2016-07-27
Or FDR's State of the Union address a month after Pearl Harbor:
"They know that victory for us means victory for religion, and they could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate living room for both Hitler and God. In proof of this, the Nazis have now announced their plan for enforcing their new, German pagan religion all over the world, a plan by which the Holy Bible and the cross of mercy would be displaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika and the naked sword.

"We are inspired by a faith that goes back through all the years to the first chapter of Genesis: God created man in his own image. We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. That is the conflict that day and night now pervades our lives. No compromise can end that conflict. There never has been, there never will be successful compromise between good and evil."
We've attempted to apply a set of rules that I've done my best to keep. We've tried to apply a principled pluralism; we have set out to welcome all religions, not favoring any religions in a sectarian way. I think that the president is the first president to mention mosques and Islam in his inaugural address. The president has consistently urged tolerance and respect for other faiths and traditions, and has received some criticism for it.

We often in our presentations make specific reference to people who are not religious; we've done that right from the beginning. In our first prayer breakfast in February of 2001, we said an American president serves people of every faith and serves some of no faith at all. And there are plenty of other examples.And as president, as a rule - and there may be exceptions but I don't know what they are - he hasn't spoken from the pulpit. We've never done anything comparable to the recent campaign when Senator Kerry spoke in churches and used a passage from the Book of James to question the president's faith.But I know that the kind of care that we try to take will not bridge all the disagreements on this topic. There seems to me a genuine disagreement in public life when it comes to religion and rhetoric. There is a view that pluralism requires silence; that religious language violates the truce of tolerance in America, and moral arguments rooted in faith are off limits in public life.

Often this is more of a distaste than an ideology. I'll give you one example. At the Reagan funeral, I thought - given the disease that Reagan had died of - that it brought to mind for me the Apostle Paul's "we see through a glass darkly but someday we'll see our Savior face to face," and that seemed like a good reference to Alzheimer's. And we used it. And Tom Shales wrote, "George W. Bush chose to proselytize that Reagan is now in heaven playing cards with Jesus Christ." This was a Christian funeral of a Christian man in a Christian cathedral, and although I wouldn't have used the card analogy, that is in fact the Christian hope that slow death and the suffering of a family are not all there is; that suffering is not the last reality; it's the next-to-the-last reality.

There's also a deeper objective that I think would be worth discussing, that seems to assume that moral reasoning rooted in religious belief is somehow itself off limits. If you are for a certain right or belief because the Constitution said so, that is okay. If you're for certain rights because you believe the image of God is found in every human being based on a theological teaching, that is not. G.K. Chesterton, in a quote I like, called this a "taboo of tact or convention whereby a man is free to say this or that because of his nationality or his profession, or his place of residence, or his hobby, but not because of his creed about the very cosmos in which he lives."

I think these tendencies are misguided for a couple of reasons. As a writer, I think this attitude would flatten political rhetoric and make it less moving and interesting - to prevent the president from exercising rhetorical leadership in times of crisis. But even more, I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religion or religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history. Without an appeal to justice rooted in faith, there would have been no abolition movement, no civil rights movement, no pro-life movement.

Every society, it seems to me, needs a standard of values that stands above the political order, or the political order becomes absolute. Christianity is not identical to any political ideology. It has had great influence precisely because it judges all ideologies. It indicts consumerism and indifference to the poor; it indicts the destruction of the weak and the elderly; it indicts tyranny and the soul-destroying excesses that sometimes come from freedom. And that leads me to certain conclusions. When religious people identify faith with a single political party or movement, they miniaturize their beliefs and they're reduced to one interest group among many. When society banishes the influence of faith, it loses one of the main sources of compassion and justice.

And my view is summarized best by Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that the church should not be the master of the state or the servant of the state; it should be the conscience of the state.There are clearly some dangers here at the crossroads of religion and politics. The danger for America is not theocracy. Banning partial birth abortion and keeping the status quo of hundreds of years on marriage are not the imposition of religious rule. But religious people can develop habits of certainty that get wrongly applied to a range of issues from economics to military policy. The teachings of the New Testament are wisely silent on most political issues, and these are a realm of practical judgment and should be a realm of honest debate.

The deeper danger of course is the faith itself. A political and politicized and judgmental faith seems to miss the point. I've been a Christian all my life, but I still don't feel competent to define it for others. I think, however, it has something to do with forgetting yourself and seeking the interest of other people. It has something to do with getting beyond petty fears and selfish ambitions and seeing God's kingdom at work - a kingdom that's not of this world. And when those kingdoms are confused, it is faith that suffers the most.

At any rate, I guess I'll stop there. I just wanted to set out some different categories we use so that we all can have an informed discussion on how we actually use language.