June 2007 -- Religious right leader James Dobson has said he doesn’t support former senator and current TV star Fred Thompson for president because “I don’t think he’s a Christian.” I like Thompson better already! And surely three-times-married, pro-choice, pro-gay-partnerships candidate Rudy Giuliani could pick up such an endorsement, as well.
Dobson made his silly remark in part because he is currently enamored of Newt Gingrich. While Gingrich is also on his third marriage, the former House speaker has been aggressively courting the religious right—for example, with his latest book, Rediscovering God in America.
With the presidential election not until November 2008, this is a good time to join an important battle for the soul of the Republican Party. It’s time for Republicans to relegate faith and religion to the realm of personal beliefs or eccentricities and—unless they are so bizarre as to interfere with the responsibilities of serving in an elected office—to keep them out of the public arena and off the national agenda.
The sometimes uncomfortable Republican coalition that developed at the time of Goldwater and Reagan includes libertarians, who favor individual liberty and, especially, free markets, and traditional conservatives, who are suspicious of the unbridled individual. Both rightly fear strong, centralized government—the former because it can repress the individual, the latter because it can unleash the base appetites and vices they see as inherent in individuals, and, in the worst cases, lead to a Hitler or Stalin. Both thus favor limited government, rule of law, and checks and balances.
But social conservatives in the party, usually religiously motivated, want to use government to mandate morality and to intrude into what should be matters of personal choice, even if many of us consider those choices to be foolish. In league with neoconservative Republicans, who would use government for social engineering from the right, they’re moving the GOP far from its Goldwater-Reagan roots.
This brings us to Gingrich, a former college professor who has been one of the most thoughtful and innovative Republican thinkers. He has an appreciation for how the entrepreneurial ethos of Americans, combined with political freedom, has allowed for the creation of the most prosperous country on earth. He understands the importance of the economic opportunity afforded by a free market. And the Contract with America, which he pushed as his first act as speaker, sought to restrain government and make it more responsible.
But Gingrich’s views today on religion in politics are neither good, practical politics nor good political philosophy.
In Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich denounces “the secular Left’s attempt to drive God out of America’s public square.” He writes, “For most Americans, the prospect of a ruthless secular society that would forbid public reference to God and systematically remove all religious symbols from the public square is horrifying.”
Gingrich takes a historical approach to the issue of religion in our country. He narrates a walking tour of Washington, reading the inscriptions on various monuments and public buildings to show that the Founders and most of those responsible for creating America’s republic had God on their minds and often justified their political views in religious terms. The tour “is a rebuttal to those who seek to write God out of American history.”
But what is this “public square” from which “the secular Left” seeks to banish religion? Gingrich fails to distinguish government from the private, civil society. Individuals are still free to go to church, temple, synagogue, or mosque; to profess whatever beliefs they wish; to publish concerning their theology; to produce TV programs, radio shows, and movies about their deities; to place Christmas lights on their houses, stores, places of worship, and the like. No individual’s freedom is being denied.
And if individuals are confident in their beliefs, why the obsession with obtaining some sort of state recognition? Why the obsession about putting nativity scenes in a government park, as pretty as it might look? Sure, one might argue that secularists are just too sensitive and picky about such matters. And don’t long-held traditions count for something? Still, it is also true that a crèche would still be visible in the privately owned storefronts, malls or front lawns of good Christians. So isn’t it enough to hold and practice one’s own beliefs and let others hold and practice theirs?
Gingrich is opening a can of worms with his attempt to further inject religion into politics.
Gingrich goes on to complain about attempts to take the words “under God” out of the Pledge to the Allegiance. Now he’s in familiar conservative territory, objecting to symbolic slights. But this pledge is not part of the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence. There is no law mandating that citizens or elected officials recite it, though most people do so out of a just respect for this country and what it stands for. In fact, there is no religious test for holding political office or for voting in America.
Many secularists are not terribly concerned about such symbolic matters as these words in the pledge and would agree with then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she argued in favor of keeping the words in the pledge because “any religious freight the words may have been meant to carry has long since been lost.” But that’s not good enough for Gingrich. He complains that O’Connor believes that the pledge “merely invoked ‘civic deism.’ Yet if pledging allegiance to one nation under God does not mean we believe America is a nation under God . . . what could it possibly mean?”
But what could Gingrich possibly mean by “under God,” anyway? Does he mean that to sustain a government that protects the freedom of individuals, “we”—that is, most citizens—must acknowledge as true, without proof or evidence, that some undefinable super-being, Big Brother is watching us at all times? Or does he maintain that for freedom to survive, most individuals must hold some set of fantastic beliefs, which in fact contradict the beliefs of many of their neighbors—e.g., that Jesus was the son of God but also actually identical to the God Yahweh; that Muhammad was the last prophet of the God Allah and flew to heaven on a winged horse; that an angel showed Joseph Smith a set of golden tablets in upstate New York in 1838, which he copied and translated before the angel took them back?
The emotional and contentious nature of the “under God” issue, as well as many other matters of symbolic importance to the religious right, suggests that mixing religion and politics is a recipe for conflict.
A major problem with Gingrich’s discussion is his confusing use of terms and his failure to define exactly what the key concepts he discusses actually mean. So let’s parse these words for him.
A “religion” includes, among other things, beliefs about human beings, life, and the universe that are not based on scientific evidence or sound philosophical proof, and that, for the most part, are contrary to the information that we acquire by such rational approaches. They concern such things as miracles, heavens, Nirvana, reincarnation, transubstantiation. These are matters of faith.
The word “faith” carries mixed meanings as well. When people say “I have faith that the American system of individual liberty brings out the best in people and allows everyone to prosper by their own efforts,” they actually are making a statement for which there is abundant evidence. America began as a small, backward country of four million people, and in a little over two centuries it grew to become the richest country on earth, with 300 million people, because of the freedom and opportunity afforded to everyone. For this and for many other contentions made by honest individuals, a better word than “faith” is “confidence.”
Many individuals selectively read the Bible, ignoring the verses that would endorse repression, intolerance, and violence, and thus taking their “religion” and “faith” to mean a focus on the commonsense pronouncements about honesty, personal responsibility, love for family and friends, and the like. That’s fine!
But when “faith” is used in religious matters, it refers to the unproved and the unprovable. Many thinkers and scholars have reasoned about religious matters but, ultimately, all religions involve acts of faith. That’s why we call a religion a “faith” and not a “science” or “philosophy.”
The varied and contradictory understandings that people have of religious terms and beliefs suggest the limits of Gingrich’s historical approach. Saying “Look at the words about God carved in stone” is not a logical philosophical argument for a free republic nor for its reliance on religion. But let’s walk in Gingrich’s historical country for a moment.
At the memorial to our third president, Gingrich acknowledges that Thomas Jefferson was a deist and originator of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.” He then goes on to read the quotes on the walls of the memorial in which Jefferson refers to God.
But a look at all of Jefferson’s writings would show that he used the term “God” as many deists and philosophers like Spinoza did—to refer to the impersonal laws of nature, not to an anthropomorphized personal savior with whom one can actually hold a two-way conversation. Here Gingrich’s understanding of Jefferson can’t stack up to Christopher Hitchens’s in his book Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. Hitchens is fond of playing off Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Soviet leader Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” referring to the one in Berlin, by urging, “Mr. Jefferson, build up this wall,” referring to the wall between church and state.
When he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we “are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” Jefferson was echoing John Locke, who also spoke of “nature’s God.” But Locke did not base his case for individual liberty and limited government on any particular beliefs concerning life after death, virgin births, the power of prayer, and the like. Rather, Locke’s focus was on natural law—the observation that human beings are of a certain nature, that we possess a rational capacity and free will, that to survive we need to be free both to think and to act, and that therein lies the justification for limited government.
It’s time for Republicans to keep religion off the national agenda.
It was for good reason that Jefferson did not have inscribed on his tombstone that he had been president but did have mentioned that he was author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other Founders had seared into their minds the memory of a Europe from the century past that had torn itself apart in faith-based violence. Millions were tortured and slaughtered over questions like “Does a piece of bread to which certain words have been addressed become human flesh?”
Disagreements over such unprovable religious contentions have been the cause of wars and horrors inflicted by individuals on one another throughout human history; can any American doubt that the carnage in the Middle East is faith-based, as religious sects war on one another just as sects did centuries ago in Europe?
Jefferson and many pious Christian Founders understood these lessons of history and wanted to avoid such conflagrations in the new republic.
Don’t Miss the Morality
Many Americans will say that surely religion is more than just those beliefs that must be accepted on faith. Here we can separate out matters that are often grouped under religion: ethics and morality. These are very much matters that are open to rational examination. Further, these are very much matters for public discussion, at least to the extent that the views of elected and appointed government officials on these matters will determine how, for good or ill, they act towards citizens and the role that citizens assign to governments and elected officials.
The analyses of Locke, Jefferson, and others thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition, right up to Ayn Rand
, establish a foundation of rights in our rational nature. Their insights also show the immorality and practical harm done when governments take a paternalist approach to citizens, treating them more like subjects in the manner that medieval lords treated their serfs, undermining the recognition and habits of personal responsibility. They observed that the only moral purpose of government is to protect the lives, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness of individuals, not to limit or run them.
This is a case that Republicans or anyone can make without any faith-based appeals to religious beliefs or to the conflicting texts of the Bible, Koran, or similar books, even though many might see such books as bolstering that case. This, in fact, is just the political consensus on which America has been and should be based.
But surely those personal beliefs about ethics and morality, and the personal habits formed by acting in accordance with one’s beliefs, will affect the culture and thus, in the long term, one’s political choices. True enough. Yet what this suggests is that all beliefs, including religious ones, should be subject to rigorous, rational, public discussion, and that faith should not be a shield for beliefs that cannot stand up to such scrutiny.
Nearly all politicians genuflect to religion, but is this the sort of debate Republicans want to have in the political arena? Gingrich is opening a can of worms with his attempt to further inject religion into politics. Republicans have been the ones traditionally to favor such a mix.
But consider this opportunity: It was the anti-communist Nixon who could change the international landscape and make America more secure by going to China. So it could be Republicans who will help secure freedom at home, make American politics less contentious, win future elections—and deserve to win them—by standing strongly for the separation of church and state.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.