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.
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