Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they
do it from religious conviction.Blaise Pascal
Without Christian culture and Christian hope, the modern
world would come to resemble a half-derelict fun-fair, gone
nasty and poverty-racked, one enormous Atlantic City.Russell Kirk
"How did we get into this mess?" Our fictional president's anguished query
echoes a cry heard across our country. For while this story of a decent,
moral leader who lets the world slip to the brink of Armageddon would
have seemed outrageous fiction just a few years ago, for millions today, a
similar scenario looms as a terrifying possibility. Equally disturbing to many
is the realization that if this nightmare came true, millions of others would
welcome it as a long-awaited consummation of human history.
These tensions run deep. On one side are those who believe that religion
provides the details for political agenda. On the other are those who
see any religious involvement in the public arena as dangerous. Not since
the Crusades have religious passions and prejudices posed such a worldwide
threat-if not through a religious zealot or confused idealist whose finger is
on the nuclear trigger, then certainly by destroying the tolerance and trust
essential for maintaining peace and concord among peoples.
Radical, Islamo-fascist terrorists have spread fear throughout Europe,
Asia, the Middle East and the United States. In recent decades, Iraq,
Northern Ireland, Sudan, India, and Indonesia are grim examples of nations
deeply torn by sectarian strife. Where once people of faith endured horrific
persecution under oppressive Marxist regimes-and still do today in North
Korea, China, and Cuba-today millions are persecuted under equally oppressive
Islamic regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Even where
radical Muslims do not rule, Islamic terrorists do not hesitate to engage in
murderous attacks, as we have tragically seen in England, Spain, Indonesia,
Italy, and the United States-most horrifically in the September 11 attacks
which killed nearly 3,000 innocents. In the West, church-state confrontations
are multiplying. As one prominent psychologist observed, this strife
"has little to do with whether the state espouses a leftist or rightist political
philosophy"; the fires rage amid a variety of political systems.
Diverse as they may seem, these tensions all arise from one basic cause:
confusion and conflict over the respective spheres of the religious and the
political. What Augustine called the City of God and the city of man are
locked in a worldwide, frequently bitter struggle for influence and power.
Nowhere has this conflict been more hotly debated than in America.
Throughout most of its history, the U.S. has enjoyed uncommon harmony
between church and state. The role of each was regarded as essential, with
religion providing the moral foundation upon which democratic institutions
could function. As recently as 1954 the Supreme Court explicitly rejected
the contention that government should be neutral toward religion. Justice
William O. Douglas stated that "we are a religious people whose institutions
presuppose a Supreme Being." But only nine years later, barbed wire was
flung up on the "wall of separation" between the two as the court reversed
itself in its landmark school-prayer decision. Though the expulsion of formal
prayer from the schoolroom did not impede people's ability to talk to God
wherever they wished, the decision reflected the shifting public consensus
about the role of religiously based values in public life. It set off major tremors
along long-dormant fault lines in America's political landscape.
At the same time the works of such writers as Camus and Sartre were
enjoying enormous popularity on American college campuses. These existentialists
argued that since there is no God, life has no intrinsic meaning.
Meaning and purpose must be boldly created through an individual's actions,
whatever they may be.
This relativistic view of truth perpetuated a subculture whose password
was "do your own thing"-which for many meant a comfortable spiral of
easy sex and hard drugs. Personal autonomy was elevated at the expense
of community responsibility. Even as many pursued these new freedoms in
search of fresh utopias, some acknowledged the void left by the vacuum of
values. Pop icon Andy Warhol spoke for the mood of a generation: "When
I got my first TV set," he said, "I stopped caring so much about having close
relationships . you can only be hurt if you care a lot."
Liberal theologians eagerly adapted to the powerful trends of the day.
The late Bishop Robinson's book Honest to God, published the same year
as the school-prayer decision, gave birth to the God Is Dead Movement,
popularized on the cover of Time magazine.
By the seventies, religion was fast becoming an irrelevant, even an unwanted
intruder in politics and public affairs. The Supreme Court often
practiced what one dissenting justice in the school-prayer case had warned
against: a "brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive or
even active hostility to the religious."
Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, was the final blow for
traditionalists. Not only was it seen as a rejection of America's commitment
to the sanctity of life, but as a repudiation of moral values as a factor in court
decisions. For the first time the justices excluded moral and philosophical
arguments from their determination.
Roe v. Wade triggered a counter-reaction, sending tremors from another
direction. Determined to preserve moral values in the public sphere, conservative
church members who had long disdained politics began organizing
furiously; the pro-life movement spread quickly across the country. By
1976 evangelicals were flexing their muscles behind a "born-again" presidential
candidate. In 1979 a group of conservative Christian leaders met privately
in Washington; the result was the Moral Majority and the Christian
New Right. Within only six years this movement became one of the most
formidable forces in American politics, registering millions of voters, raising
vast war chests for select candidates, and crusading for its "moral agenda"
with the fervor of old-time, circuit-riding preachers.
In 1984 the fault line broke wide open with a presidential campaign that
resembled a holy crusade more than an election.
First, the Democratic candidate for vice-president, Geraldine Ferraro,
questioned whether President Reagan was "a good Christian" because of his
policies toward the poor. Days later, the Catholic archbishop of New York
challenged Mrs. Ferraro's Catholic faith because of her support for pro-abortion
legislation. At the Republican convention President Reagan told 17,000
foot-stomping partisans that "without God democracy will not and cannot
long endure." His Democratic challenger, former Vice President Mondale,
said that faith is intensely personal, should never be mixed up with politics,
and that Reagan was "trying to transform policy debates into theological
disputes." Governor Cuomo of New York gave a widely heralded address at
Notre Dame, in which he stated that as a Catholic he could personally oppose
abortion, yet support it as governor as a "prudential political judgment,"
since he was following the will of the majority.
In thousands of precincts across the country, fundamentalist ministers
organized voter-registration campaigns, equating conservative political positions
with the Christian faith. New Right spokesmen trumpeted the call for
God, country, and their hand-picked candidates, and compared abortion
clinics to the Nazi holocaust.
Civil libertarians reacted with near hysteria. Some labeled the late Jerry
Falwell an American version of the Ayatollah Khomeni. People for the American
Way, a group organized by liberal activists to counter the Moral Majority,
launched a slick media campaign attaching the Nazi slur to the religious right.
Never had religion become such a central issue in a presidential campaign;
never had the church itself been so dangerously polarized.
The fissures that broke open in 1984 remain wide and deep today. On
one side are certain segments of the Christian church, religious conservatives
who are determined to regain lost ground and restore traditional values.
"America needs a president who will speak for God," proclaimed one leader.
Whether out of frustration or sincere theological conviction, Christian
conservatives have become politicized, attempting to take dominion over
culture through legislation and court decisions handed down by strict-constructionist
Those on the other side are no less militant. Believing (or at any rate,
claiming to believe) that Christian political activists will cram religious values
down the nation's unwilling throat, they heatedly assert that faith is a
private matter and has no bearing on public life. The New York Times, for
example, accused Ronald Reagan of being "primitive" when he publicly referred
to his faith: "You don't have to be a secular humanist to take offense
at that display of what, in America, should be private piety."
The mainstream media took the same open-minded approach when
President George W. Bush told a reporter that his favorite political philosopher
was Jesus Christ. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd sneered:
"Translation: You're either in the Christ club or out of it, on the J.C. team
or off. This is the same exclusionary attitude, so offensive to those with different
beliefs, that he showed in 1993 when he said that you must believe in
Jesus Christ to enter heaven." Yet, most of the media looked the other way
when the president of Iran publicly prayed at the United Nations during a
visit in 2006.
Meanwhile, the 2000 and 2004 elections were extremely close, revealing
a country closely (and dangerously) divided, politically and culturally,
stereotyped along "Red State" (Republican, rural, church-going, NASCAR-watching,
country-music loving) and "Blue State" (Democratic, urban,
latte-drinking, brie-nibbling, rock-and-roll loving) ideologies. A British
videogame designer had some fun at America's expense with his Internet
meme "Jesusland" map, in which "blue" voters ended up in "The United
States of Canada" (California, New England, and Canada), while "red" voters
lived in "Jesusland:" the Midwestern and Southern states plus Alaska.
The real tragedy is that both sides are so deeply entrenched and polarized
that neither can listen to the other. Invective and name calling have
replaced dialogue. Nothing less than obliteration of the enemy will suffice;
America must be either Christianized or secularized. Many citizens feel that
they must choose sides, either enlisting with People for the American Way
and the ACLU, or joining up with one of the many evangelical activist
groups, from the Family Research Council to Concerned Women for America
to the American Center for Law and Justice.
However we got to this point, the fact is that both extremes-those
who want to eliminate religion from political life as well as those who want
religion to dominate politics-have overreacted and overreached. Richard
John Neuhaus does not overstate the case when he argues that this confrontation
can be "severely damaging, if not fatal, to the American democratic
experiment." Furthermore, both exclusivist arguments are wrong.
There is another way, however. It's a path of reason and civility that recognizes
the proper and necessary roles of both the political and the religious.
Each respective role is, as I hope this book will demonstrate, indispensable
to the health of society.
Wise men and women have long recognized the need for the transcendent
authority of religion to give society its legitimacy and essential cohesion.
One of the most vigorous arguments was made by Cicero, who maintained
that religion is "indispensable to private morals and public order . and no
man of sense will attack it." Augustine argued that the essence of public
harmony could be found only in justice, the source of which is divine.
"In the absence of justice," he asked, "what is sovereignty but organized
In the West the primary civilizing force was Christianity. According to
historian Christopher Dawson, Christianity provided a transcendent spiritual
end that gave Western culture its dynamic purpose. It furnished the
soul for Western civilization and provided its moral legitimization; or, as
was stated somewhat wistfully in The London Times some years ago, "The
firm principles which could mediate between the individual and society to
provide both with a sense of proportion and responsibility in order to inform
The American experiment in limited government was founded on this
essential premise; its success depended on a transcendent reference point
and a religious consensus. John Adams wrote, "Our constitution was made
only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government
of any other." Tocqueville credited much of America's remarkable
success to its religious nature; it was later called a nation with "the soul of
Today, many thinkers, even those who reject orthodox faith, agree that a
religious-value consensus is essential for justice and concord. Polish newspaper
editor Adam Michnik, a dissident during Poland's Communist era, who
describes himself as a "pagan," applauds the church for resisting tyranny.
Religion, he says, is "the key source of encouragement for those who seek to
broaden civil liberties." To disregard the historic Western consensus about
the role of religion in culture is to ignore the foundation of our civilization.
But men and women need more than a religious value system. They need
civic structures to prevent chaos and provide order. Religion is not intended
or equipped to do this; when it has tried, it has brought grief on itself and
the political institutions it has attempted to control. An independent state
is crucial to the commonweal.
Both the City of God and the city of man are vital to society-and
they must remain in delicate balance. "All human history and culture," one
historian observed, "may be viewed as the interplay of the competing values
of these . two cities"; and wherever they are out of balance, the public
This is why today's conflict is so dangerous. It would be a Pyrrhic victory
indeed should either side win unconditionally. Victory for either would mean
defeat for both.
* * *
I have brooded over this dilemma since the mid-seventies. My concerns
deepened each year as the conflict intensified between the body politic and
the body spiritual. A variety of questions plagued me: To what extent can
Christians affect public policy? Is there a responsible Christian political role?
In a pluralistic society, is it right to seek to influence or impose Christian
values? How are the rights of the nonreligious protected? Are there mutual
interests for both the religious and the secular? Is it possible to find common
ground? What does the experience of history say to us today? What would
God have us understand about this torn and alienated world-or, considering
the mess we've made, has He given up on us?
Friends urged me to write on the subject since I've been on both sides-first,
as a non-Christian White House official, and now as a concerned
Christian citizen and the head of a Christian ministry. But the task always
appeared too daunting. I couldn't sort out all the questions raised in the
blistering American debate. Both sides seemed hopelessly intractable.
Oddly enough, it was on a visit to India in the fall of 1985 that I came to
the unmistakable conviction that I must write this book.
At a friend's home in New Delhi, I listened to shocking stories of conflict
between Indian Christians and their society. One young man who was converted
to Christ after reading Christian tracts had been forced to leave his
rural village by his outraged family. Another man who had been preaching
on the street was cornered and beaten by an angry crowd. Many others, after
converting to Christianity, had been tried by civil authorities.
The same day I was in New Delhi, opposition leader Charan Singh called
upon Prime Minister Gandhi to "stamp out" all Christian missionaries lest
their converts in certain states seek political independence. Why, I wondered,
is there such hostility to one faith in this Hindu culture that believes
all roads lead to heaven? They should be the most tolerant of all. What is it
about the Judeo-Christian message that makes it so offensive? Ironically, the
Indians may understand the heart of the gospel-that Christ is King, with
all that portends-better than many in the "Christian" West.