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Stick to Tradition 

by William Stimson

Being Catholic, I am accustomed to the idea of government guided by Christian values. Catholics organized the very first Christian Coalition. Four hundred years ago, the kings of Austria, France, England and Spain were men of faith, and by that I mean the Roman Catholic faith. It worked fine as far as we were concerned, except for Martin Luther and the Thirty Years War. If Catholics had their way, there wouldn't be any question today about involvement of evangelicals in government. There wouldn't be any evangelicals.

Why should anyone worry about the rise of something so benignly named the "Christian right?" Because "Christian" is a matter of personal faith and ethics, and "right" is a political declaration. Nothing in history is clearer than that trying to combine these two is asking for trouble.

The history of governments devoted to following the will of God is one of hangings, burnings-at-the-stake, wars on infidels, bloody crusades, separatist movements, plots and assassinations. When faith informs individuals, it tends to make them more thoughtful, more generous and more respectful of life. When faith informs governments, you get the Taliban.

Government is not easy in any circumstance. But at least when it imposes its will on the mundane matters of life, such as civic improvements and the taxes to pay for them, there is a basis for rational argument -- and anyway, win or lose, the stakes are at least limited to this life. When government imposes its will based on "moral values," the very nature of the questions means those who don't agree can't debate and can't compromise. So they fight.

If it were possible to make faith the center of civil administration, it should have happened in the United States. The Puritans landed here imbued with faith and unbothered by any other traditions. Puritan leader John Winthrop, as dedicated and devout as a human is likely to get, appointed a leadership group of those he felt exhibited "Godly behavior" and instructed the others "you will quietly and fearfully submit under that authority."

The other Puritans quickly decided that Winthrop had mistaken "Godly behavior" for loyalty to himself, and they rebelled. To handle the rebellion, Winthrop was forced to become a tyrant. He put people in stocks and exiled others to Rhode Island. For not accepting the leadership of God's spokesman, a Mr. Philip Radcliffe was whipped and had his ears cut off.

Ironically, among Winthrop's thorns was a sect called the "Antinomians," who claimed they heard the word of God so clearly they didn't have to listen to Winthrop or anyone else. Winthrop was reduced to arguing that, while he understood Divine Will, it was crazy to assume others did. Even the Puritans concluded that those who claim to speak to God bear watching.

If the Puritans -- that most sincere and unified of sects -- was unable to make faith-based government work, how could anyone else hope to do so? This lesson has played an enormous role in forming American political thought. Though the United States has always been an overwhelmingly religious country, government and religion have progressively separated.

A role for religion in government was not even a possibility by the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Faced with a nation made up of true-believing Puritans in Massachusetts, misfit Catholics in Maryland, gentle Quakers in Pennsylvania, old-faith Episcopalians in Virginia -- not to mention enthusiastic evangelicals everywhere -- the writers of the Constitution set up a government that cut individuals free to take care of their own souls. The work of government was limited to setting a stage in which that would be possible.

It worked. No nation in the world has more religions and less religious strife than the United States. The last time religion was even an issue in presidential politics was in the election of 1960. Because the Catholic Church had a certain notoriety for involvement in government, Protestant ministers demanded reassurance from Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy that he understood the rules of American political society.

Kennedy appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the campaign and declared that he believed that when religion is injected into political decision-making, "the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart."

"I believe in an America," he told the Protestant ministers, "where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

Apparently the mood has changed since then. After the Democrats lost the last presidential election, Democratic campaign strategist James Carville argued that next time the Democrats should be more overt about their religious beliefs. He said a faith-based campaign like that of the Republicans would give Democrats a better chance of winning political office.

Maybe, but do we really want to go down that path again?

William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University.

Publication date: 11/18/04

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