Attorney General William Barr’s recent speech at the University of Notre Dame reminds us of the central role that religion plays in shaping free and responsible citizens. But will any religion do? Here are my thoughts on the matter from nine years ago.
President Eisenhower famously observed that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Now that we are beginning to see the consequences when Muslims act on their deeply felt faith, it’s time to revisit Eisenhower’s statement. The question is, can we still afford to take an “I don’t care what it is” attitude toward religion? In short, does the content of a religion matter? Or are we to assume that all religions share the same essential truths, as Eisenhower seemed to assume?
It’s ironic that the part of Eisenhower’s statement which evoked criticism in the early 1950’s would pass almost unnoticed today, while the part that seemed unremarkable then would be challenged in many quarters today. When Eisenhower said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith,” he was merely echoing a widespread belief. Even William O. Douglas, the most liberal member of the Supreme Court at the time, and not a particularly religious man, opined in a 1952 decision that “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
Since then, however, we’ve grown accustomed to the notion that religion ought to have little or no influence on our government and institutions. More and more, religion is looked upon as something that should be confined to the private sphere. As a result, religion has been pushed steadily out of public life—one Christmas crèche, one school prayer, one court decision at a time. These days, most of our institutions, particularly the press, the courts, and the schools, seem to presume that secularism is the officially established belief.
Conversely, the part of Eisenhower’s statement that caused many to snicker in the 1950’s would strike most today as self-evidently true. Numerous priests, pastors, rabbis, and theologians took Eisenhower to task for adding, “and I don’t care what it is” to his endorsement of religion. Long before the threat of Islamization, thoughtful Americans realized that the content of a religion mattered very much. They protested that a vague “faith in faith” would not be enough to sustain our form of society in difficult times.
By contrast, after several decades of multicultural indoctrination we have now reached a pass where “I don’t care what it is” seems the height of enlightened wisdom. Our present society is so thoroughly invested in the doctrine of cultural equivalence that hardly anyone dares to publicly express a preference or partiality for one religion over another—except, of course, if the religion happens to be Islam. In that case the neutrality rule seems dispensable. For example, New York’s city fathers granted almost immediate approval to the Ground Zero mosque project, but after nine years, the plan to rebuild St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, which was destroyed by the 9⁄11 blast, has met with nothing but opposition. But, apart from the occasional favoritism shown to Islam, the notion that all religions are equally OK suits us just fine.
Still, the introduction of Islam into the American equation forces us to look more closely than we ever have before at the church/state question. Is the state supposed to ignore religion, or should it encourage it? Are some religions more conducive than others to a healthy social order? Eisenhower’s famous statement provides a good starting point for framing some answers. “Ike” was right in saying our form of government doesn’t make sense without a religious foundation. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, has religion written all over it. No matter how you parse it, it’s difficult to read “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” “endowed by their Creator,” “appealing to the Divine Judge of the World,” and “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” as an endorsement of secularism. And the benefits of a religious foundation don’t end with the establishment of inalienable rights for individual citizens. Religion provides a service to the state, as well; a service that the state can’t perform for itself—at least, not very successfully. What is it? In brief, the sacred realm makes sense out of life. Religious faith imparts a conviction of ultimate meaning. And this, in turn, is good for the state because people with meaningful lives tend to be better behaved citizens.
“Ah, yes!” exclaims the half-educated leftist, “Religion—the opium of the people!” Not quite. Marx, who had a shallow understanding of religion, thought of religion as an escapist fantasy—an opium dream devised to keep people in a state of passivity. With their eyes focused on the next world, said Marx, believers wouldn’t work to change this one. But actual religious people aren’t like that. The more actively people practice their faith, the more likely they will be involved in trying to improve their community. That’s not just a theory, it’s been shown by a number of studies. Just as importantly, religious people feel a duty to improve themselves. Christians, for example, are supposed to try to conform their lives to Christ. The upshot is that people who take their religion seriously have strong incentives to practice virtue and avoid vice. All told, people who learn to govern themselves out of religious motives are better candidates for self-government than people who don’t practice self-restraint. This is what John Adams meant when he said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
Thus, a society that hopes to maintain a free and self-governing citizenry will want to do everything it can to encourage and foster religion. Just because the government shouldn’t be in the business of establishing a specific religion, doesn’t mean it should be neutral as between religion and irreligion. If, as Adams wrote, our Constitution would only work with a moral and religious people, then it makes sense for the state to do what it can to provide a favorable climate for religion—as it does, for example, by providing tax exempt status to churches. Joe Sobran once made the point that although the First Amendment right to a free press implies a right not to read, along with the right to read, no one ever suggests that the state should remain neutral as between reading and non-reading. Reading, like religion, has its dangers but, on the whole, literacy is good for the health of a society. Thus, for example, lessons in reading and writing are not optional for the elementary school set.
As President Eisenhower correctly noted, our form of government doesn’t make much sense apart from “deeply felt religious faith.” But exactly what religion are we talking about? Will any “deeply felt faith” do? Or were Eisenhower, Douglas, and the rest implicitly assuming a Judeo-Christian framework?
It’s the second part of Eisenhower’s statement that is problematic—the “and I don’t care what it is” part. The question is, are religions interchangeable? Will any religion provide a proper foundation for our form of government? Does every religion confer equal benefits to society and to individuals? Suppose Eisenhower had said “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious faith such as Islam?” It would sound strange, to say the least. And it’s a good bet that Islam was pretty far from Eisenhower’s thoughts on the occasion of his speech. The man who named the war against the Nazis “the Crusade in Europe” was obviously thinking of another religion when he made his famous statement.
How about Justice William O. Douglas? When he said, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” which Supreme Being did he have in mind? Considering that he was speaking about the American people and their institutions, it’s highly unlikely that he was thinking of Allah.
According to the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal, but are all Supreme Beings equal? The Declaration states that men are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” but which Creator is the Declaration referring to? It would make no sense to claim that Allah would qualify for the position, because in Islam all men are not created equal. Muslims, who are described in the Koran as “the best of people,” are considered to be decidedly superior to non-Muslims. For example, under Shariah law a Muslim who kills another Muslim may have to pay with his life, but a Muslim who kills a non-Muslim need only pay “blood money” to the murdered man’s relatives. Islamic charity isn’t dispensed equally, either. It’s only meant for other Muslims. During the recent flooding in Pakistan, police and local clerics refused aid and shelter to Christians and Hindus, despite the fact that the majority of relief money and supplies came from non-Muslim countries. “With charity toward all” is an alien concept in much of the Muslim world.
The Supreme Being as depicted in the Koran is an entirely different sort of being from the one depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Although a lot of Christians like to say that “We all worship the same God,” the Koran explicitly rejects Christianity and the Christian notion of God. It does this on several occasions and in no uncertain terms. The Jesus of the Koran, for example, seems to have been introduced into it for the sole purpose of denying the claims of Jesus of Nazareth.
In any event, Muslims are not called to the imitation of the Muslim Jesus, but to the imitation of Muhammad. In Islamic tradition he is considered the perfect man, the supreme model of conduct. Just as Christians are supposed to conform their lives to Christ, Muslims are expected to conform their lives to Muhammad. Unfortunately, for those who think that religions are interchangeable, the imitation of Muhammad leads in a very different direction than the imitation of Christ. The imitation of Muhammad leads to unequal treatment of believers and non-believers, to child brides, polygamy, wife beating, stoning for adulterers, the murder of apostates, and various other, shall we say, un-American activities.
Granted, not every American feels called upon to follow Christ, but even lax Christians and non-Christian Americans are the heirs of a culture that was shaped by Christian beliefs. Not everyone practices Christian virtues or recognizes that our moral standards are derived from Jewish and Christian sources, but most Americans recognize that our society benefits when those standards are observed. On the other hand, the taken-for-granted nature of Judeo-Christian standards makes it easy to suppose that what is, in fact, a unique cultural and religious achievement is simply the normal condition of mankind. That’s why for many Americans it’s extremely difficult to imagine what life would be like under an Islamic moral code.
For a long time we’ve had the luxury of not having to think very deeply about the relationship between our form of government and our religious tradition. Now that mosques are popping up all over, it’s time to ask whether our institutions presuppose merely a generic religion or whether they are linked to a specific religious tradition. When John Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” what religion and what morality did he have in mind? Do we really have the luxury of saying “I don’t care what it is?”
A few months ago, Steve Chapman, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a piece criticizing opponents of the Ground Zero mosque. In it, Chapman maintained that even if Islam were “inherently violent and totalitarian” it would still deserve the full protection of the First Amendment. Can that really be true? “I may disagree with your head-chopping policy, but I will defend to the death your right to exercise it?” Even Voltaire would have balked at that.
The profound ignorance and dysfunctionality of Islamic societies suggests that all religions are not equal in their capacity to benefit society. Just as it’s not wise for a society to maintain a strict neutrality between religion and irreligion, it’s equally unwise to pretend that the content of a religious tradition is a matter of complete indifference. They’ve tried that experiment in Europe and the results have been disastrous. Several years ago the framers of the European Constitution refused to acknowledge the Christian contribution to European civilization. Of course, that was just the confirmation of the post-Christian direction European elites had chosen decades before. And how is the new Christian-free Europe faring? Well, let’s see: you can’t teach the Holocaust or the Crusades in British schools, forced marriages are the norm in the Midlands, there are “no-go” zones in every French city, female genital mutilation is widely practiced, people who offend Islam go on trial, Jews are fleeing Sweden, and native Dutch and Britons are leaving their respective countries in droves. In short, the dysfunctional culture of the Middle East has set up branch offices in England and on the Continent. Thanks to the multicultural insistence on the moral equivalence of all cultures and religions, post-Christian Europe is rapidly becoming post-free Europe.
Can’t happen here? It can and it will unless we rid ourselves of the notion that religions are interchangeable. Nothing facilitates jihad like naivete. And one of our biggest blind spots is the failure to recognize that different religious beliefs can and do result in radically different cultures.
This article originally appeared in the October 19, 2010 edition of Front Page Magazine.
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