchard was a believer. I think Blanchard was an agnostic – you know, was a socialist and an agnostic. But clearly that view, the view in Blanchard’s book, was held by a lot of Americans, including American Protestants.
MR. DIONNE: Right.
MR. MCCLAY: And not people that we would now identify as evangelicals, but people who were clearly mainline and whose own preferences in worship would be of the non-demonstrative kind. They wouldn’t be in favor of enthusiastic sawdust-revival kind of stuff.
MR. DIONNE: If I could plug another book, there’s a wonderful book that raises these issues that’s coming out by John McGreevy at Notre Dame, which actually plays off the title of Blanchard’s book. It’s called, Catholicism and American Freedom. And it’s a wonderful history of the interplay of Catholicism and the idea of freedom, and it’s a very balanced book because it’s a book written by a Catholic that shows problems on the Catholic side as well as the problems of anti-Catholic prejudice.
MR. MCCLAY: Yeah, and one of the things John show is – or he talks about a really amazing fact, when you think about it – that Catholics were almost entirely absent from the abolition and anti-slavery movement, although it’s certainly something that can be explained, but it’s not often remarked upon.
MR. DIONNE: Especially by we Catholics.
MR. MCCLAY: But that’s another way of endorsing what you say about hegemonic Protestantism, that it wasn’t all bad.
MR. BRINLEY: Okay, Jim Reichley please.
JIM REICHLEY: Let me just make a – just talking about the 1960 campaign, because I was here – (chuckles) – and I think it is – certainly there were mainline Protestants who came to Kennedy’s defense and voted for him, but it is now, I think, often overlooked and played down by the mainline Protestant establishment itself, and it is often cast in the light that the opposition to Kennedy on a religious basis came mainly from what we now call evangelicals: Baptists and so forth. Actually, I think the mainline Protestants – the clergy – it was one of the last times that the establishment and the clergy, with their constituency strongly opposed Kennedy’s election.
On the Sunday before the election I went to this church here in Washington, the one where the Clinton’s most recently worshiped, and heard a rip-snorting sermon to the effect that American democracy had been founded in the cradle of Protestantism, and if it moved out of it there would be very bad effects. I think it did have an effect on, well, Protestantism. Up until that time, mainline Protestantism, as you say, E.J., had regarded itself as the unofficial establishment in America, and after that, it couldn’t. And that was one of the reasons that the leadership of the mainline Protestant churches and many of the clergy began to seek another role, and often they found it in – (audio break) – to the political direction of the country, which has become a major problem within mainline Protestantism itself.
Let me say one other thing. I like your analysis, E.J., of the three stages, but I think the third stage has some characteristics which you may not have mentioned. One characteristic is – first of all – (off mike).
MR. DIONNE: Thank you. Those are really good comments. We probably should leave the ’60 election, but I want to make one quick defense of American Protestants, and I think it’s the fact that Kennedy was probably helped more than hurt by being a Catholic. I remember from the Gallup poll something like 37 percent of American Protestants voted for Kennedy. Only about 20 or 22 percent of American Catholics voted for Nixon, so that the solidarity of American Catholics trying to break a barrier was even stronger than the prejudice against Kennedy on the Protestant side, and I think if those numbers had not been as high as they were on the Protestant side, Kennedy wouldn’t have been elected.
Secondly, on the disestablishment of Protestantism, I really believe that one of the reasons we are having this discussion of religion and public life across the society, and also why new movements like communitarianism have arisen, is that while we are glad to have the religious toleration and openness that we have now, we miss a little bit of that civic glue that that old Protestant culture mixed for the country, and what we’re trying to do, I think, is create a more inclusive kind of civic glue, and that’s a lot of what this discussion is all about.
Third, you’re dead right, as you know – I mean, you are the expert on the numbers – this issue of secularization of a segment of the society. Andy Kohut at the Pew Research Center has a group that he follows in his polls called seculars, and he creates the group by asking a series of questions about attitudes toward religion and about behavior. His seculars are one of the fastest-growing groups in his polls, and what you see is a kind of polarization.
Now, it’s not the full secularization of American society; it’s one end much more secular, another end very religious. But the last point on those polls about Bush and Gore – it is absolutely right that people who go to church or synagogue more than once a week were overwhelmingly for Bush, and those who never go were overwhelmingly for Gore. What’s forgotten is that most of God’s children, if I can use the term, fall somewhere in between. They are neither that religious nor that secular, and that in the middle groups, still the trend is the same. Those who don’t attend all the time but attend quite a bit were, I think, about five to four for Bush; those who attend some but not quite as much were about five to four for Gore.
And so while those two extreme numbers are very important, I keep trying to call attention to the middle where a lot of Americans who have some religious allegiances but are not at those far ends are split much more like the rest of the electorate. And then, obviously, one also has to talk about African-Americans who have a very high rate of church attendance and are overwhelmingly Democratic, and that tends to get left out in the analysis.
MR. REICHLEY: (Off mike.)
MR. DIONNE: Yes, I think that’s right, but it’s still a pretty big middle.
MR. MCCLAY: I wanted to expand on the subject of African-Americans, because I think that’s going to one of the most fascinating things to watch in the years to come, particularly on these issues that we’ve been talking about today, because, in fact, it’s true that African-Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic, but they’re the least separationist of all the Democratic Party’s constituencies. They may be the least separationist major group in all of America.
And I was struck – I had lunch a couple of days ago with a man who runs the faith-based office in the Department of Labor, and he told me – this came up in passing in the conversation – that a sizable majority of the grant applications he gets are from African-American groups. And I think that’s just one small indication. There is not the kind of reluctance and squeamishness about the introduction of religious language in public life in that community, and where that will lead is hard to say.
MR. DIONNE: But that predates the faith-based initiative.
MR. MCCLAY: Oh, sure.
MR. DIONNE: I think one of the important things is that African-American churches are often located in the areas of greatest poverty. They respond to their neighborhoods and the needs of their neighborhoods. So Mark Chavez out at the University of Arizona did a wonderful survey of churches and synagogues, of religious congregations, and what he found is if you ask the question, would you apply for government money of various kinds, African-American churches were far more likely to want to apply than white churches, and moderate to liberal churches were more likely to want to apply than conservative churches. Mayor Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia, who’s now become a minister, joked that one of his fears about all this talk about faith-based organizations is that, as mayor, he used to give a lot of money to faith-based organizations, and if this all becomes too public and controversial, people who hold jobs like his won’t be able to do what he was free to do as mayor. A lot of this has happened on the local level over a very long period of time, as you know.
MR. BRINLEY: In the back, please.
AL MILLIKAN: Al Millikan, Washington Independent Writers. When a president like George Washington gets deeply involved in a heretical group, such as the Masons; or when a president like Abraham Lincoln never joins a church, or allows his wife to hold séances in the White House; when a president like Ronald Reagan doesn’t attend worship services, or brings an astrologer in the White House to control his schedule; or a president like Bill Clinton has his shameful sin in the Oval Office exposed and brings in another exposed adulterer like Jesse Jackson to counsel him, aren’t these all reasons for the God described in the Bible to severely judge a nation like ours?
MR. DIONNE: I think Joe is going to answer that question for us. (Laughter.)
MR. BRINLEY: I have a two-word answer: We’ll see.
One brief comment about 1960, about the ministerial alliance. We tend to forget now that 1960 was before Vatican II, so the official doctrine of the Roman Church at that time was that religious freedom was a kind of necessary evil and not a basic human right, and it was blown out of proportion and expanded by fear. Nonetheless, it was a legitimate question to ask Senator Kennedy, at the time, whether he would put his presidential duties ahead of the teachings of his denomination, whereas Senator Lieberman, all he had to do is basically cheerfully assure the nation that he could start a nuclear war on a Saturday.
But the other main question is this: We’ve talked about religion, but no one has defined it, and it might be really helpful to have a working definition of what religion is. I think it’s clear that people act from the motives that they believe are religious, and then enter the public sphere, but as to why a public official – who may or may not share their denomination or their outlook – should do objective things based on their subjective beliefs, whether these are from the left or the right, to me is a complex question. To the extent that all they can do is say, Isn’t this terrible, that fact number 127? or, How can you be silent in the face of situation number 65 when -? Unless they can educe rational reasons for the public official acting, why should that official give them any credence?
MR. MCCLAY: I’m reluctant to try to define religion for – partly because I hold with Dr. Johnson that definitions are tricks for pens, but also because it’s very tough to define. But I will say this: I think it’s important that if one were to do such a thing, that part of the definition be that religion is a social phenomenon. An individual religion is not a religion. So that when the Supreme Court speaks about each of us having this sort of right to our own mysterious view of ultimacy, that may be true or may not be true, but we’re not really talking about religion; we’re talking about at least two or three gathered together, and usually a lot more than that.
And that’s one reason why it may have just sort of flown by, but when I was talking about my two concepts of secularism, the one that I think is the better one, it emphasizes not only free exercise, as in the First Amendment, but freedom of association. I think it’s very important for religious liberty that freedom of association be part of it, because without the ability to associate, you don’t have religion, you just have atomized belief.
MR. DIONNE: Real quick, I think your point on Kennedy is well taken. I think it was –
MR. MCCLAY: Yeah, I agree.
MR. DIONNE: – that the church really shifted ground on the issue of religious liberty during Vatican II, partly because of the theology of a great American priest named John Courtney Murray, as many people here know. I do think for people who talk about anti-Catholicism in our history, it’s important to distinguish a kind of prejudice versus a kind of debate that went on within the country over the meaning of Catholicism, and it was a debate within Catholicism itself.
Secondly, unfortunately I don’t have the book in front of me, and I don’t want to rifle through a copy, but Jose Casanova really has some wonderful definitions about public religion, and saying what public religion is explicitly about.
On the issue of how this comes into the public square, I’ve always thought that moment when President Bush was asked who his favorite political philosopher was and he answered, Jesus Christ, was a very interesting moment, because, on the one hand, I think it is absolutely legitimate for a public official who is religious to say so, and, indeed, there is a vital interest on the part of the voter to know that someone’s views are in some way shaped by a religious worldview.
My objection to what the president did in that debate was not that first answer. It was when he was asked later, Can you explain this? And he said, Well, if you haven’t had this experience, you don’t know what it is. Now, I understand from a lot of evangelical friends that he was saying a particular thing which a lot of evangelicals understood, and I understood what he was saying, but I think there is a public obligation of the religious person, especially one who brings religion to the public debate, to explain to those who may not share his tradition exactly how it affects his views of public life, and to explain it in terms that are accessible to those who do not share his tradition. It seems to me that’s the kind of distinction that philosophers have argued about for some time. John Rawls has written about it, and there’s a great polemic around exactly whether Rawls’s approach to this is correct. But I think, broadly speaking, there’s an obligation for the religious person to speak to those who don’t share his or her convictions.
MR. MCCLAY: Can I add to that? I mean, that’s one theme that several of us addressed in the book, and the way I put it in my own essay is that secularism, rightly understood, is a kind of – it’s not a – it’s a kind of lingua franca. It’s a second language. It’s not an Esperanto that proposes to replace existing languages with one, sort of, perfected language. It’s a language we use to explain ourselves across those lines. So I thoroughly agree that we need – that’s one of the things we need a secular sphere for, is to have a place where those kinds of explanations can take place. And so I think people with religious affiliations, people of faith, need to be bilingual in this way if they’re going to participate in public life.
MR. BRINLEY: Don Wolfensberger.
DONALD WOLFENSBERGER: Donald Wolfensberger with the Woodrow Wilson Center. Good to see you both again. One of the things that’s alluded to by a couple or three of the authors here is something that really was at a peak about two decades ago, and that was when the religious right was at its strongest. It was complaining about something called secular humanism being taught in the schools as part of a curriculum. I’m just wondering whether that has subsided or whether that is still seen as a problem by the Christians who complain about the fact they can’t have voluntary prayers or Bible reading, and yet a lot of the curriculum did have some type of a belief system that everybody’s belief system was okay.
MR. MCCLAY: It seems to me it’s not as salient an issue now, but that may have something to do with – I mean, 20 years ago home schooling was not the phenomenon it is now. I don’t know quantitatively, but it seems to me, impressionistically, that there are a lot more private alternatives for people who don’t approve of public schools. And I think the public schools are – whether out of sensitivity or out of fear of litigation or for whatever reason – are tending to be a little less strident in that way; there are exceptions to this all over the place, but it seems to me it’s not as salient an issue now.
MR. DIONNE: I mean, I think secular humanism – first of all, there are genuine secular humanists. There is even an organization of people who proudly declare themselves secular humanists. But I think the use of the term secular humanists by the religious right at that moment was strategic, and intelligently so, from their point of view. It was an effort to say that it’s not that the schools don’t teach any religious worldview, they teach this specific worldview which we are labeling secular humanism, and that that dominates the curriculum.
I think one of the interesting things that happened in the Clinton years was this document that came out – and the Bush administration recently came out with a follow-up document – and it was a document defining the rights of religious students within the public schools. It was a consensus document where the administration brought together everybody, from the ACLU to the National Association of Evangelicals and many other groups, in an attempt to define the religious liberties of individuals within the schools, so that if a Christian kid could pray in the schoolyard, a Jewish kid could wear a yarmulke and so on, to define the rights of religious individuals while protecting any minority within that school from the imposition of any form of religion by the authorities at the school who are essentially representatives of the state. And I think what you saw there was an effort to accommodate. We always face the struggle of the two sides of the First Amendment, of its religious clause. One side is non-establishment and the other side is free expression, and I think part of the debate we’re having is how do you make those two work, and the emphasis right now is on free expression.
I think what happened in the Clinton years took some of the edge off this debate, and I think that people are struggling with questions such as, shouldn’t it be okay to teach about religion and the history of religion in the public schools? There shouldn’t be as much fear of having the subject of religion on a curriculum because how can you teach the history of the U.S. or any other country without including that? I agree with Professor McClay, there’s been a slight softening of those lines, which has been helpful on the whole.
MR. MCCLAY: Can I add one thing? I think both your and Jim’s admonition to disaggregate, it’s very important to remember that the whole country isn’t going secular, the whole country isn’t going religious; there are different groups doing different things. And one of the ways to disaggregate is by region also. I have been living the last three-and-a-half years in Tennessee, and it’s a very different set of problems and issues there. I do a lot of work – or not as much as I’d like, but I do a certain amount of work -in the public schools with in-service days with public school teachers. And actually, one of the subjects I’ve dealt with is teaching religion. And they just have a very different set of problems than somebody in Montgomery County would have. And in a way, the corrective has to be applied more from the standpoint of making sure that the overwhelming hegemonic Protestantism of that region of the country doesn’t shut out not only non-believers but Catholics and Jews.
MR. BRINLEY: Way in the back, please. Yeah.
JOE LOCONTE: Joe Loconte with the Heritage Foundation. I want to follow up on a point that E.J. made about the responsibility of public officials who are people of faith to make some connection between their faith commitment and how they’re going to get involved in public policy with the political decisions they make. And I totally agree with you on your critique of Bush during the campaign and his own faith commitment, but, overall,l I think he’s been a lot better than Joe Lieberman has been. I mean, the Orthodox Jews that I talk to are utterly baffled about the connection between Joe Lieberman’s faith commitments and his position on some of these crucial social policy issues like partial-birth abortion or cloning or traditional marriage or homosexuality. They don’t see the link between his Orthodox Judaism and his position on those issues.
And so what I’m wondering is does that suggest something – playing off of Jim Reichley’s point – does that suggest something about the secularization of the Democratic Party, when the presumed moral leader of that party seems to have so privatized his own faith from his public policy decisions?
MR. DIONNE: Well, Lord knows I do not want to pretend to enter into some of the theological issues that, Joe, your question entails. It is my understanding that there are a lot of conservative Orthodox Jews who are, for example, pro-life. I’m not sure that that’s even the majority position among all of the Orthodox. I think there is a pro-choice community there, and there obviously – the preponderance of opinion within the Jewish community is pro-choice, not pro-life. However one parses that, I suppose a defender of Lieberman would come back and say, well, this sure proves he’s not trying to impose his religious worldview on the country.
But I think that is going to be an argument. I mean, I think any representative of a minority faith -I think at the time, Kennedy didn’t face too much fighting because Catholics just wanted to break through, but I think subsequent Catholic candidates who are pro-choice Catholics get a lot of grief from parts of the church. And pro-death penalty Catholic politicians, by the way, also get some grief, so it’s on both sides of that. So I don’t think Joe Lieberman’s so-called problem is unique to him.
Did you want to follow up?
MR. MCCLAY: I just wanted to say – and again, I’m not competent to even begin to talk about these issues from a Jewish theological perspective, but one point to be said for Christianity, and particularly Protestantism but not exclusively Protestants, because this is actually biblically grounded, is there’s this distinction between the religious authority and the authority of the magistrate, of the secular political authority. I mean, one of the important things about rendering unto Caesar what’s Caesar’s is that it acknowledges that Caesar has something to be rendered unto him; that Caesar has a certain authority that in some way is of God, even if Caesar is not a godly man, even if he’s not a believer. Now, what’s entailed in being a Christian leader, that’s a whole different set of problems.
MR. DIONNE: Incidentally, I was thinking about Al Millikan’s question about all of the failures of our political leaders, and it reminded me of one of my favorite Niebuhr aphorisms, where Niebuhr said that “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church,” and that may be the only answer I can give to Al’s interesting question.
MR. BRINLEY: Slide back in here, Danielle. Thank you.
Q: I would like to ask if you have comments on how our newfound sense of religiosity is playing in Western Europe, among our allies and sometimes-allies.
MR. DIONNE: I think that’s a great question. I think there is a sense you get from some of what’s being written in the European papers that you read: “The president is on a religious mission,” for example, or that somehow – not to put it undiplomatically, but it casts the United States as a nation of religious nuts, and that we are dominated by this religious spirit. First, I think it’s just a deeply inaccurate view of our country; and second, I think that there is some sophisticated writing in Europe to counter that. But I think it’s also on the part of those who use this language: There is an unease with President Bush across a broad range of questions, and I think that unease creates a sort of parodied view, which – those who read my column know that I’m not the largest defender of our president, even though I would defend him on this ground – but some of his language promotes a view of that sort.
Now, I wrote a column recently in which I had a long religious quotation from the president and said, You don’t like that? And I used a Bill Clinton quotation. So in defense of Bush, I don’t think his use of language is as different from other presidents. But there are statements, such as the famous statement about Jesus, and some other statements he makes, that make people uneasy, and I think he needs to be careful, and perhaps even more careful than his predecessors, because this particular situation we are in is rife with religious passion. So I think it’s incumbent on the president to be careful, and I think it’s incumbent on those of us who try to explain America to our European friends that there is a distortion in this view, both of President Bush and of our country.
MR. BRINLEY: We’ve already run considerably beyond the time that we allotted for formal proceedings. Please do stay and continue to talk to our speakers over at the reception.
Bill and E.J., do you have any concluding remarks that you’d like to make?
MR. MCCLAY: Well, if you think this is good, you really ought to read the book. (Laughter.) But as I like to say, if you don’t want to read the book that’s fine, just buy it. (Laughter. And if you don’t think this is good, it’s much better in the book. So thank you.
MR. BRINLEY: Please join me in thanking our speakers, and thank you all for coming.