The Tuesday debate between Senators McCain and Obama was, it must be admitted, something of a bore. If the outcome is called a draw, it is hard to resist the conclusion that it was a win for Obama. It seems that all he has to do for the next few weeks is to keep his cool and not frighten the electorate. There is much that should be frightening about the prospect of an Obama presidency, but McCain seems unwilling to press the point.

Fred Barnes over at the Weekly Standard is right in saying that the so-called town meeting format is a fraud. One wonders why McCain claims to be so enthusiastic about it. Tom Brokaw was true to form as an East Coast and very mainstream media type. The questions he chose, and they were all of his choosing, predictably precluded the social, cultural, and moral issues¯abortion, same-sex marriage, the judicial usurpation of politics¯that have real traction with McCain’s base. Not that McCain seems to understand his base, or else he could easily have moved the discussion in those directions.

All the particulars implied in the familiar, and true, assertion that Obama is an extreme liberal are legitimate, and urgent, subjects of debate, raising serious questions about his fitness to be president. But there the crusty pol and the personable young professor recently raised to political prominence were, going on and on about the minutiae of which health care plan will give more money and choice to the middle class and who voted for what and when in the fetid world of senatorial maneuverings. If the election comes down to a personality contest, and for many voters that is what it is, Obama walks away with it.

Ah well, as Charlie Brown says at the end of the baseball season, “Lose a few, lose a few.” And maybe some unexpected world event, or McCain’s deciding to press the question “Who is Barack Obama?”, will still turn this around. Be that as it may, this is an occasion to reflect on bigger questions more worthy of debate, although not likely to be debated, by presidential candidates. Which brings me to final thoughts on the last few Friday reflections on the first freedom of the First Amendment.

To contend for the free exercise of religion is to contend for the perpetuation of a nation that is, in Lincoln’s words, “so conceived and so dedicated.” It is to contend for the hope “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Despite the perverse jurisprudence of recent decades, most Americans still say with the Founders, “We hold these truths.” And, with the Founders, they understand those truths to be inseparably tied to religion, both in their origin and in their continuing power to elicit assent.

This is not to say that the founding truths cannot be supported for reasons unrelated to identifiably religious warrants. They can be. But in their origins and continuing power to elicit popular adherence, they are inseparable from religion. Remove that foundation and we remove the deepest obligation binding the American people to this constitutional order.

The words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, under God , were added to the Pledge of Allegiance only in 1954, but, as recent debates over removing those words have made clear, for most Americans they are inseparably connected in their understanding of this constitutional order. There are those who make no secret of their wish that the American people were not as religious as they are.

One is reminded of the observation of the playwright Berthold Brecht. After the June 1953 uprising in East Germany, the secretary of the communist party’s writers union distributed leaflets declaring that the people had lost the confidence of the government and it would take redoubled efforts to win it back¯to which Brecht responded, “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?” Church-state decisions by the Supreme Court, and by the judiciary more generally, sometimes seem to be aimed at replacing this inconveniently religious people with another people more to its secular fancy.

The free exercise of religion can be inconvenient, and sometimes more than inconvenient. Sometimes¯reluctantly, and in cases of supreme and overriding public necessity¯the claim to free exercise protection for certain actions must be denied. Where such lines should be drawn is a matter of both constitutional law and democratic deliberation. It is sometimes simply a matter of prudence, civility, and common sense that does not require the invocation of high constitutional doctrine. In this age and this country, as Lincoln might say, the limits on the free exercise of religion must themselves be legitimated to the satisfaction of those who care, and care deeply, about religion.

We have in this last half century drifted far from the constituting vision of this novus ordo seclorum . The free exercise of religion is the irreplaceable cornerstone of that order. In his famed Memorial and Remonstrance , James Madison wrote: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to Him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” The last line bears repeating: This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. That is the truth that the Religion Clause is intended to protect from the overweening ambitions of the modern state. The great problem today is not the threat that religion poses to public life, but the threat that the state, presuming to embody public life in its entirety, poses to religion. The entire order of freedom, including all the other freedoms specified in the Bill of Rights, is premised upon what Madison calls the precedent duty that is signaled and sustained by religion. When the American people can no longer publicly express and give public effect to their obligations to the Creator, it is to be feared that they will no longer acknowledge their obligations to one another¯nor to the Constitution in which the obligations of freedom are enshrined.

The word enshrined is used advisedly. Those who belong to what St. Augustine called the City of God on its pilgrim way through time are careful not to sacralize any temporal order short of their destination in the New Jerusalem. Along the way, however, as the prophet Jeremiah counseled the Israelites in Babylonian exile, we seek the peace of the temporal city in which we find also our provisional peace. This is a theme central to my forthcoming book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile.

In this penultimate world of temporal orders, the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom touches upon the sacred. Upon its vigorous defense rests the hope of novus ordo seclorum ¯the hope that this experiment in representative democracy may be a new order for the ages. Or at least a new order for whatever time remains between now and Our Lord’s return in glory.

Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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