God's Name In Vainby Stephen Carter
Stephen Carter argues that American politics is unimaginable without America's religious voice. Using contemporary and historical examples, from abolitionist sermons to presidential candidates' confessions, he illustrates ways in which religion and politics do and do not mesh well and ways in which spiritual perspectives might make vital contributions to our national debates. He also warns us of the importance of setting out some sensible limits, so that religious institutions do not allow themselves to be seduced by the lure of temporal power, and offers strong examples of principled and prophetic religious activism for those who choose their God before their country.
Christian Science Monitor
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Chattering About the Lord
Religion has been inseparable from American politics for as long as America has had politics, and will likely remain inseparable as long as Americans remain religious. Yet every generation seems to think it has discovered something new. Take presidential elections as an example. Early in the year 2000, when an internecine battle erupted in the Republican Party over the role of religious conservatives in the nomination process, astonished reporters told television audiences that nothing like this had ever happened before. Not since 1992, they might have added, when the religion-ful Republican convention raised precisely the same eyebrows. Or not since 1980, when candidate Ronald Reagan told the Religious Roundtable, a conservative evangelical group, "You cannot endorse me, but I endorse you." Not since 1976, when an outpouring of evangelical votes, many of them from first-time voters, ruined the Republican Party's Southern strategy and helped put Democrat Jimmy Carter in the White House. Or not since 1960, when candidate John F. Kennedy rushed to a convention of evangelical preachers in Houston to assure them that he, a Roman Catholic, would not do the Pope's bidding if elected. (In our celebration of the Kennedy moment, we tend to forget that the bidding that worried the evangelicals most was the Catholic Church's forceful opposition to racial segregation.)
The reporters, if inclined to do a little digging, could have gone back further. Back to the 1950s, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower assured the whole nation that belief in Godwas the first principle of Americanism. Back to Theodore Roosevelt, who said that the President should go to church regularly to set an example for the nation. Back to William McKinley, who ran a campaign showing how he was a better Protestant than William Jennings Bryan, and fought a holy war to prove it. Back to Abraham Lincoln, who announced in his Second Inaugural Address that the Civil War was, in effect, a war over which side's reading of the Bible was right. Even all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who spent much of his 1800 election campaign denying charges that he was an atheist.
Our current controversies, then, are nothing new for America. Only our failure of memory makes them seem peculiar. And that act of forgetting is a great danger to our democracy, for if we do not understand the historical relationship between religion and politics, we will never be able to make sense of the way our politics both accommodates and domesticates the impulse of believers to improve the world. In America, we have long separated the institutional church from the institutional state, a sensible idea, but we have never separated religion from politics, and we are unlikely to start any time soon.
Consider a single historical example, this one not involving an election. In 1854, a group of New England clergymen set off a firestorm when they sent a petition to the Senate demanding an immediate end to the practice of chattel slavery. The pro-slavery senators, citing the separation of church and state, argued that the petition should not even be received, that ordained ministers could not so much as discuss issues of public moment with the government. But the preachers, not the senators, won the day. They won by refusing to shut up, by insisting on the relevance of God's Word in a broken world, and by persuading so many of their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause that the nation was willing to fight a war over it. The preachers understood a simple fact about America that the defenders of slavery did not (or at least pretended not to)a fact just as true today as it was a century and a half ago: Most Americans want to talk about God. We have always done it. We do not seem ready to stop.
In truth, there is probably no country in the Western world where people use God's name quite as much, or quite as publicly, or for quite as many purposes, as we Americans dothe Third Commandment notwithstanding. Few candidates for office are able to end their speeches without asking God to bless their audience, or the nation, or the great work we are undertaking, but everybody is sure that the other side is insincere. Conservatives often claim God as one of their own. And not just conservatives. At a speaking engagement a couple of years ago, I received the following written question from the audience: "God wants us to change, so God is a liberal, right?" Athletes thank God, often on television, after scoring the winning touchdown, because, like politicians, they like to think God is on their side. Churches erect huge billboards and take out ads in the paper. Arguments over God's gender make the news magazines. God's will is cited as a reason to be against gay rights. And a reason to be for them. God is said not to tolerate poverty. Or abortion. Or nuclear weapons. We Americans search for God constantly, in as many places as possible. Pantheists insist that a part of God exists in everything. New Agers proclaim that God is found within.
Lots of people take the Lord's name in vainby cursing, for example, which still bothers some of us, although it is nowadays considered a little quaint, or even prudish, to take offense. (Goodness knows, few screenwriters know how to construct dialogue without it.) Some people solemnly swear to tell the truth, so help them God, and then solemnly lie. Casual interjections are rampant: "What in the name of God?" and "Oh, my God!" being two favorites. We mention God's name on our currency, in the Pledge of Allegiance, in some of our national songs. Advertisers see all this and decide how to profit from it. (Remember the friar in the old Xerox commercials? What about Hebrew National's marvelous old slogan"We answer to a higher authority"which at least possessed the virtue of sincerity?)
The media, too, are fascinated by God, although I often wish the media were a little bit more fascinated, so that journalists would get their facts right. In the winter of 2000, during one of the presidential debates, I cringed when a reporter asked the candidates a question using the terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" as though they were interchangeable, which many otherwise well-educated people seem to believe. But a media that does not understand (or care about) such distinctions will be equally unable to understand why, in his presidential campaigns, the Reverend Pat Robertson ran worse among fundamentalists than among white voters generallya fact that was left largely unreported, perhaps because even journalists who heard about it were unable to make sense of it. On the other hand, journalists tend to do a very good job at reporting on the simple and exciting fact that Americans, despite the massive cultural changes wrought by the forces of economics and technology, refuse to stop believing in God, and refuse to stop talking about him.
Everybody who wants to change America, and everybody who wants not to, understands the nation's love affair with God's name, which is why everybody invokes it.
My writing on the subject of law and religion has me on everybody's mailing list. Scarcely a week goes by that I do not find in my mailbox at Yale a pamphlet or press release or even a book from some organization with a clear political goal, explaining why God is on the side of its cause. Because the great majority of Americans profess Christianity, the pamphlets are usually based on the Bible. It is an old and honored American game, played on all points of the political spectrum, and sometimes the players are sincere. "God-talk," the social theorists call it, and its resilience in a nation many prefer to regard as secular continues to amaze them, as, in an earlier era, it amazed William James and Max Weber, both of whom analyzed religion with the dispassionate tools of social science and concluded that it obviously met certain human needs, even if the whole thing was, in the end, a little silly. Many of today's philosophers and social scientists continue to think all this God stuff is a little oddbut that does not slow it down, nor has it ever.
The matter is surprisingly simple: People who believe in God talk about God. People who believe God is central to their lives may not easily be persuaded to cast God aside when they happen to step into the realm of politics. Although it may be frustrating to many observersand I among the frustratedthat candidates for office, across the political spectrum, seem constantly on the hunt for potential clergy support, we can hardly wish or theorize the practice away. Whether in 1860, when southern pastors lined up for Stephen Douglas and against Abraham Lincoln and the religious orthodoxy they feared he would impose on the nation in the name of the abolition of slavery, or in 1896, when the Social Gospel preachers in New York City campaigned openly for the election to the mayoralty of a progressive writer named Henry George, or in 1976, when an outpouring of evangelical support helped make Jimmy Carter president, or four years later, when many of the same evangelicals turned to Ronald Reaganyear after year, in election after election, candidates understand that faith matters to people and so, using the name of the Lordsometimes sincerely, sometimes in vain, sometimes bothpoliticians go out among the faithful and ask for their votes.
And therein hangs a tale.
* * *
On September 11, 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky messat a moment when, hard though it may be to remember, the foundations of Bill Clinton's presidency seemed to be crumblingthe President addressed the annual National Prayer Breakfast. He told the assembled clergy, and a national television audience, that he was profoundly sorry for the wrongs he had done. "There is no clever way," he intoned, "to say that I have sinned."
We Americans are, as ever, the wonder of Europe. A commentary in the Times Literary Supplement professed mystification: "Confession of sin occurs within communities of faith or between believers and God. For a church member, one presumes, a confession should be made to God, to a clerical intermediary, or to the community of faith or to the congregation." The puzzled commentary continued: "The Constitution makes no provision for a referendum: 'Forgive/Excommunicate: Click on One'" In other words, even granting that the President had sinned against God, why was he asking forgiveness of the American people?
President Clinton, of course, did send a letter to his home congregation, Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. The contents of the letter, the White House sensibly announced, were a private matter. But he did more: In offering his contrition to the public as a sacrifice, he proclaimed that he needed our forgiveness, too. And he was correct. He may not have needed it theologically, but he certainly needed it politically.
And that is the point of the story: He needed it politically. That is, President Clinton, in order to survive the scandal, had to find a way to translate the requirements of his faith into the requirements of politics, and vice versa. The American public, the body politic that, as the Times pointed out, entirely lacks the authority to vote on forgiveness, nevertheless is fully possessed of the authority to confer it. The matter is so simple that we tend to forget it. If most voters forgive a politician for his misdeeds, the politician stands forgiven ... politically forgiven, that is. And if voters refuse? If they prefer, as the Times would have it, to excommunicate? Then the miscreant teeters, and sometimes falls. History is full of lessons. Bill Clinton holds his balance and Richard Nixon does not. How moralists or theologians might evaluate their relative wrongs is entirely a moot point. All that finally matters in politicsand this is the fact President Clinton well understood!all that finally matters is the verdict of the public.
But why go to the public, as President Clinton did, with the language of faith? Why stand behind a lectern in the White House and speak of sin and forgiveness?
One answer that is easy, and wrong, is that we Americans are a forgiving people. We are not. Some politicians survive scandal, others are destroyed. We as a people have been swept up all through our history by passionate love affairs with the technologies of unforgivenesscapital punishment, for one, and a mighty, avenging military, for another. We Like to imagine ourselves as willing to forgive, and imagination is a powerful tool in helping us be what we think we should; but our actions are often otherwise.
Another answer, one that dances about the edge of the truth, is that we are a religious people, and that all our major religions counsel forgiveness, at least of the penitent. Thus, for the President of the United States to stand before the nation, the whole of the American people, and from that platform to express his contrition and beg forgiveness, might resonate deeply with the felt religious convictions of most of us. In other words, listening to his apologies, we might well sense, deep within us, a welling up of our connection to the Divine, as though God Himself were urging us to forgive. We would then be taking the President's words of contrition to mean what he said they meant; not as some political ploy, but as a direct appeal to our religious convictions. And it would be those convictions, not the President's speech alone, that would lead us to forgive.
But there, once more, the analysis ultimately fails. There is nothing in the theology of the nation's traditional faiths to suggest that forgiveness moves us immediately past the need for any punishment. In other words, the fact that the public forgives the President does not tell us what should have happened next. The view of most Americans was that what should have happened next was ... well, nothing. And here we see the true significance of religion and of the use of God's name in our partisan political wars. Religion is, too often, no more than a tool for helping us get what we want. I refer here not to President Clinton but to the voters. The message the polls sent to Washington was, evidently, simple: "We have forgiven him. Now get back to doing our business." This message, which the President's supporters cheered, actually is theologically somewhat odd. Moral crises, the message says, should be set aside when our personal needs and desires are at stake. That so many Clinton supporters quoted (or sometimes misquoted) the Gospel passage about those without sin throwing the first stone only adds to the oddity. The use of the passage was surely a trope. The real message from the public, then, was probably more like this: "The President has now mentioned God. We, too, have mentioned God. Therefore, we are at least as godly as you. So give us what we want."
And there lies the difficulty when God-talk mixes with the partisan side of politics: More than likely, for too many people with causes to push and desires to fulfill, the name of God will collapse into a mere rhetorical device. Instead of maintaining the sacred character guaranteed by the Third Commandment, God's name becomes a tool, a trope, a ticket to get us where we want to go.
* * *
After the National Prayer Breakfast, the President's supporters cheered his public show of contrition and announced that the time had come to get on with the nation's business. His critics were less sure. Several of them fired off a public letter, entitled "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency." The signers of the declaration warned about "the distortion that can come by association with presidential power in events such as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast of September 11, 1998." Why? Because, among other reasons, "the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts." Pastoral counseling sessions, the signatories conceded, were fine, but with a caveat: "[W]e fear that announcing such meetings to convince the public of the President's sincerity compromises the integrity of religion."
There was moremuch moreto the declaration, and we will return to it later in the book. But let us, for the moment, stick with this first set of ... well, of charges. Note that the declaration actually offers two separate warnings: first, that religionists should be wary of the corrupting influence of too close an association with the power of the presidency and, second, that religious integrity may be compromised by public announcements by religious leaders. Both cautions are of a form long known to Christianity: Politics profanes. One might even go so far as to suggest that the tilt of the declaration is distinctively Calvinist. After all, the partisan politics of a democratic society, with its difficulties, illusions, and compromises, is the method by which humans have chosen to run a significant part of the world. To avoid politics, then, is to avoid a chunk of the world, as though the world itself is, as John Calvin taught, a place of depravity and temptation.
Which of course it is.
So, putting to one side any question of partisanship, the argument of the declaration was anchored deeply in the often turbulent waters of the Christian tradition. Ever since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have been trying to find ways to protect the faith from the vicissitudes of life in political culture. True, some early Protestants embraced the idea that the laws of the state should be designed according to God's Word, and many Christians, maybe most, believe it to this day, but there is a sharp and important difference between the religious person who sees himself as the shaper of the law (because he is, like other citizens of a democratic nation, able to influence the course of governance) and the religious person who sees himself as a political insider, who seeks, in the phrase immortalized by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, a seat at the big table. There is a larger difference stilla veritable gulf, trackless and inconceivably vastbetween the citizen, even the influential insider, on the one hand and, on the other, the lawgiver.
None of this means that Clinton was necessarily wrong in his public invocation of the symbols of Christian faith, or that the clergy who encouraged him were necessarily acting in a fashion inconsistent with their proper role. Such matters are, as the theologian Lewis Smedes has pointed out in explaining his refusal to sign the declaration, the imponderables of the situation. We cannot know the answers. We can think or suspect, but we cannot know. Was Clinton sincere? We cannot know. Smedes argues that none of us are ever quite pure in our repenting, even if our impurity amounts to pride "at what a splendid penitent I am." Were the clergy being used? We cannot know. Says Smedes: "It is possible to be useful to even this President without being used by him."
Yet Smedes's response does not go quite to the heart of the declarationthe nonpartisan heart. For the very fact that the answers are imponderable, that we cannot know, is part of the challenge that faces religion when it brushes too close to politics. Several years ago, I sat on a panel in Miami with a journalist who kept insisting that Pat Robertson's Christianity was a sham. I did not agreebut that is not the point of the story. The point is that she seemed to think that her claim, if true, would refute his message. Actually, it wouldn't. Her argument, like all ad hominem attacks, rested on the erroneous assumption that if you discredit the messenger you discredit the message. Yet what was striking about her charges is that the audience seemed interested. They wanted to know why she thought Robertson was a fake. He was in the same situation as Clinton, albeit from the other side of the table: He was so close to politics that people were willing to wonder.
Ronald Reagan may have made more religious references in his speeches than any other president in history. But critics immediately jumped on such interesting facts as his failure to attend church regularly, or his divorce and remarriage, which many of his evangelical supporters preached, in other contexts, was a grievous sin. Does this mean that he was not sincerely religious? Another imponderable. We simply cannot know. What we can say is that the admixture of politics and religion turned out, in Reagan's case too, to be volatile: If a politician paints himself as a religious hero, there will be plenty of observers ready to point to his feet of day.
When you touch politics, it touches you back. Politics is a dirty business at its best, and it leaves few of its participants unsullied. The religious enjoy no special immunity. On the contrarythe religious face special risks. When the transcendent language of faith is dragged down into the arena of democracy, it usually winds up battered and twisted. Repentance and forgiveness are beautiful words, deeply resonant in the world's great religious traditions, but who can say what they mean anymore, now that politicians have seized on them for partisan advantage? That far, the declaration is precisely on the mark. But little of the fault is Bill Clinton's. The fault lies in the enthusiasm that draws the religious, like a vortex, toward the center of power. People, even religious people, who have ideas they think are good want other people to think they are good ideas, too; and, in the American fashion, people, even religious people, who have ideas they think are very good will look for political support.
Why? Because the religious, like everybody else, are tempted by politics. Seduced by its efficiency. By its potential. By the good it can do. And, it must be added, by the sheer delight of being, or believing oneself to be ... at the center of things. Who wants to be a voice crying in the wilderness when we can be witnesses testifying before Congress? Who wants to be a prophet without honor in his own land when White House breakfasts are available? Who wants to store up treasures in heaven when there are elections to be won here on earth?
If history has taught us anything, it is that religions that fall too deeply in love with the art of politics lose their soulsvery fast. Look at the medieval Catholic Church, with its desperate and impossible ideal of building a "total society," in return for which it approved all manner of misconduct by emperors and princes. Look at the fundamentalist Islamic regime in Iran. Look at any nation where religious leaders, having touched the levers of power, have refused to let them go; and so have become, not religious, but political. Critics of religious involvement in politics are fond of cataloguing all the wrongs done by institutional religions holding too great a share of temporal power. But these lists and registries miss the point. The wrongs that religious regimes have done are not worse than the wrongs that secular regimes have done; they are, all through history, just about the same. The difference is that we expect more from the religious, or at least we should. At minimum, we should expect the religious not to join everybody else in the headlong rush to gather enough votes to tell everybody else what to do. Humanity needs someone to stand apart from politics, apart even from culture, to call us to righteousness without regard to political advantage.
Which is not to say that religion should stay out of our public debates over the important issues that divide us. My thesis is simply that religion, when it engages in the public life of the nation, must do so with some care.
* * *
Over the years, many scholars, journalists, and activists have tried to craft rules for the participation of the religious in politics, and nearly all the efforts have foundered on the same uneasy shoals. The arguments, almost invariably, are made from the point of view of the state. That is, the critics assume the existence of the state and ask how some religion, or all religions, fit that model. And because they begin with the state, these critics, in the end, reason in a way that cannot be persuasive to people for whom an understanding of God's Will is at the center of all questions of morality.
Many objections are offered to the raising of religious voices in our political debates. Let us begin by dismissing the clunkers. First, as we will see in chapters to come, there is nothing un-American, undemocratic, or even particularly strange about religious activism and religious language in politics. The great social movement of the nineteenth centurythe abolition of slaveryand the great social movement of the twentieththe abolition of legal racial segregationwere both nurtured in churches, publicly justified in religious language, and unapologetically inspired by the Word of God. (We too often tend to forget that many of the mass protests that gave the civil rights movement so much of its vitality were organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, run by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.)
Second, the First Amendment, and the wall of separation it supposedly erects between church and state, have no effect whatsoever on the consciences or voices of individual citizens as they seek to influence what government does in their names, and have only minimal effectand maybe noneon the words or arguments that elected officials are entitled to offer in support of the policies they approve. In other words, the fact that a supporter of a bill happens to mention God does not make the bill unconstitutional. (The separation of church and state was a favorite theme of pro-slavery politicians seeking to put a brake on abolitionism.)
Third, history does not teach us (contrary to what is frequently claimed today) that the power of religion is uniquely dangerous among human endeavors, more likely to result in oppression and injustice than secular ideologies. The ideological wars of the twentieth century have killed more people than all history's religious wars rolled together. What history really teaches us is that humans holding authority over other humans are dangerous. Religious humans have not historically exercised this power more oppressively than other humans have.
Besides, any account of the history is incomplete unless it also mentions many of the gifts that religion has bestowed upon Western-style democracy. The idea of dissent arguably originated with the prophets of Israel, who arose in an era when rulers were presumed to be godlike and thus were not susceptible to ordinary criticism. The idea of freedom, as Orlando Patterson has demonstrated, turns out to be a distinctively Christian idea in Western practice. Even the idea that concrete law, as against arbitrary will, is the proper means of directing the exercise of government power, was popularized by Christianityalbeit sometimes in unhealthy ways.
And, fourth, there is no reason (other than bias) to suppose that religionists are, by the nature of their beliefs, significantly more dogmatic than anybody else. Despite the image often seen in the media and in the academy of religion as creating a mind so securely locked that reason finds no crevice through which to slip inside, it is not clear that any of the Western religions have ever taken this form. David Hume certainly believed that faith and reason were invariably at war, but he was wrong. One may place Hume in his context and understand his concern, for he wrote his Dialogue at a time when the Reformed Church was trying, through the use of violent force, to stifle dissent. But on what foundation has contemporary culture constructed the remarkable idea that an antipathy to reason is natural to religion? It is difficult to find a persuasive argument.
In his 1998 encyclical entitled Faith and Reason, Pope John Paul II pointed out that it is relativism, not religion, that defies reason. For reason, as serious philosophers even now understand, requires a kind of faitha faith in the possibility of persuading our fellow human beings of the error of their ways, or the truth of ours. Moreover, many critics of religion write as though the historian Nathan O. Hatch's remarkable book, The Democratization of American Christianity, had never been published. Hatch demonstrates that the success of the early American republic persuaded citizens that they could think for themselves across a variety of mattersmost notably the matter of religion. Sects that were hierarchical and dogmatic in Europe surrendered most of that character upon reaching these shores. Thus the most successful sermons of the early nineteenth century featured "the Jeffersonian notion that people should shake off all servile prejudice and learn to prove things for themselves."
Those four objections are, as I said, the clunkers. Now let us consider the two serious objections to religious involvement in politicsthe objections that are the subject of this book.
The first objection I have already mentioned. I have in mind the following difficulty: When a religious community becomes too regularly involved in politics, the community loses touch with its own best self and risks losing the power, and the obligation, to engage in witness from afar, to stand outside the corridors of power and call those within to righteousness. I shall call this the Integrity Objection.
The second objection, which I shall call the Electoral Objection, is this: When a religion decides to involve itself in the partisan side of politics, in supporting one candidate or party over another, it not only runs a high risk of error; it also, inevitably, winds up softening its message, compromising doctrine to make it more palatable to a public that might remain unpersuaded by the Word unadulterated. These two objections must be taken seriously by the religious, and will be the principal subjects of the first part of this book.
This chapter opened with a discussion of the "Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics, and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency." Revisiting the declaration now, it is easy to see that the signers might have been worried about both objections. The Integrity Objection is raised by the fear that the language and symbols of faith are being misappropriated for political purposes and thus, literally, are losing their integrity. The Electoral Objection is raised by the fear that the purposes are not only political but actually partisan, as though religion has a side in the conflict. And the fact that some critics of the declaration believed the declaration itself to be subject to the same objections, only helps make the point: Religion will be at its weakest when it seemseven seems!to be about partisan political advantage rather than offering answers to the great and difficult moral questions of the day.
Both of these objections apply as strongly to conservatives as to liberals, to Republicans as to Democrats. At the present moment, there is probably more reason for conservatives than liberals to be wary, for it is the Right rather than the Left that has lately evolved influential political organizations designed to bring religious values to bear on the stirring issues of the day. (In the 1960s it was the other way around.) To participate in dialogue is one thing. Too many religious groups, however, want to influence electoral politicsa danger not to politics or democracy but to faith.
Of course, to be involved in public dialogue without becoming involved in partisan politics will require a delicate balancing act, for it is very easy to stumble. Let us turn to the next chapter to begin to understand how it might be done.
Meet the Author
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, and is the author of several acclaimed books, including Culture of Disbelief, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, Integrity, and Civility. He is a leading public intellectual who appears regularly on national television and radio, and his writings have appeared in major national magazines and newspapers. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
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