America’s attention has been riveted throughout the campaign season on the question of how far religion should be allowed to intrude in our public life, with Gov. George W. Bush (R-Texas) on the right and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) on the left calling for a new openness to faith in the national discourse. Many Americans, particularly in the Jewish community, find this new tone troubling. A close reading of our history, however, suggests that neither faith nor freedom are in danger.
It is not the intrusion of religion into the public square that is new, but its absence. America’s founders, most of them, never imagined this nation conducting its affairs in a religious or moral vacuum. True, they had led a revolution that disestablished the Church of England, and adopted a Constitution guaranteeing free exercise of religion. At the same time, most assumed that a nation founded on political freedom would require the wisdom and moral guidance that only religion could provide.
George Washington put it this way in his Farewell Address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … What ever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail — in exclusion of religious principle."
Ever since Washington’s time, the nation has tried to untangle the riddle of just which religion should provide this guidance. A religion broad enough to include diverse believers would lack the content to inspire devotion. A religion specific enough to speak compellingly would necessarily exclude minorities.
Some, such as Thomas Jefferson, followed the Enlightenment in claiming that religion bred sectarianism and dogmatism, and that America’s best hope lay in advancing reason and knowledge. For many others, however, the Enlightenment offered no solution at all, for it meant the eventual abandonment of faith. They hoped to uncover a set of principles grounded in a specific religion, but general enough to apply to all.
As they struggled, they had one great advantage: Their own religion, Protestantism, perfectly matched the American spirit with its emphasis on individuals voluntarily finding their own way to God. And indeed, the common morality of America’s first century and a half was Protestant. American concepts of democracy, political participation and equality all owed their particular character to the evangelical Protestant revivalist tradition. America’s educational institutions, from public schools to universities, were shaped in the image of Protestantism. Officially, the Constitution forbade the establishment of religion. Unofficially, a Protestant establishment held sway through the 1920s.
Only in the years after World War I did the Protestant establishment begin to crumble. The great immigration that began in the 1880s, bringing millions of Jews and tens of millions of Catholics, created a diversity too great to ignore. The Protestant establishment participated in its own undoing by the excesses of its efforts at defending itself, from its opposition to Catholic schools to the Scopes Trial.
As the Protestant establishment collapsed, American ingenuity stepped in to create a new set of common religious principles, in the form of a uniquely American invention: the Judeo-Christian tradition. Its premise was that, however hostile they had been to one another in the past, Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism could be united around ideas held to be shared among all three. Civil religion meant, as President Eisenhower famously said, that it did not matter what you believed so long as you believed in something.
Such ecumenicism seemed quite plausible in the optimistic boom years following World War II. Catholics, who had generally lived in the cities, backed conservative moral causes and voted as a bloc, were coming to resemble the rest of middle-class America: suburban, culturally liberal and willing to make their own decisions. Protestants had long been divided between liberal and conservative wings, but the conservatives were largely isolated from American life, and would be until Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Finally, American Jews in these same years were leaving their ethnic ghettos, intermarrying and finding themselves at home in the decidedly nonreligious worlds of academia and the arts.
Like the unofficial Protestant establishment that held sway before it, however, the Judeo-Christian concept ultimately could not survive. First, thanks to the immigration reforms of 1965, growing numbers of Americans were neither Christian nor Jewish. Second, Judeo-Christianity’s individual components began turning inward, confounding the predictions of the sociologists. The fastest- growing Protestant denominations were now conservative and evangelical, marked by a chillier attitude toward Judaism and an open hostility toward Catholicism. On the other side was the resurgence of Orthodox Judaism, far more concerned than other Jewish streams with reinforcing Judaism’s boundaries, and suspicious of the interfaith interactions that made Judeo-Christianity possible.
Today we face the same problem described by George Washington, but without any obvious solution. For Washington, political freedom required a common morality, undergirded by a common religion. If he was right, then America cannot have political freedom. And there are some voices in America certain that Washington was right. Look around, they say, and see at once what happens when the bonds of morality are loosened: divorce, abortion and crime rates shoot up; young people lack guidance; secular humanists dominate the schools and media. A president engages in improper sex, lies about it and is barely punished. Early Christians worried that Americans, unless they believed in God, would go to hell. Some contemporary Christians believe America already has.
Nonetheless, conservative Christians are learning that they will never be able to remake America as the Christian country it once was. They share their society with others who have an equal claim to citizenship. Moreover, there is no such thing as an uncontested Christianity. Even in Washington’s day, when Jews and Catholics were tiny minorities, Protestant sects hated one another with a fervor incomprehensible in today’s religiously civil America. George Washington urged a common morality inspired by religion precisely because no such thing existed.
One alternative to the Christian right’s worldview is to conclude that Washington was only half right: Americans, to protect their freedom, may well need a common morality derived from religion, but it must be derived from many religions, not just one. In this year’s presidential campaign, Senator Lieberman became a spokesman for just this point of view. Speaking at Notre Dame University in September, he argued that the "line between church and state is an important one and has always been hard for us to draw, but in recent years we have gone far beyond what the Framers ever imagined in separating the two. So much so that we have practically banned religious values and religious institutions from the public square."
Mr. Lieberman is part of a small but growing group of thinkers from outside the ranks of Protestant conservatism who argue for a greater place for religion in the public square. Another is Stephen Carter of Yale University Law School, an African American liberal who argues for a militantly prophetic Christianity that speaks truth to power. Yet another is the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative Catholic who edits the conservative journal First Things.
These mavericks argue for a public religion that is not majoritarian, but there are nonetheless problems with their approach. Both Father Neuhaus and Professor Carter speak in apocalyptic tones dangerous to a democracy, questioning the very legitimacy of the American way of life if it does not accord with their own views of religion’s centrality to the republic. Senator Lieberman’s comment that religion has been banished from the public square is less incendiary, but it cannot explain the very positive reception Americans gave to the Lieberman candidacy. Religion, once introduced into the public arena, cannot tread lightly. The moment religion is made public, the never-resolved questions resurface involving the rights of nonbelievers or those who believe differently.
We are therefore thrown back on the idea of strict separation between church and state. In this view, government should be neutral not only between one religion and another, but between religion and nonreligion. Short of murder, polygamy and a few other vices, people should be left alone to practice and believe however they see fit. When we come together in public, our government, our symbols and our officials speech ought to be stripped of religious content.
Critics of sharp separation point out that while it professes neutrality between religion and nonreligion, it is hardly neutral. In insisting that the public realm be cleansed of faith, it sides with those who do not believe, relegating believers to second-class status. It creates a society in which religious views are confined to the balcony, reserving the orchestra for the "enlightened" few.
But there is another way to approach the issue. We could begin by acknowledging that George Washington was wrong. Freedom does not require common religious values. We are a far freer society now than we were in 1800. Just ask the descendants of former slaves, or women, recent immigrants or nonbelievers. And we have become more free in the absence of either a Protestant establishment or a pervading myth of a Judeo-Christian tradition.
The single most striking fact of religious life in America is the emergence of choice. Study after study concludes that Americans remain as religious as ever, but they want to participate in determining the practices and beliefs of religious persuasions they themselves have freely chosen. Even our most conservative believers, born-again Christians, celebrate the fact that in being reborn they leave behind religions in which they were raised to embrace stricter forms of faith that correspond to their own needs.
Other Americans like to pick and choose their beliefs — admiring Catholicism’s rituals, for example, while rejecting its teachings on sexuality. Still others reject all forms of organized religion in favor of new-age spirituality. Yet another group finds different degrees of faith at different stages in their lives, like those secular Jews who rediscover faith when they marry and have children, only to lose some of it again when the children grow up.
Defenders of the faith, whatever the particular faith happens to be, generally find themselves puzzled by the growth of religious choice. The notion that religion should so resemble supermarket seems to detract from historic ideas of obedience, transcendance and discipline. Religion ought to be, in their view, more noble, more sacred. The key word here is "ought" In the discussion of religion and public life so widespread among American intellectuals, religion as actually practiced gets short shrift compared to religion as it ought to be. And yet, in the end, people will find their own way to God.
With the emergence of religious choice, one can imagine arguments for separation of church and state that do not tilt the balance so heavily in favor of the state. We have become so religiously diverse a society, and our religious practices so accepting of choice, that we no longer need fear a takeover of our public institutions by any single religious tradition. If we are to continue to maintain a separation of church and state, as we must, it ought to be so that many religions can flourish in ways they and their adherents think best for themselves. There are arguments to be made on behalf of religious freedom that resemble the arguments for economic freedom. A society that relies on enterprise and initiatives will be more innovative and respectful of diversity than one that tries to regulate the ungovernable.
The American tradition of religious liberty is strong enough to survive any challenge. It is already clear that efforts by conservative Christians to impose their view of faith on the country have failed. America will easily survive any attempts in the present political campaign to invoke God for one side or the other. Creationism has not defeated evolution in any part of the United States, even in the South.
We find ourselves in a novel situation. Instead of wondering how we can retain our freedom amid religious diversity, we can instead marvel at the fact that our diversity has strengthened our freedom. Americans are usually at their best when they are at their most practical.
(Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is the author of numerous books, including "One Nation, After All." This article is adapted from an address delivered Nov. 3 to the national commission of the Anti-Defamation League.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.