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Faith Talk

J. Bottum & William Kristol

In the long decades spent chasing religion from America’s public life, a kind of amnesia settled in, and we forgot what public religion actually is. We forgot that the Bible is neither a public-policy position paper nor a mine for inconsequential rhetoric, but a faith-founding document that informs the practice of public life. We forgot that the public display of religion is not the wrapping of the mantle of private religion — the public glow of personal sanctity — around a partisan position that a politician would hold even if he weren’t religious. Nonetheless, and despite it all, the acknowledged role of religion in public life grows stronger, and it will not now be reversed. The radical secularists have been routed. Change has come. The task now is to ensure that it is change for the better.

The nation’s liberty, George Washington pointed out more than two hundred years ago, cannot be maintained without morality, and morality, in turn, largely rests on religion. But over the last four decades, the forces of secularism — with considerable aid from America’s judges — have won innumerable battles in the war to banish religion from the nation’s public life.

Of course, there has been resistance. Thinkers from Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square to Stephen Carter in The Culture of Disbelief have fought back, waging an unfashionable fight on behalf of public religion in America — not so much for the sake of religion, as for the sake of America.

Now it seems the resistance has succeeded. It looks like victory when the Democrats, seeking a vice-presidential candidate to help them distance themselves from the dishonor of President Clinton, light on an observant Jew as the most obvious exemplar of morality.

It looks like victory when the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded to fight discrimination against Jews, is forced to the confusion of censuring that candidate because he’s been speaking aloud about his Judaism.

It looks like victory when both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees speak openly of their Christian faith, and the Democratic vice-presidential nominee stands in a church pulpit, as Senator Lieberman did on Sunday, August 27, to call upon the American people to “renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”

It looks like victory when the editorial page of the New York Times, in its attempt to persuade Senator Lieberman to abandon his religious rhetoric, is reduced to the dubious expedient of trying to correct George Washington on the meaning of America’s founding.

The question is: What exactly has been won? After all, at the moment the most obvious victor is Al Gore. The Democrats are “going to take back God this time,” a campaign official claimed earlier this year — and, by God, they have. From the Democratic party’s point of view, Joe Lieberman’s fight with the Anti-Defamation League could not have been better timed. Strongly religious people have tended to vote Republican in recent years, precisely because they have seen the Democratic party as captive to a radically secularist ideology. But how can they not respond sympathetically when they observe a believer in God attacked for mentioning his belief? Almost nothing the Democrats do can really put at risk the votes of the secularists, and with Lieberman, they may have successfully weakened the Republicans’ hold on the religious. In other words, the Lieberman nomination has allowed Gore to accomplish a pair of nicely judged triangulations: appearing to censure the behavior of the president with whom Gore would otherwise be indelibly associated, and appearing to distance himself from the secularist radicals in his own party.

Still, the Republicans have resources with which to respond, and the passive silence of George W. Bush since the Democratic convention is astonishing. So — Bush ought to be asking — is Gore going to select judges who will permit the religious “reawakening” and “rededication” for which his running mate now calls? The secularization of public life has occurred not by the will of the American people, but by the will of the American judiciary. A handful of cases in recent years have, by a series of close votes in the Supreme Court, slightly reversed the trend. The next president will likely have several appointments to the Supreme Court, and will name hundreds of judges to the lower federal courts. Won’t Gore select judicial nominees who will uphold his views on abortion, affirmative action, vouchers, and a secular public square — all the standard Democratic litmus tests? How can that possibly allow the return of public religion that Lieberman desires?

Indeed, won’t Gore be unlikely even to staff his own administration with religion-friendly types? Clinton, one remembers, ran as a new sort of Democratic moderate, but his administration quickly silted up with all the old, familiar leftists — because the Democrats don’t actually have anyone, except Lieberman, who is willing to run the risk of alienating important Democratic constituencies.

For that matter, they don’t really have Joe Lieberman. As the price of ascending to the top of his party, Lieberman has retreated on affirmative action, on Hollywood, on school vouchers. His Mario Cuomo-esque position on partial-birth abortion — personally opposed, but publicly in favor — remains a throwback to the most naked days of the naked public square. And he was never as bold as he appeared on holding President Clinton responsible or accountable for his actions — a terribly weighty matter to which he, of course, no longer ever alludes.

Indeed, Lieberman’s religious discourse stretched sufficiently in Detroit last week to compare President Clinton to Moses: “You might say the Red Sea finally parted, and more Americans than ever before walked through behind President Bill Clinton.” And in Chicago the next day, he declared any deviation from the Democrats’ health care plan a violation of God’s Law: “Isn’t Medicare coverage of prescription drugs really about the values of the Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and mother?”

We’re not sure what this is, except perhaps a new political idiom — call it “faith talk” — that seeks to dress up political partisanship in the language of personal religious emotion.

Even before Senator Lieberman’s vision of a Moses-like Bill Clinton, the recent revival of public religion had seen its share of strange moments. Asked last spring to name the political philosopher who most influenced him, George W. Bush answered “Jesus, ...because he changed my heart.” Almost unprompted, Vice President Gore explained that he solves policy questions by asking himself, “What would Jesus do?” President Clinton — ah, well, President Clinton remains the master: the creator of an extraordinary circle in which actual sins become the occasion for a public display of private religious feeling that apparently abolishes any need to pay a penalty for those sins.

Much of this is not religion, but religiosity; not righteousness, but self-righteousness; not piety, but pietism. If this is what victory looks like, then the return of religion to public life seems better than the absence only by the smallest of margins.

But that small margin is important. In the long decades spent chasing religion from America’s public life, a kind of amnesia settled in, and we forgot what public religion actually is. We forgot that the Bible is neither a public-policy position paper nor a mine for inconsequential rhetoric, but a faith-founding document that informs the practice of public life. We forgot that the public display of religion is not the wrapping of the mantle of private religion — the public glow of personal sanctity — around a partisan position that a politician would hold even if he weren’t religious. We forgot that it is still less the Clintonian wrapping of the mantle of private religious faith around the politician himself.

Nonetheless, and despite it all, the acknowledged role of religion in public life grows stronger, and it will not now be reversed. The radical secularists have been routed. Change has come. The task now is to ensure that it is change for the better.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bottum, J. and William Kristol. “Faith Talk” The Weekly Standard 5 number 49 (September 9, 2000).

This article is reprinted with permission of The Weekly Standard, it first appeared on September 9, 2000. For more information on subscribing to The Weekly Standard please call 1-800-283-2014 or visit the website below.

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