In his Oct. 27 column, “The left should start having faith in Bush’s faith,” Mike Slater, parroting Sen. Joseph Lieberman, wrote that “[t]he First Amendment guarantees all Americans the freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” As a matter both of jurisprudence and of intuitively reasonable interpretation of the Establishment Clause, this is utter nonsense. Freedom of religion of course encompasses freedom not to believe, and the First Amendment could not any more clearly enunciate a prohibition against the state’s endorsement of a particular faith. Yet it seems to have escaped the notice of both parties that state sponsorship of all religions is no more compatible than state sponsorship of one religion with the values of liberal, secular democracy according to which the United States was founded.
I use the word “values” to denote the principles by which the founders separated church and state, because it is apparently the issue of “values” itself, and not any particular set of values, that was the decisive factor in George W. Bush’s re-election. To sketch the situation rather roughly: Republicans have values, and Democrats do not, or so the punditariat has informed us. But it cannot be true that Democrats believe in nothing; they avow beliefs in the right of women to have legal abortions, the right of gay couples to attain some sort of dignified status in civil law, the responsibility of the government to advance potentially lifesaving research into embryonic stem cells, and perhaps they have other principles as well.
However reprehensible these beliefs may appear to some people, are they not values? Perhaps, in fact, they aren’t, if the word “values” has somehow come to be synonymous not with “guiding moral principles,” but instead with axioms of religious belief that are inherently immune to analysis. What follows from such a redefinition of “values” is straightforward: To have moral values is equivalent to being religious; therefore, any political party whose religiosity is insufficient is necessarily immoral.
It’s worth noting that the pan-theocratic ecumenicism Slater (and Lieberman) defend is exactly the wrong way to understand the Republicans’ equation of moral values with religious faith. Their religious base will not be satisfied by the genuine profession of any faith at all; one must pay homage to the True Faith. The imperatives to legislate homosexuality out of civic life, to confer citizenship on amalgamated cells in petri dishes, to micromanage the permissible content on radio and television, to assert the validity of “creation science” in public schools, to regulate against premarital sex and also to deny contraception to those who engage in it, etc., are not the values of the benign, undifferentiated faith that every national office-seeker must affirm regardless of his or her politics. They are the specific tenets of an ultra-politicized fundamentalist Christianity, whose adherents are certain that their social agenda is God’s plan for the United States, and that recent Republican victories are evidence of His will in action.
There is nothing at all surprising, therefore, about the wave of triumphalism among the religious right and the forms in which it has been expressed. Charles Colson, an erstwhile Watergate felon turned born-again Bush adviser, said Bush’s re-election represented God “giving us a chance to repent and to restore some moral sanity to American life.” The president of Bob Jones University, in a clear invocation of religious humility, reported that “God has graciously granted America — though she doesn’t deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism.” Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, the de facto domestic agenda-setter for the Bush White House, nearly destroyed the pro-choice Republican Arlen Specter’s bid to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and made it clear that any Republican dissension from the religious right’s social policy will be a career-destroying move.
How, exactly, is one supposed to argue with those who think their political positions bear the mark of divine ordination, and for whom, consequently, things like self-criticism, rational persuasion, or the need to ground one’s beliefs in observed evidence, are the vain tools of the Devil and of liberals that can only lead people to waywardness and heterodoxy?
Though all Republicans are by no means fellow-travelers of the Christian Coalition, the number of prominent Republicans who will stand up to the religious right is small and shrinking. The majority of elected Republicans either believe in the Family Research Council’s vision of social transformation, or else are both too ambitious and cowardly to resist taking the party line. More importantly, perhaps, the Republican president is a member of his own religious base. His rejection of empiricism has both served as a tool for crafting policy and as a badge of honor, a signifier that he has “values,” whereas things like evidence and rational justification are only for those who never had any morals in the first place.
The belief in individual autonomy, natural rights and the inherent worth of the scientific method — i.e. the Enlightenment values at the core of our nation’s founding documents — have always coexisted uneasily with a subcultural stratum of religious fundamentalism. Those of us who cling to these classical liberal principles of governance and recognize that they have always been genuine values are in for a grim four years. What’s new about the contemporary iteration of fundamentalism is its interest in and inextricability from politics. This year, the Constitution itself came under attack from those who would amend it to include their own personal interpretation of Leviticus. And faced with a changing social landscape and the inevitability of gay civil equality, a number of voters sufficient to determine the outcome of the election decided to reinstall George W. Bush in the White House. His victory was a down payment on their messianic deliverance.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.