I took the advice of two good friends, Allen Brown and John Wilson, and read Stephen L. Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, c. 1993), which is an astute assessment of a growing issue in this country. Carter is an African-American law professor at Yale University, a self-professed “liberal” Democrat who’s grown restive at the sustained political pressure to drive religious belief from the public forum.
In Carter’s judgment, “the effort to banish religion for politics’ sake has led us astray: In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them” (p. 3). In short: public officials listen respectfully and act with consideration when dealing with every segment of the populace except the devoutly religious.
For example, a Colorado public school teacher was ordered to remove his Bible from his desk at school, where students might perchance see it. “He was forbidden to read it silently when his students were involved in other activities. He was also told to take away books on Christianity he had added to the classroom library, although books on Native American religious traditions, as well as on the occult, were allowed to remain” (pp. 11-12).
Despite the clear presence of millions of committed Christians in America (some polls indicate some 85% of this nation’s residents identify themselves thusly), their influence has been systematically excluded from the political processes. Gay activists and minority leaders, feminists and environmental advocates all have access to the corridors of power and are treated with respect by journalists and jurists. Whereas leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. once easily blended faith and politics, today religious convictions are ruled irrelevant to all but one’s personal beliefs.
The thing that changed everything, Carter, argues, “can be captured in one word: abortion” (p. 57). The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision changed all the rules. Suddenly those favoring “abortion rights” discovered that religious folks, in this case the “religious right,” had anti-abortion convictions, and had no right to influence public policy. It was once in vogue to cite scripture’s authority, declaring we are all created in the image of God and thus equal, when marching to protest segregation, but it is no longer permissible to cite it when marching to protest abortion.
This situation prods Carter to re-examine the vaunted “separation of church and state” in America. First, we must understand what the First Amendment to the Constitution actually says. It did not seek to exclude religion from interfering with politics but to protect religion from political interference. Our Founding Fathers wanted to insure the freedom of religion, listing it before freedom of speech and press, heeding Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that freedom of religion is “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.”
Until recently everyone understood that the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment protected, as it says, freedom of religion. In the words of a 19th century scholar, Philip Schaff, it was “‘the Magna Carta of religious freedom,’ representing as it did ‘the first example in history of a government deliberately depriving itself of all legislative control over religion'” (p. 108).
This well-established view was upended following WWII by some Supreme Court decisions, beginning with opinions written by Hugo Black, a militantly anti-Christian judicial warrior, who declared, in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), that “‘The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach'” (p. 109). That the widely-cited “wall” cannot be found in the Constitution (it was lifted by Black from a letter of Thomas Jefferson) seems irrelevant to its advocates who today occupy prestigious positions in elite law schools and courts of America.
Many of those taking this position, many who adamantly oppose any government aid to private schools, apparently seek to impose a singularly secular worldview on the populace. “Perhaps,” Carter says, “it is a way of ensuring that only one vision of the meaning of reality–that of the powerful group of individuals called the state–is allowed a political role. Back in Tocqueville’s day, this was called tyranny. Nowadays, all too often, but quite mistakenly, it is called the separation of church and state” (p. 123).
Tyrannical educators seek to impose this singular vision, following John Dewey’s “plainly stated view that one of the reasons for public schools was to remove the irrational religious influence that the children might otherwise retain from their parents” (p. 173). Thus public schools teach only one theory of origins: evolution by random natural selection. While Carter disagrees with the “scientific creationism” espoused by some fundamentalist Christians because he considers it bad science, he stoutly defends their concern that a theory of creation be considered alongside that of natural selection. Were apologists for a “multicultural” curriculum honest, they would be the first to support fundamentalists’ cultural perspectives!
Carter, as a “liberal,” basically urges fellow “liberals” to be truly liberal, tolerating the ideas and respecting the convictions of fellow Americans. Considering the millions of conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, “What is needed is not a requirement that the religiously devout choose a form of dialogue that liberalism accepts, but that liberalism develop a politics that accepts whatever form of dialogue a member of the public offers. Epistemic diversity, like diversity of other kinds, should be cherished, not ignored, and certainly not abolished. What is needed, then, is a willingness to listen, not because the speaker has the right voice but because the speaker has the right to speak” (p. 230).
The Culture of Disbelief deserves the attention it’s now receiving, for it treats a momentous matter: the continued freedom of religion, and of religious associations, in our republic–a freedom which encourages religions to influence the life of the nation while protecting religious institutions and individuals from governmental control.
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I read an abridged version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America while in graduate school, and I continually encounter and ponder quotations mined from his work, but I’d never read the work in toto until recently when, during the Christmas break, I read the entire work, tr. by Henry Reeve (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, c. 1900). In the process of reading this classic, I was repeatedly astounded by the acuity of his analyses and the prescience of his warnings.
“The principle aim of this book,” he says, “has been to make known the laws of the United States” (v. I, p. 303) which are promulgated under the auspices of the Constitution, a document he finds fully admirable, one of the wisest formulations ever designed. He does not narrowly define “laws”, however, so his reflections extend to a wide variety of social, economic, and cultural aspects of the new nation.
Several themes pervade Democracy in America: the importance of the sovereignty of the people and states; the vitality and importance of diverse associations; the pervasiveness and significance of religion in the nation’s life. But perhaps the most recurrent theme, expressed again and again, amidst detailing the admirable aspects of America’s democratic structures, is Tocqueville’s concern that the evident drift toward a doctrinaire “equality” which would undermine the freedoms which made the nation great. Again and again he mentioned his fears that democracies easily slide into despotisms. Reading words written 150 years ago in the light of today’s headlines made me even more appreciative of Tocqueville’s genius.
Democracy in America describes the American political system as a union of independent states. “The United States form not only a republic, but a confederation” (v. I, p. 114), though the central government certainly possessed significant powers. In his judgment, “there are twenty-four small sovereign nations, whose agglomeration constitutes the body of the Union” (v. I, p. 58).
This he admired, for throughout history small nations have “ever been the cradle of political liberty” (v. I, p. 159). So freedom for Americans demanded the maintenance of decentralized political power. To preserve the independence and vigor of the several states, he argued, would be necessary to safeguard the independence and vigor of the voluntary associations and individuals condition of one and the same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so; and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly, either by force or by right” (v. I, pp. 393-394).
In his judgment, a great struggle was in process in the 1830’s, a clash between “the provinces and the central power; between the spirit of democratic independence and the spirit of gradation and subordination” (v. I, p. 416). Should the central government siphon away power from the states and people, which he suspected would occur, tyranny would, in time, result. “Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are equal to His power” (v. I, p. 264). Such cannot be said of centralized governments. For all its strengths, Tocqueville feared the United States had failed to protect itself from a slow drift to tyrannical central government. (I believe, were he making a similar trip today, he would lament the enormous loss of liberty in America, due primarily to the incredible accretion of power to Washington D.C.
Similarly, Tocqueville urged independence for a whole variety of associations. Locally, he found town-meeting type governments most admirable. Here everyone had access to the political process, and here the best of democratic traits flourished. The “right of association is almost as inalienable as the right of personal freedom” (v. I, p. 196). Whereas in aristocratic countries there were powerful nobles standing between commoners and kings, checking the prerogatives of the monarch, in democracies the central government easily extends its edicts into the daily activities of ordinary people. To resist the continual encroachments of the federal government, he insisted that “associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away” (v. II, p. 117).
The more numerous and various the associations, the newspapers, the schools, the churches, the civic groups, the grass-roots political organizations, reform movements, the healthier the nation! He especially emphasized the necessity of a widely-accepted standard of morality to preserve the civic order. And morality, he insisted, needs religious foundations. He found the religious freedom of America most admirable. It allowed, he thought, for an abundance of religious discourse and encouraged personal responsibility.
In fact few themes so regularly resurface in Democracy in America as the importance of religion, and of its influence in public life. Tocqueville delighted to find that “there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America” (v. I, p. 308).
“Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting form this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed” (v. I, p. 313). For America to remain free, he determined, its people must remain religious. And though federal and state governments must protect religious freedom, religious associations and spokesmen must be free to influence, through moral precept and reform leadership, the direction of the nation.
Those who truly love liberty, Tocqueville insisted, naturally “hasten to invoke the assistance of religion, for they must know that liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith” (v. I, p. 12). On the other hand, “Religion perceives that civil liberty affords a noble exercise to the faculties of man, and that the political world is a field prepared by the Creator for the efforts of the intelligence” (v. I, p. 43). Still more: “The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom” (v. I, p. 43). He greatly feared the fate of the United States should religious faith decline. “When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the highest portions of the intellect, and half paralyzes all the rest of its powers” (v. II, p. 22). This leads to the loss of confidence in other “truths” as well. Lacking authority in religion, confidence in other forms of authority dissipates. “For my own part,” Tocqueville said, “I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire public freedom. And I am inclined to think, that if faith be wanting in him, he must serve; and if he be free, he must believe” (v. II, p. 23).
Along with his sustained concern for religion, Tocqueville continually broods over the tragic tendency in democracies to cultivate an insatiable hunger for an equality which costs them liberty. It seems a people, as well as a person, must make one or the other a priority, recognizing that you cannot in fact have both. There resides “in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom” (v. I, p. 53). By forcing everyone to be equal the government would forego protecting individual liberties.
I strongly recommend reading this old book! It reminds us of what the United States was, what it was designed to be, and what it has in fact become. Some of the “promise” of democracy in American has been realized, but much of it has been compromised, if not lost, as well. Rightly reading Democracy in America might give us the roots necessary to determine how act so as to maintain the life of this nation.
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To bring Tocqueville’s concerns into the political battles of today, let me mention A Call for Revolution: How Washington is Strangling America–and How to Stop It (New York: Ballantine Books, c. 1993. This is a journalistic expose, an anecdotal alarm, a stentorian call to upend the government which is sucking life from its citizenry. It’s not the book you turn to for solid analysis or contextualized data. It’s a sermonic-style call for action which deserves a hearing.
Gross begins his book with a quotation from Al Gore, who hardly ever appears “revolutionary,” who said: “The federal government has grown stale, wasteful, inefficient, bureaucratic, and is failing the American people. Rock ’em, sock ’em, shake ’em-up changes are what the American people want” (p. 1). If it’s what the people want, it’s not what the Washington establishment will grant, but Gross takes Gore at his words and proposes some real “rock ’em, sock ’em, shake ’em-up changes.”
The federal government, Gross shows, is utterly wasteful and prodigal in spending the people’s monies. Since 1960, the combined local, state, and federal government costs have soared 350% and now yearly spend $38,000 per family! More than 40% of the nation’s GDP goes to support government. This financial burden slowly strangles us all, and the burden results from the utter irresponsibility of our elected officials and entrenched bureaucrats.
To illustrate, consider what’s happened in Long Island, New York. A house which cost $8,000 in 1950 now costs $210,000. The owner, in 1950, made $5,000 yearly and paid a total of $615 in taxes; he had $4,000 in disposable income. Today’s owner earns $41,000; his wife works to raise their total income to $58,500. School taxes alone are now 25 times what they were, amounting to $5,700. Add in all the other taxes, and this family pays $20,000 a year, and struggles to make ends meet in ways their counterparts in 1950 never imagined. The main difference in their economic status, Gross insists, is out-of-control taxation.
As another example of the nation’s problem, consider one aspect of our welfare system: some 12 federal agencies dole out $5 billion each year to help American Indians; that amounts to $20,000 per family of four–though in fact their income averages one-third of that! Washington collects and expends money with abandon. Unfortunately, only small amounts of it actually reach the intended beneficiaries.
In fact, the current welfare system, which constitutes this nation’s largest budgetary expenditure, costing us $300 billion a year, not only sustains but helps create poverty in America! All our efforts to eliminate poverty have misfired. “Despite the expenditure of a trillion dollars over the years, the number of people in ‘poverty,’ as defined by the U.S. Bureau of Census, is larger today than when the antipoverty programs went into full gear” (p. 91). A reasonable person, Gross assumes, would be inclined to explore other remedies as quickly as possible–right now, in fact!
Concerned citizens can, in fact, make a difference. Join organizations such as Citizens Against Government Waste. Push politicians to pass a balanced budget amendment and authorize a line item veto for the President. Push for term limits. The list of suggestions is extensive, and perhaps many of them would make a real difference.
What Gross’s book does is make available some of the alarming details many of us never hear about. With such information in hand, with the courage to confront the powers that be, the United States might recover from the strangle-hold of its federal dictators.