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Democracy and religion are not incompatible.

America is a nation unique in the history of the world. It is not the product of an accident or evolution. In spite of its tenuous connection to Great Britain, it is not a natural extension of an empire. America literally is, in the words of 17th-century European explorers, a "New World."

The founders were free to decide its future, and they chose, with conscious purpose, to invent a nation the like of which never had been seen. Thus, America is a nation with no kings, no royalty, and no privileged classes. It is a nation held together by a bond of common experience and a vision of uncommon greatness. America is George Washington's "common country," John Adams' "glorious morning," and Abraham Lincoln's "inestimable jewel."

It is a nation in which one becomes American not by accident of birth or ethnic heritage, but by subscribing to an idea. No one truly becomes a Frenchman merely by moving to France or a Spaniard simply by moving to Spain. Yet, America has lifted its lamp beside the golden door of entry to immigrants of all races and all countries and bids them welcome to what author Irving Howe called "the good country."

It is not blood or marriage that counts, but a vision of a society based on two fundamental beliefs. The first is that all men, created equal in the eyes of God with certain unalienable rights, are free to pursue the longings of their hearts. The second belief is that the sole purpose of government is to protect those rights.

The first Americans shared this deeply spiritual vision. Most Americans still do. That is why, in the words of a 1995 U.S. News and World Report cover story on religion in America, the U.S. is -- with the sole exception of Israel -- the most devoutly religious nation in the entire world. That is a fact borne out in experience, not just posited in magazine articles. According to public opinion surveys, 92% of Americans believe in God; 83% believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God; and 57% pray daily. Nearly 130,000,000 attend church every Sunday. That means there are more people worshipping God on Sunday morning than are watching "60 Minutes" on Sunday night.

There can be no better testimony to the faith of this nation than the reception that Pope John Paul 11 received when he visited the U.S. in 1995. Millions of Protestants and Catholics welcomed his message of spiritual renewal. Individuals of every faith and no faith at all watched and listened as this remarkable man of God called on Americans to remember that there is more to life than themselves.

The Pope's message was far from new. It was the same message delivered by the Founding Fathers. The American Revolution, which established a new nation, was not merely inspired by political or economic oppression, but was a revolution of faith, arising from a great spiritual awakening that was sweeping the world in the 18th century. It should come as little surprise. then, to find the affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that there are certain truths which are "self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." The Founding Fathers were certain that these rights are granted by God, are afforded His protection, and are not to be infringed upon by government.

George Washington, America's first president, wrote, "I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the U.S. I should be pained to believe ... that they failed to consider the omnipotence of God, who is alone able to protect them."

The nation's second president, John Adams, added, "Our Constitution was designed for a moral and religious people only. It is wholly inadequate for any other." By this, Adams did not mean that the Constitution was meant for people of any specific faith. He opposed religious tests for public office, as do I and most Americans. The point Adams made was far more profound. He meant that, to create a nation where government was small, limited, and confined to enumerated functions, one must have a virtuous citizenry animated by faith in God and moral values.

The nation's founders possessed a view of the world and government that necessarily presupposed a people obedient to an internalized code of conduct-based upon that first, and in my mind still the best, code of law found in the books of Moses -- that made a large central government superfluous. It was this view that French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about in the early 19th century: "The Americans combine the notions of [religion] and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other."

From the Quakers in Pennsylvania to the Congregationalists in New England, the Catholics in Maryland, and the Baptists in Virginia, America is a nation undergirded by faith, built by faith, and enlivened by faith. It is not a faith in word alone, but an active, transforming faith. Look around today and what you will see are the fruits of our national faith. Throughout the U.S.'s history, America's faithful millions have founded orphanages, hospitals, lending libraries, and charities. America's first public schools were founded by clergymen. Its first colleges were divinity schools.

Children learned to read by using the Bible as a textbook. McGuffey's Readers. which sold 120,000,000 copies during the 19th century, contained lessons drawn directly from Scripture. Historian David Herbert Donald points out that Abraham Lincoln, one of the most well-read presidents, had just a single year of formal schooling. On the dirt floor of a log cabin, young Lincoln learned how to read by poring over the pages of his mother's Bible. The first lesson in his first spelling book read as follows: "No man can put off the law of God."

When lexicographer Noah Webster published the first American dictionary in 1828, he used Bible verses as definitions. There was no false wall dividing private faith and public service in Webster's day. He was an author, teacher, and preacher who founded a college and served in Congress.

Lincoln and Webster understood what too many people have forgotten -- the importance of faith to the public institutions in a democratic republic. Yet, that connection today is a source of vigorous controversy. A crucial debate rages in the land over the role of religion in public life and the role that religious believers should play in politics.

The religious conservative vote, so vital to the Republican landslide in 1994, is now one of the largest, if not the largest, single voting bloc in the electorate. According to exit polls taken during the 1994 election, fully one-third of all voters were self-identified evangelical and pro-family Roman Catholics. They cast 70% of their ballots for Republicans, compared to 24% for Democrats. The pendulum swing of evangelical voters has transformed the South into a virtually one-party region again, this time favoring the Republicans. The Catholic vote went Republican in 1994 for the first time since Irish Catholics landed on these shores more than a century and a half ago. In 1996, it helped Republicans increase their majorities in the House and Senate, despite Pres. Clinton's resounding reelection.

What Americans are witnessing is nothing less than the largest mobilization of active religious believers in recent memory. If history is any guide, this mobilization is the sign of another period of great transformation in America, for political change in the U.S. always has been rooted in religious upheaval. Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel argues that the current rightward shift in American politics can be traced to a new American religious revival, a "Fourth Great Awakening." The First Great Awakening, which began in 1730, helped bring on the revolutionary movement; the second in 1800 sparked the antislavery movement; and the third in 1890 gave rise to the progressive impulse. Now, Fogel suggests, the tectonic plates of a religious culture have shifted again, with vast political consequences.

Since the mid 1960s, mainline church membership has declined by one-fourth. That, however, is not indicative of a general decline in American faith. It has been more than made up for by the skyrocketing popularity of the conservative and evangelical churches, in which membership has more than doubled. Pentecostal and fundamentalist revivals have converted millions of people. Nesting baby boomers are returning in droves to the churches and synagogues of their youth. With 15,200,000 members, the Southern Baptist convention has become the largest Protestant denomination in the world.

The result is a complete transformation of America's churchgoing population. Today, the typical American churchgoer is orthodox in faith, traditionalist in outlook, and conservative on cultural and political issues. Yet, as active religious believers move beyond the pews and into public life, a strange and disturbing hostility greets them. Instead of being welcomed into the political arena and into a culture generally acknowledged to be in crisis, they are confronted by an intolerance that frequently curdles into religious bigotry.

This bigotry is manifested in many different sellings. In a South Carolina race in 1994, a political candidate said of his opponent, "his only qualifications for office are that he handles snakes and speaks fluently in tongues." In 1995, one candidate for the presidency denounced the nation's religious conservatives as "fringe" and "extremist." In a bizarre twist, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts was denounced in 1995 not because of his stand on issues or ethical problems, but because he once had been an elder in a conservative church. The candidate was Mitt Romney. The accuser was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

It was ironic that Kennedy was making his accusations almost 35 years to the day after his brother, then-Sen. John E Kennedy, was fending off charges that his Roman Catholicism disqualified him from seeking the office of President of the United States. In a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, JFK said, "The issue in this campaign should be not what kind of church I believe in, for that should matter only to me. It should be what kind of America I believe in."

What kind of America do religious conservatives believe in? It is a nation of safe streets, strong families, schools that work, and marriages that stay together, one with a smaller government, lower taxes, and civil rights for all. Most religious conservatives do not countenance discrimination -- or special rights -- for anyone. Our faith is simple, and our agenda is direct.

For either political party to attack persons holding these views as "fanatics" "extremists," or worse violates a basic American spirit of fairness. More than that, it runs counter to all we are as a nation and all we aspire to be as a people.

For more than 200 years, the U.S. has pursued its vision, maintained a finn foundation, and achieved greatness by honoring God and welcoming people of faith into public life. However, in the 37 years since John F. Kennedy uttered his eloquent warning, we have lost our way. People of faith have become victims of the worst forms of stereotyping, marginalization, and demonology.

As Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter warns, "a culture of disbelief" threatens society. In the place of core beliefs and time-honored values, many of the elites in the academy, media, and government have promoted a different sort of value system -- one that presupposes the inability of Americans to care for themselves through a culture of compassion. This system is based not on the relevance and benevolence of God, but on the ability of government to meet every need and provide every solution.

It is not a workable system. Witness the welfare state, once measured by the height of its aspirations and now by the depth of its failures. We read about them every morning in newspapers and see them every evening on television. Social pathologies once imagined only in our darkest nightmares are a daily reality. In 1960, five percent of all children born in the U.S. were born out of wedlock. Today, that figure is 33% and rising. In the largest cities, as many as 67% of the babies are born out of wedlock.

A Carnegie Institute study details the carnage afflicting the nation's young people. One in three adolescents has used illegal drugs before the age of 13. Since 1985, the murder and suicide rates for 10- to 14-year-olds have doubled. Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett has said that what we do to our kids, they will do to society as adults. That is only partly true; many are not waiting until adulthood before turning to crime and forms of violence that once were unthinkable for children. When a television correspondent asked a group of youngsters what their greatest concern in life was, a seven-year-old African-American raised his hand and said, "Gangs." Imagine that -- a seven-year-old boy who goes to bed every night worrying about whether he will be cut down by gangs the next day.

Reaffirming the role of faith in public life

According to novelist John Updike, "The fact that we live better than our counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union cannot ease the pain that we no longer live nobly." Our culture is testimony to the awful truth of his words. If our inner cities resemble war -- torn Bosnia, our children must pass through metal detectors into schools that are armed camps, and one out of every four high school graduates can not read his or her diploma, then we will have failed ourselves, our nation, and God. We can not and must not fail. There is too much at stake.

What is the answer? We must begin by reaffirming the role of faith in public life.

First Amendment rights for religious believers. Let me be clear: I support the separation of church and state. I believe in a nation that is not officially Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. However, I also believe in the right under the First Amendment to freedom of speech, including speech with religious content.

Yet, the same Congress that begins every session with an organized prayer denies that right to students in our public schools. The same Supreme Court that issues rulings from a bench beneath an inscription of the Ten Commandments carved in granite has ruled that those commandments can not be placed on a bulletin board in a public building.

These rulings have real consequences. In 1996, a St. Louis fourth-grader, Raymond Raines, received a week-long detention for bowing his bead and praying before lunch. On at least three different occasions, school officials interrupted the student in the middle of his prayer and hauled him off to the principal's office. Finally, the school attempted to extinguish this "politically incorrect" behavior by punishing the boy with detention.

In California, students at a public high school were forbidden from handing out leaflets inviting other pupils to their Bible study group, even though California has a statute specifically allowing students to distribute petitions and literature. In another case, a fifth-grade public school teacher was told by the assistant principal that he could not have a Bible on top of his desk, read the Bible during silent reading period, and have two illustrated books of Bible stories in the classroom library of over 350 volumes. Moreover, in a scene repeated hundreds of times throughout the country every May and June, nervous administrators censor high school students and forbid all references to God and the Bible in graduation speeches.

Re-entering politics. If we are to reaffirm the role of religion in public life, we must encourage those with strong spiritual values to re-enter politics after too many years of self-imposed retreat. Religious believers must become full citizens, with a place at the table and a voice in the conversation we call democracy. Their involvement should be a source of celebration, not fear. Their participation is not a threat to democracy, but is essential to it. As they enter the political arena, people of faith should not be asked to leave their moral convictions at the door. On issues such as strengthening the family and protecting human life, they are a voice for the voiceless, a defender for the defenseless, and a protector of the innocent.

For Republicans, who have welcomed religious conservatives into their party in recent years, this is a time to decide whether to be the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan or the party of retreat and accommodation; a time to choose between reaffirming moral commitments or succumbing to the timid voices of compromise. I do not speak of a debate over taxes, the budget, or trade, but the most basic and defining issue of all -- the sanctity of innocent human life. The Republican Party will not and can not, in my view, remain the majority parry it became in 1994 by tearing from the fabric of Republicans' cherished history the heart-felt affirmation of the value of every single human being, including the aged, unfirm, and unborn.

I freely acknowledge that not all share this view or the faith that inspires it. That is one of the great privileges of a democracy. I am confident that our views will be tested and our proposals improved by vigorous and open debate. Still, what must be acknowledged is the affirming and healing role faith plays in society.

Just as we acknowledge that at times in the past religion has been twisted to evil ends -- such as when the Nazis trumpeted their horrific belief in the superiority of the Aryan race and when Muslim terrorists committed unspeakable acts against innocent civilians while invoking the name of God -- we must acknowledge the good ends and enormous blessings of religion. If we can look without prejudice at the real historical record, then together we can bridge the differences that separate us and heal our land.

Recognizing the limits of politics. As important as civic involvement is to a restoration of values, it can not legislate what only can spring from the heart and soul. Politics alone can not restore a land of loving parents, strong marriages, and lullabies sung to sleeping babies and bedtime stories read to wide-dyed children. That work is too important to be left to the government. It is done best by mothers and fathers, churches and synagogues, home and hearth.

It is my hope that, in th? days and years to come, this will be an agenda and a vision shared by all Americans. We are a people of many faiths and many races. That is the genius of America. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum, translated means, "Out of many, one." May it be so in our time.

Dr. Reed is executive director, The Christian Coalition, Chesapeake, Va. this article is based on a Hillsdale (Mich.) College Shavano Institute for National Leadership seminar.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Society for the Advancement of Education
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Author:Reed, Ralph
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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