2016-06-30
Over the Wall: Protecting Religious Expression in the Public Square
by Frank Guliuzza III
State University of New York Press, 288 pages

Even a casual observer of American politics would be hard pressed to say that religion is marginalized these days. Fleets of ministers pass through the White House to pray with Bill Clinton. Bill Bradley may not say where he goes on Sunday, but he's happy to declare his opposition to gay marriage because it's a "religious sacrament as well as a legal state." Men of the left like Christopher Hitchens and Nat Hentoff concur that the religious case against abortion should be, well, taken seriously; the squarely liberal magazine The American Prospect ran a cover story about the importance of religion in political life. One presidential candidate after another professes life change after a born-again experience, and, of course, we've heard that Christ is George W.'s favorite philosopher.

In such a climate, would it be so hard to imagine the president of the United States justifying a major expansion of foreign aid on the grounds that "God allows America to flourish" because "America is a giving nation"? "There is no crisis in the world," says the president in this hypothetical scenario, "which finds us unready to feed the hungry, give drink to those who thirst, clothe the naked, and do our level best to set the captives free." If we stop doing those things, "then, I tell you, I fear God will be finished with America!"

Frank Guliuzza III, the author of this bit of speechifying, spins it as farfetched. Religious arguments, Guliuzza contends, are "trivialized and often demonized by the so-called cultural and intellectual elites," who give religious expression "short shrift in the public square." For some reason Americans -- especially those pesky intellectuals -- seem more interested in geopolitical arguments than simple declarations of faith!

Guliuzza's new book, "Over the Wall: Protecting Religious Expression in the Public Square." claims that "many academic and cultural elites dismiss religious-based argument from dialogic politics," and that as a result, "religious expression...[is] unwelcome in the marketplace of ideas." Nominally focused on Supreme Court rulings in freedom of religion cases, the book manages to be pedantic yet hyperbolic at the same time.

Guliuzza believes that the legal doctrine of separation of church and state is a thinly veiled attack on political activity among the faithful. Trotting out some shaky history, he attempts to prove that the separation doctrine is really "a vehicle for secularization." To top it off, he implies that the American Humanist Association -- an admittedly bizarre organization that seems to do little but put out odd community newspapers -- might somehow be behind the whole thing. Guliuzza tends towards what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style," complete with all the "experts, study groups, monographs, bibliographies and footnotes" beloved by the John Birchers.

But Guliuzza never gives full rein to his paranoia, perhaps because what irks him is closer to home than the Humanist plot. The real inspiration for his book isn't the separation doctrine so much as it is his frustrated sense that "academic and cultural elites" don't take religion (and, presumably, him) seriously enough. "It is staggering to fathom the general contempt with which religion and religious people are held on college and university campuses," he gripes. He's not so worried that Christians will be kept out of politics as he is that the "knowledge class" will laugh at them.

Strangely, Guliuzza doesn't offer any examples of politicians denigrating Christianity, much less trying to prevent Christians from engaging in political activism. The most serious examples of "anti-Christian bigotry" he cites -- a landlord (in Utah) who didn't want to rent to "f---ing Mormons," kids who've been told not to read the Bible during free time in school -- have nothing to do with political expression.

He does, however, know a Mormon woman (again in Utah) who was in the room while a few of her academic colleagues made some jokes at the expense of Joseph Smith's people, and he's heard about some faculty members at the University of Utah who drove by the Latter-Day Saints temple in Salt Lake City and described it as "Utah's version of Disneyland." And he himself has been subjected to persecution: "I have had dinner conversations with friends at academic conferences and listened as the conversation turned into a verbal spanking of Christians." When you get down to it, Guliuzza doesn't seem to care so much about the public square as he does personal slights and private grievances.

Perhaps Guliuzza focuses on the personal because deep down he's dissatisfied with the casual, self-serving invocations of faith so common in politics today. He may feel that, as David Frum put it, conservatives "habitually confuse the unyielding Calvinist faith that shaped the country's heroic early years with the God-will-make-you-rich/God-will-make-you-thin/God-will-improve-your-sex-life religion that fills American television sets and suburban churches today." Guliuzza might even be tempted to snicker himself when Al Gore tells The Washington Post that when confronted with key decisions, he's taken to asking himself, "What Would Jesus Do?"

If so, the joke's on him. Like it or not, this season's candidates are politicians in Guliuzza's mold, falling all over themselves to propose a greater role for "faith-based organizations" in social services and to declare, with Liddy Dole, their "deep personal faith and belief in the power of prayer." Making Over the Wall look like it isn't so over the top, the ex-president George Bush even said just last month that the United States is doing the "Lord's work" in bombing Iraq. Perhaps all Guliuzza needs to do is bite his tongue through a few more dinner conversations and wait until November.

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