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Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s
Faith-Based Future

By John J. DiIulio Jr.

University of California Press, 329 pages, $24.95

It is, as a general rule, wise to be skeptical of those who describe themselves as political centrists. People who claim to be nonideological moderates are in fact in most cases liberals (however tepid) who for one reason or another are reluctant to announce that fact to themselves or to the world. Occasional reservations about the liberal creed do not place one above party or beyond ideology.

But general rules have exceptions, and in John J. DiIulio Jr. we have a self-proclaimed man of the center whose good faith we have no reason to doubt and who cannot plausibly be accused of self-delusion. Nor does his centrism indicate political or intellectual timidity. He is a man of strong views whose middle-of-the-road conclusions are the sum of his arguments rather than the reflection of a bland personality.

DiIulio’s background suggests some of the crosscurrents involved in his political formation. Brought up in a working-class family in Philadelphia, he was not only the first in his family to go to college, he also went on to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard and gain tenure at Princeton before assuming his current position as professor of politics, religion, and civil society at the University of Pennsylvania.

He is a devout Catholic whose politics are informed by the tradition of Catholic social thought. At the same time, he has close ties to Protestant evangelicals”working with his good friend Charles Colson in Prison Fellowship Ministries and referring to himself as “the country’s only self-described ‘born-again Roman Catholic.’” He is a registered Democrat who thinks of himself as “highly conservative on some issues and quite liberal on others” and who served the George W. Bush administration as its first director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

It was DiIulio’s service in the White House that brought him to public attention, and Godly Republic is in part a reflection on what happened to him there. But the book is only partly a political memoir. It is also a scholar’s take on the place of religion in American public life and an advocate’s proposal for how religious institutions can most effectively participate in providing social ­services to the nation’s communities.

DiIulio’s experience in government could lead one to conclude that a centrist’s life in politics is not a happy one, at least when it takes place at the intersection of religion and public affairs. An inveterate ­optimist, DiIulio does not himself portray matters that way, but dispassionate readers will not be encouraged to believe that religion and ­politics can be other than the ­troubled and uneasy partners they have been through most of American history.

In his brief tenure in the White House beginning in January 2001”he lasted two months longer than the original six he had planned on”he found himself beleaguered on both the left and the right. By his own account, he had little success in advancing the program of government-supported religious community activism he undertook at President Bush’s urging, and he offers no persuasive grounds for supposing things will improve in the foreseeable future.

Temperament aside, DiIulio bases his own relative hopefulness for the nation’s “faith-based future” on the consensus that he thinks has united most Americans concerning religion’s place in public life ever since the nation’s founding. The great majority of the founders, he says, were Christians who viewed America as neither a secular state nor a Christian nation but rather as a “godly republic” open to a “multiplicity of sects.” Americans were and are both “faith-friendly” and committed to religious pluralism. Our constitutional order is meant to be welcoming to religion in general but neutral in its treatment of particular religious communities: no discrimination, no preference.

DiIulio recognizes that this tradition of pluralistic accommodation has endured challenges”a long ­history of Protestant-Catholic hostility, a sometimes unsympathetic Supreme Court, a continuing neo-Jeffersonian insistence among secularists on absolute separation of church and state”and it is particularly threatened today by the ubiquitously polarized condition of our cultural life. As his own experience ­illustrated, moderate accommodationists find themselves whipsawed between leftists determined to keep public life pristinely secular and conservative religious enthusiasts who resist the notion that churches must keep their government-supported social programs free of religious ­content.

DiIulio notes that Bush’s faith-based program, building on the charitable-choice legislation of the 1990s, intended that religious organizations should be free to compete equally with nonreligious groups to administer government-supported social- ­service programs, provided that they used none of their government funds to proselytize, offer religious instruction, or conduct worship. Such ­organizations would also have to accept clients and hire program-­related staff without respect to religious ­affiliation.

Those general principles turned out not to be as noncontroversial as DiIulio imagined them to be, and attempts to embody them in legislation raised a political storm. Disputes arose in particular over the hiring and nonproselytizing provisions. Conservatives complained that strict insistence on nondiscrimination in hiring might force religious groups to take on staff to run their social programs who were unsympathetic to their core religious beliefs. They also pointed out that restrictions on proselytizing might interfere with programs”in fighting drug and alcohol abuse, for example”that depended for success on some form of spiritual transformation. A number of liberals, for their part, fought anything that might even hint at government support for religion.

DiIulio attributes the ultimate failure of the legislation to excessive partisanship on both sides. (He displays a certain naiveté in rebuking politicians for acting so much like politicians.) That partisanship, he is sure, does not reflect mainstream opinion. America’s culture war, at least when it comes to religion, is to him purely a product of elite opinion, and even then excludes most of the nation’s political elite.

There is some truth to this but not so much as DiIulio supposes. Americans in general are not polarized on issues of church and state, but there is more ambivalence and less consensus in their views than the author would prefer. His own evidence”which he is scrupulous in presenting but sometimes too dismissive in analyzing”suggests as much.

The nation’s commitment to ­pluralistic tolerance is of relatively recent vintage. The founding generation’s policy of “faith-friendly neutrality” was born mostly of necessity. Faced with the reality of a “multiplicity of sects,” the overwhelmingly Protestant founders decreed religious freedom, but it is a considerable ­overstatement to say, as DiIulio does, that they “welcomed . . . Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and nonbelievers.” To tolerate is not necessarily to ­welcome. Indeed, the strict separationism that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was, as DiIulio shows, largely a product of the Protestant majority’s intense anti-Catholicism.

That anti-Catholicism has waned considerably in recent decades, but religious differences”differences that count”persist. They now more commonly take place across religious boundaries than between them. Orthodox Catholics and Protestants often have more in common with each other than with liberals within their own church bodies”and there is a widening gulf between those who are religiously observant, regardless of denomination, and those who are not. DiIulio notes that in recent decades there has been an increase both in the percentage of Americans who do not worship at all and in those who worship at least once a week. And people who worship differently vote differently. DiIulio shows that, in the division of voters in the 2004 presidential race, the worship gap was second only to the race gap. George Bush received 61 percent of the votes of regular church attenders and just 44 percent from those who are not regular attenders. That disparity was wider”by significant margins”than those related to income, gender, region, or education.

On all these matters, DiIulio chooses to emphasize forces that unite Americans over those that divide them. Thus, for example, he notes voting divisions based on religion but hastens to add that “religion is not the alpha and omega variable.” But no one has claimed that it is, and demolishing straw men, as DiIulio regularly does, is a tedious and trivial form of argument. (He wastes energy formulating, only to dismantle, “ten myths” about religion and public life”divided equally between secularist and religious-right stereotypes”whose dis­crediting would presumably clear the decks for advancing his centrist ­program.)

DiIulio does his argument no favor by relentlessly insisting that, where public attitudes toward religion and public life are concerned, the glass is always half full. One would be more willing to give credence to his consensus thesis were he not so defensive about challenges to it. He similarly risks giving a bad name to the biblical injunction to put the best construction on everything. The Supreme Court has recently made efforts to make sense of its previously incoherent church-state jurisprudence, but its record on the subject deserves a harsher critique than DiIulio is willing to offer. And one wonders if political centrism truly requires that one balance each and every criticism of liberals with an equal and opposite criticism of conservatives.

Still, whatever Godly Republic ‘s shortcomings, one comes away from it with admiration and respect for its author. He is both intelligent and goodhearted, and he is not wrong to urge that partisans on both sides of the religion-and-public-life divide give heed to the better angels of their nature. Faith-based social-service programs offer no panacea for solving public ills”and many, probably most, religious organizations will be limited in what they can accomplish in community service”but church groups do well in doing whatever public good they can. Corporate works of mercy are not the first business of religion, but charity is a central virtue of any religion worthy of the name. Support from government for such efforts must be weighed with great care, but, when applied with respect for religious freedom and sympathy for religious impulses, it can serve the interests of everyone involved.

DiIulio is also correct in noting the limits of enlightened self-interest as an adequate basis for mustering the energy to take on social ills. In a nation of gated and otherwise self-contained communities, it is all too easy for the relatively comfortable many to seal themselves off from the social costs generated by the plight of the unsuccessful few. Christians, at least, cannot leave matters at that. They have a mandate to care for the least of these, and one need not romanticize the condition of the poor to recognize that self-help and personal responsibility, however necessary, are not in themselves sufficient to make whole the many damaged lives and damaged communities.

People of faith have to keep alive an ethic of the common good. That may not require, as John DiIulio urges, that we all learn to “think Catholic””non-Catholics are not as without resources in this area as he supposes”but it does require that we give more careful thought than we often do to the moral shape a godly republic ought to take.

James Nuechterlein , the former editor of First Things , is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.