Commentary Magazine


Topic: religion

Religious Bias and the Washington Post

Here we go again.

The Washington Post–which years ago published a story referring to followers of the Christian right as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command”–yesterday published a front-page story titled, “High court with vocally devout justices set to hear religious objections to health-care law.”

Get it? The story, written by the Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes, is meant to focus attention on–and raise our concerns about–whether justices with deep (and vocal) religious faith can rule fairly on a religious liberties case. (Two cases, including Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., will be argued before the Supreme Court today. Hobby Lobby is a chain of arts and crafts stores owned by David and Barbara Green, business owners who are evangelical Christians and seeking a religious exemption from parts of Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.)

We’re told, for example, that “Justice Clarence Thomas is a former seminarian who says God saved his life.” Alarming, yes, but that’s not the worst of it:

Justice Antonin Scalia is the most outspoken. He has urged fellow intellectuals to be “fools for Christ” and used an interview last fall to underscore his belief in the existence of the Devil, whose latest maneuver, he said, “is getting people not to believe in him or in God.”

Mr. Barnes later devotes two more paragraphs to the interview Scalia did with New York magazine in which he spoke about his belief that the Devil exists. Apparently some members of the elite media find this a stunning admission. (Those of us who love The Screwtape Letters do not.) 

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Here we go again.

The Washington Post–which years ago published a story referring to followers of the Christian right as “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command”–yesterday published a front-page story titled, “High court with vocally devout justices set to hear religious objections to health-care law.”

Get it? The story, written by the Post’s Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes, is meant to focus attention on–and raise our concerns about–whether justices with deep (and vocal) religious faith can rule fairly on a religious liberties case. (Two cases, including Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., will be argued before the Supreme Court today. Hobby Lobby is a chain of arts and crafts stores owned by David and Barbara Green, business owners who are evangelical Christians and seeking a religious exemption from parts of Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.)

We’re told, for example, that “Justice Clarence Thomas is a former seminarian who says God saved his life.” Alarming, yes, but that’s not the worst of it:

Justice Antonin Scalia is the most outspoken. He has urged fellow intellectuals to be “fools for Christ” and used an interview last fall to underscore his belief in the existence of the Devil, whose latest maneuver, he said, “is getting people not to believe in him or in God.”

Mr. Barnes later devotes two more paragraphs to the interview Scalia did with New York magazine in which he spoke about his belief that the Devil exists. Apparently some members of the elite media find this a stunning admission. (Those of us who love The Screwtape Letters do not.) 

On the matter of Scalia’s use of the phrase “fools for Christ,” let me offer some context. When Scalia said what he did in 2010, he was speaking to members of the St. Thomas More Society of Maryland. Justice Scalia was honored with the Society’s “Man for All Seasons Award,” given to members of the legal profession who embody the ideals of St. Thomas More.

Here’s how Catholic Review reported on the event:

Scalia outlined a long list of Christian beliefs that he said are greeted with derision by the worldly – dogmas including Christ’s divinity, the Virgin birth and Christ’s resurrection.

“Surely those who adhere to all or most of these traditional Christian beliefs are regarded in the educated circles that you and I travel in as, well, simple-minded,” Scalia asserted.

The Catholic justice cited a story in the Washington Post that described Christian fundamentalists as “poorly educated and easily led.”

“The same attitude applies, of course, to traditional Catholics,” Scalia said, “who do such positively peasant-like things as saying the rosary, kneeling in adoration before the Eucharist, going on pilgrimages to Lourdes or Medjugorje and – worst of all – following indiscriminately, rather than in smorgasbord fashion, the teachings of the pope.”

Scalia said believers should embrace the ridicule of the world.

“As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,” he said, “we are fools for Christ’s sake.”

Scalia noted that Christ described his followers as sheep and said no one will get into heaven without behaving like “little children.” Scalia warned, however, that reason and intellect must not be laid aside where matters of religion are concerned.

“Assuredly, a faith that has no rational basis is a false faith,” Scalia said.

The actual account leaves a different and more textured impression than the Post account, no? And did you notice something? Mr. Barnes didn’t report fully on what Scalia said, which is this: “As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we are fools for Christ’s sake.” (Emphasis added.)

Most people would agree that there’s quite a difference between saying, “[Scalia] urged fellow intellectuals to be ‘fools for Christ’” and saying, “Scalia, in a speech in which he was honored by the St. Thomas More Society of Maryland, quoted the Apostle Paul in urging his fellow Catholics to be ‘fools for Christ.’”

It is a phrase most committed Christians would immediately recognize, and they would understand what it means: People who take their faith seriously will be viewed by those in the world who don’t share that faith as benighted, unenlightened, zealous, perhaps even something of a threat. Remarkably, St. Paul offered these thoughts even before he could cite the Washington Post’s coverage of Christians in public life as evidence for his claim.

Judge for yourselves, but it strikes me that the point of the story is fairly obvious: A devout person of faith is automatically suspect when it comes to judging on religious liberty matters. As a friend of mine put it to me, it’s “setting the stage for the argument that all but atheist progressives should recuse themselves from considering the legitimacy of the latest bold advance of atheist progressivism.” (We know how these things work. Liberals on MSNBC, having heard the secular dog whistle, are already raising doubts of whether “the court that will decide [the religious liberty cases] includes six Catholic justices, some of whom have not been shy about asserting their religion.”)

It would of course be offensive if the Post had (hypothetically) run a front-page article raising questions about whether a black justice could fairly rule on Brown v. Board of Education or if a Jewish justice could fairly rule on National Socialist Party v. Skokie. Does one’s sexual orientation–gay or straight–compromise one’s ruling on cases like Lawrence v. Texas? Would it be fair to raise doubts about the objectivity of non-Christian justices if they rule against the Greens in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby? Exactly where does this identity politics begin and end?

Let me make one final observation. Everyone is motivated by a philosophical view of the world. It may be informed by religious faith or not. It may be Catholic or evangelical–or materialism or pragmatism. It may be based on the teachings of Jesus–or Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s theory of utilitarianism, Nietzsche’s Will to Power, or Derrida’s deconstructionism. One’s view may be shaped by Maimonides, Aristotle, John Rawls, or Richard Dawkins. It may be a very odd combination of all of the above. Or none of the above.

My point is we all have certain views about the human person and about human dignity–if the latter exists and if so, what it is based on. We all bring certain assumptions and precepts, some well formulated and others not, on how we interpret the world around us. Yet for people of a certain cast of mind, the only time this matter becomes controversial is when the worldview is Christian–particularly orthodox and traditionally Christian. (Many journalists tend to be less troubled by people of religious faith if their faith leads them to a liberal outcome. This explains why Jerry Falwell was treated much more harshly than Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, even though they are different sides of the same coin.)

When four years ago Justice Scalia said, “Surely those who adhere to all or most of these traditional Christian beliefs are regarded in the educated circles that you and I travel in as, well, simple-minded,” he knew of what he spoke. See the story by Robert Barnes, supra.  

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Sam Harris Won’t Change His Mind. But Neither Will Most of the Rest of Us.

Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

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Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

“People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe,” he writes. “Nobody has yet found a way to ‘debias’ people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated.” Haidt says that his own area of research, moral judgment, makes it clear that “people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later.” David Hume was right when he said that reason was “the slave of the passions” rather than its charioteer.

Haidt observes, too, that “disconfirmation”–being open to having one’s views challenged, learning from this experience, and as a result improving one’s reasoning–depends in part on social relationships. “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he writes. “Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”

This doesn’t mean reason doesn’t have a vital role to play or that some individuals aren’t capable of more self-detachment than others. And in terms of Harris’s atheism, Haidt would agree with me, I think, that his arguments about morality, science, and faith still need to be confronted even if Harris harbors great antipathy for religion which skews his judgments.

That said, the core argument made by Haidt is an important one. Assume you believe, as I do, that grounding our views in moral intuitions and what Burke referred to (in an uncritical way) as “prejudice” is entirely legitimate. It’s still the case for many of us that in all sorts of areas–including religion, politics, and philosophy–we subordinate intellectual honesty in order to ratify our pre-existing opinions. We’ve settled on what we believe is the right and true answer; everything after that consists of confirming what we believe.

We all engage in this to some extent; it’s a matter of degree, of whether we’re able to absorb, let alone dispassionately examine, evidence that challenges our presuppositions. That’s true of Sam Harris–and it’s true of me. He has his biases and predilections, I have mine, and you have yours. The question, really, is whether we recognize them and what we do with them. Are they instruments or obstacles to ascertaining the reality of things? 

It’s fair to say, I think, that one of the gifts we sometimes receive in life is to have people who have standing in our lives alert us to our blind spots–and, in the process, gently remind us that searching for truth requires us from time to time to reexamine and refine our assumptions. If you think it’s easy or common, just ask yourself the last time you did it. 

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Why We Separate Church and State

The struggle to explain the motivations of statecraft through history often gets mired in the difficulty of differentiating between economic self-interest and cultural prime movers. As with the kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s comments about Palestinian culture last year, the debate can easily devolve into a chicken-or-egg spiral: even if you believe institutions matter more than culture, isn’t culture a determining factor in when and where those institutions get built in the first place?

Because journalists and academics so often dismiss religion–a dominant feature of cultural identity–as superstitious nonsense, their efforts to endow religion with a rationality they can relate to often comes across as well meaning but ultimately condescending. That is the case with a working paper from two economists at the University of Connecticut, which Slate’s Joshua Keating called attention to yesterday. The Connecticut economists set out to demonstrate why theocracies emerge, and have settled on a theory:

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The struggle to explain the motivations of statecraft through history often gets mired in the difficulty of differentiating between economic self-interest and cultural prime movers. As with the kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s comments about Palestinian culture last year, the debate can easily devolve into a chicken-or-egg spiral: even if you believe institutions matter more than culture, isn’t culture a determining factor in when and where those institutions get built in the first place?

Because journalists and academics so often dismiss religion–a dominant feature of cultural identity–as superstitious nonsense, their efforts to endow religion with a rationality they can relate to often comes across as well meaning but ultimately condescending. That is the case with a working paper from two economists at the University of Connecticut, which Slate’s Joshua Keating called attention to yesterday. The Connecticut economists set out to demonstrate why theocracies emerge, and have settled on a theory:

Specifically, we have conjectured that theocracy is more likely to emerge, all else equal, as the religion market becomes more monopolized, as religion becomes more monotheistic, and as the ruler becomes weaker.

This is a logical thesis, but the authors are motivated by a desire to use hypotheses that are statistically verifiable, so they get stuck in a correlation-versus-causation sand trap. For example, one of the major propositions of the paper is that “A monopolistic religion market is more conducive to theocracy than is a competitive religion market.” This makes logical sense, but the authors are interested in economic factors, so in testing the proposition, they write the following (q represents a “religious good”):

We now turn to the case of theocracy, which we define to mean a merged church and state. As noted, we do not distinguish here between a state that takes over the church and a church that takes over the state, focusing instead on the behavior of the merged entity once it is under the control of a single decision-maker, whom we shall refer to as a “theocrat.” We will argue that there are two possible benefits from such a merger. The first, implied by the preceding discussion of the pacifying function of religion, is that the theocrat can now choose the level of q to serve its own ends. Specifically, it can choose q to maximize net taxes rather than church profits or consumer welfare. Second, we assume that the religious leaders, now allied with the state, can possibly confer legitimacy on the theocrat and thereby lower the cost of collecting taxes.

Now, it’s certainly true that corruption of the religious authority is one danger of the merger of church and state. But that doesn’t mean that financial success should be equated with true organizational and political power. The great innovation of the American project was that religion would be advanced, not weakened, by decentralizing its power. As Alan Ryan writes in On Politics:

The Americans had contrived a surprising device for making religion a powerful social force. They had written the complete separation of church and state into the Constitution. Unlike ancien regime France, America had no alliance of wealthy and useless clergy with wealthy and useless aristocrats. Whatever reasons Americans might have for disliking their government could not turn into anti-clericalism; conversely, if they were disaffected from whatever church they belonged to, they could move to another or set one up from scratch. The pre-Revolutionary French union of church and state implicated each in the unpopularity of the other.

What protected and nurtured the power of the church was that it was not aligned with the state. It’s true that the competitive market meant there were also various options within (and beyond) Christianity in America, but as we see from the thoughts of the founders, more important than variety was independence.

This causation/correlation issue surfaces elsewhere in the paper. Another main proposition of the authors is that “When the church is independent of the state, the ruler prefers a competitive rather than a monopolistic religion market.” Again the authors pitch this as based on “net tax revenue,” asserting that the state benefits financially from the church’s existence even if the two are independent. A competitive religion market, therefore, produces more revenue for the state.

But surely there is a more relevant explanation for this proposition. A ruler might suppose that a competitive religion market produces no religious leader that speaks for the majority of citizens. He might therefore want competition among the churches so he faces less competition from the churches. Indeed, the modern secular project seeks the steady expansion of the reach of the federal government into the lives of the citizenry. At a certain point, the government becomes far too intrusive for some groups, but only risks political defeat if those groups are large enough to exert electoral pressure on the party in power.

The Obama administration’s birth control mandate was a perfect example. The left believes it is the government’s place to force the public to pay for everyone else’s contraception. This violates Catholic doctrine, and Catholics protested. The president, however, could not possibly have cared less that Catholics were having their religious liberty infringed upon by his signature legislative achievement, and ignored their concerns. There are about 75 million Catholics in America, and they made up about a quarter of the 2012 electorate. Could the president have dismissed their rights so easily if they had a religious monopoly and they made up 100 percent of the 2012 electorate?

Thus does it become clear that a “ruler” (that is the term the Connecticut economists use, though it feels a bit heavyhanded in the context of an American president or other democratic head of state or government) desires to either coopt religious authority or see it frayed by internal divisions not because of tax revenue but because of governing power. For what happens when religious leaders unite against the “ruler?” That is a question that was answered in large part by this nation’s very founding. As Andrew Preston writes in Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith:

Unlike any other cohort or profession in society–certainly not the bulk of the Patriot leadership–the clergy could command a vast, captive audience on a weekly basis (and sometimes more often). While the Patriot leaders drew on support from the cities and the aristocratic rural gentry, the clergy’s audience cut across almost all forms of identity: the backcountry as well as the coast, villages and farms as well as cities, poor as well as rich. Even though some churches remained silent–most notably the Lutherans of backcountry Pennsylvania–in general, support for the Patriots drew on nearly all Protestant denominations, too, including among Anglicans.

The separation of church and state, and certainly the lack of an actual theocracy, is an indispensable component of modern political liberty. (After all, when many of the colonists protested against the crown’s arbitrary power they had in mind the Church of England.) This is done primarily through monotheistic faiths and to weaken the “ruler”–two of the conditions suitable for the establishment of a theocracy according to the Connecticut economists, but which instead now act to prevent such a concentration of political power.

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Whose Morality?

In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

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In this interview with Relevant magazine the journalist Peter Hitchens, a Christian, was asked what he says to people who would say–as a good many people do these days–“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?” To which Hitchens responded:

I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a god. They know that if there is a god then that god must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.

Mr. Hitchens is quite right. For some time now one of the most powerful currents of thought in the West is the belief that morality is subjective, that ethical norms are human inventions, and that it’s up to each individual to determine which standards we’ll live by.

But as C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, while some of what we learn is mere convention (like whether we drive on the left or right side of the road), much of what we learn is (like mathematics) based on real truths. “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality,” Lewis wrote, “or Christian morality to Nazi morality.”

Over the years I’ve asked acquaintances of mine (including Peter’s late brother, Christopher) the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. How does one make the case against injustice if you begin with two propositions: the universe was created by chance and it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? And just what is the response to someone who says, “Your belief is fine for you but it’s irrelevant to me. God is dead and I choose to follow my own path. It happens to include gulags and gas chambers. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can base your claim.”

It’s never been clear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and His transcendent truth. 

To his credit, this question troubled even Friedrich Nietzsche (though it doesn’t seem to much trouble the so-called New Atheists). Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, has written, “From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.”

One final observation on all this: The reason Real Morality exists isn’t based on divine censoriousness, arbitrary and capricious, whose intention is to stamp out pleasure wherever it is found. It’s to create moral norms that are based on the design of human nature. The purpose is to advance human flourishing–for us as individuals to lead more fulfilled lives and to repair the brokenness that exists in all of our lives. In the debate about moral truth this fact is too often overlooked.

It probably doesn’t help that over the years some of those who have been vocal advocates for Real Morality are less winsome than they are “wound tight with anger,” in the words of the author Philip Yancey. Nonetheless the moral law within us, like the starry sky above us, exists; and its Author, who created us, cannot be wished out of existence by any of us.

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Church, State, and the Role of the Family

Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

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Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith….

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Correlation does have some explanatory power, but there is more to this story to buttress the case for the connection between faith and the family. One missing ingredient here is politics, because as the West “lost God,” it didn’t really lose religion–it simply substituted political religions for its Judeo-Christian past. Shaw and Eberstadt mention rationalism, the Enlightenment, and late 18th-century France as an early example–and it’s a good one.

The French Revolution was not a case of politics triumphing over religion. It was a case of a messianic political religion triumphing over the church. The language and symbolism of the Revolution were soaked in the concept of regeneration and rebirth. Religion had been so central to life in 18th-century Europe that it had to be appropriated by the church’s enemies because of its idealistic and aspirational language. As Michael Burleigh notes in Earthly Powers:

The attempted fusion of Church and Revolution through the Constitutional Church had been a divisive failure. So why not elevate the Revolution itself into the religion? After all, it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity.

Because the French Revolution ushered in the new (and persistent) age of messianic politics, the state became a rival to the church–and later to organized religion in general in the West. This is one reason the value of the separation of church and state became truly realized with regard to protecting the former from the latter. It’s what Roger Williams meant when in the 17th century he said “when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the World, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe … and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.”

A century later, as William M. Wiecek noted, the divide became stark:

For the antinomian divine, God’s garden (the church) had to be protected against the profane incursions of the ungodly (the wilderness). For the Enlightenment rationalist, on the other hand, the state had to be protected from the church, lest power-avaricious clergy corrupt the secular order.

Returning to the family, we see not only its role in incubating religious practice and tradition in each new generation but also the political outlooks that may logically result from it. Studies have suggested, for example, that conservatives in America have larger families than liberals, and that conservative church attendance is double that of liberals. Might there be a reverse connection along the lines Eberstadt argues in this separate context? Might conservatives be more religious because they have more children? It would certainly not be the only reason, of course, but perhaps an underestimated contributing factor.

While we’re at it, might having children encourage a more politically conservative outlook? Having families certainly affects a person’s interaction with the state, not just on basic issues of taxes and services but of voluntary economic organization. In his review of Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune, Benjamin Friedman notes the age-old existence of risk-sharing within families. In a footnote, he adds: “Risk-sharing within families continues to be important. According to some estimates, even small families can internally insure against nearly three-quarters of the income risk associated with individual family members’ uncertain length of life.”

This is not to claim that having more children means less dependence on the state, in the aggregate or otherwise. But it may affect the kind of dependence on the state, and the mere existence of the opportunity for risk-sharing encourages a ubiquitous reminder of the state’s proper role in human affairs and its lack of monopoly on fulfilling the needs of its citizens. This is not the separation of church and state, but rather the separation of state and individual. I’m not suggesting the purpose of having a family is for economic abstractions like risk-sharing. Only that Eberstadt is surely on to something when she offers renewed credit to the family’s impact on society at large.

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Mike Huckabee and the Mind of God

Shortly before the election, former Governor Mike Huckabee narrated an ad urging Americans to vote according to conservative biblical principles.

“Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity,” he says in a Value Voters USA ad. “Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?” Governor Huckabee goes on to pinpoint the issues that will be recorded in eternity.

“Many issues are at stake, but some issues are not negotiable,” Huckabee says. “The right to life from conception to natural death. Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined. It is an egregious violation of our cherished principle of religious liberty for the government to force the church to buy the kind of insurance that leads to the taking of innocent human life.”

This ad sparked some lively discussion, including in this interview with Jon Stewart.

Now I’m quite sympathetic to those who believe religious faith has a place in the public square. But I find the ad Governor Huckabee appeared in to be problematic, perhaps because I tend to be wary of those who claim we know which votes will have eternal significance and, in the process, can provide us with the hierarchy of God’s concerns.

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Shortly before the election, former Governor Mike Huckabee narrated an ad urging Americans to vote according to conservative biblical principles.

“Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity,” he says in a Value Voters USA ad. “Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?” Governor Huckabee goes on to pinpoint the issues that will be recorded in eternity.

“Many issues are at stake, but some issues are not negotiable,” Huckabee says. “The right to life from conception to natural death. Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined. It is an egregious violation of our cherished principle of religious liberty for the government to force the church to buy the kind of insurance that leads to the taking of innocent human life.”

This ad sparked some lively discussion, including in this interview with Jon Stewart.

Now I’m quite sympathetic to those who believe religious faith has a place in the public square. But I find the ad Governor Huckabee appeared in to be problematic, perhaps because I tend to be wary of those who claim we know which votes will have eternal significance and, in the process, can provide us with the hierarchy of God’s concerns.

It’s not at all clear to me, for example, that a vote against the same-sex marriage initiative in Maryland has more eternal significance that our policies on genocide, world hunger, sexual trafficking, slavery, religious persecution in Islamic and Communist nations, and malaria and global AIDS. A study at the University of British Columbia found that George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years. Might that have more eternal significance than knocking on doors for Todd Akin? 

My point isn’t that Mike Huckabee’s troika of issues aren’t important; it’s that I don’t have confidence that we know the mind of God well enough to declare which legislative votes or particular initiatives matter most to Him.

Nor am I saying that people of faith shouldn’t focus on different issues, given their particular interests, expertise, and calling. That is one thing, and often a good thing; but it’s quite another running an ad announcing with precision the three issues that will be recorded in eternity. Doing so places one right in the thicket of what a “faithful” and “unfaithful” Christian should believe in politics. It begins to move us down the path of a “Christian scorecard,” which I think is a bad idea, and implies that you can’t be a faithful Christian and be a progressive, which is absurd and self-refuting.  

Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t argue for our positions based on what we understand to be biblical principles. But there should be some humility when we do so, and some sense that while justice is a very serious matter, our prudential judgments on the application of justice tend to be imperfect and clouded by our bias and political predispositions. That is, for a complicated set of reasons, we’re drawn to some issues more than others — and those of us who are people of faith tend to build a theological case around the issues we’re instinctively drawn to rather than allow the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to shape our deepest concerns and commitments.

When people of faith engage in politics, then, it requires them to walk a tightrope. There are responsibilities and temptations, which is why it’s important to act with a special measure of care and thoughtfulness. In this instance, in my judgment, Governor Huckabee fell short. 

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Romney’s Faith is an Asset, Not a Problem

Heading into this year’s Republican primaries, it was an open question as to whether Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith would be a hindrance to his presidential hopes, as it may have been four years earlier. Evangelical resistance to voting for a Mormon was exploited by Mike Huckabee in 2008. Last October, when a pastor affiliated with Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke up about Mormons being part of a cult and said it was acceptable for voters to reject a candidate because of his faith, it was reasonable to wonder whether religious prejudice might play a role in this election too. But this time the attacks on Mormonism didn’t work and tonight Romney will be in the spotlight as he accepts his party’s nomination.

Just how much Romney will talk about his faith in the speech is a subject for speculation. But rather than shy away from it, tonight’s convention program will talk about the subject openly. Given that faith has always been central to him, that’s appropriate. But it’s also good politics. Though Democrats have at times spoken as if they could profit from a campaign aimed at portraying Romney as “weird” — coded language that could only be a reference to the uber-conventional Republican’s faith — the more the public understands about the candidate’s religiosity, charitable giving and belief in helping others, it can only help him.

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Heading into this year’s Republican primaries, it was an open question as to whether Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith would be a hindrance to his presidential hopes, as it may have been four years earlier. Evangelical resistance to voting for a Mormon was exploited by Mike Huckabee in 2008. Last October, when a pastor affiliated with Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke up about Mormons being part of a cult and said it was acceptable for voters to reject a candidate because of his faith, it was reasonable to wonder whether religious prejudice might play a role in this election too. But this time the attacks on Mormonism didn’t work and tonight Romney will be in the spotlight as he accepts his party’s nomination.

Just how much Romney will talk about his faith in the speech is a subject for speculation. But rather than shy away from it, tonight’s convention program will talk about the subject openly. Given that faith has always been central to him, that’s appropriate. But it’s also good politics. Though Democrats have at times spoken as if they could profit from a campaign aimed at portraying Romney as “weird” — coded language that could only be a reference to the uber-conventional Republican’s faith — the more the public understands about the candidate’s religiosity, charitable giving and belief in helping others, it can only help him.

Too many political pundits make the mistake of forgetting how religious Americans are as a people. It’s true that there are fewer Mormons than Jews in this country, but most voters have a deep respect for faith. That’s a lesson Democrats should have learned in 2000 when Joe Lieberman’s observance of Judaism proved to be an asset in terms of building respect for both him and Al Gore’s ticket.

Talking about Romney’s faith is important because it illustrates that the Obama campaign’s caricature of him as a heartless plutocrat bears little resemblance to the person running for president. As much as Ann Romney’s impressive speech about her husband helped fill in some of the blanks in his profile for most viewers, they also need to hear more about the way religion shaped the choices he made and the way he has always conducted himself.

Democratic opposition researchers wasted a lot of time this year trying to dig up non-existent dirt about Romney. The best they could do was a half-baked story about a high school prank. The connection between Romney’s dedication to his faith and the lack of success that such fishing expeditions experienced is obvious.

It is true that bias against Mormons is still a potent factor in American life and may exceed even anti-Semitism in terms of its influence. Though the bias that created pogroms in the early years of the faith and even a shooting war between Mormons and the United States in the 1950s is not a subject most voters know about, the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a cult is far from dead.

Nevertheless, Democrats ought not to be happy about more discussion of Romney’s faith. The more Republicans talk about it, the better their chances of convincing the public that he is the sort of person who can be trusted with the nation’s affairs and, of ultimately prevailing in the election, will be.

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