Room at the Political Inn for Religion?

Lucas Morel

February 1, 2001

With the White House opening an office on faith-based and community initiatives, following an inauguration that featured an invocation and benediction which took the Lord’s name seriously, the president has ushered religion smack dab into the public square. And the press has taken notice.

At the first presidential news conference, one reporter found it necessary to remind the president that “the mixing of religion and government for centuries has led to slaughter.” How Bush’s concern that government treat faith-based charitable organizations equally with secular charities could lead to slaughter in this post-modern era is baffling. In fact, one could argue more persuasively that the divorcing of politics from religious and moral sentiments has led to its own “slaughter of innocents,” but that’s a topic for another day.

Of course, there’s some truth to the fear that religion in politics can present problems for a nation of many faiths. This is why the framers of the federal constitution, contrary to a few of the early state constitutions, stipulated that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

But it is also true that the Bill of Rights guarantees the “free exercise” of religion. Alas, this portion of the First Amendment consistently takes second billing to its corollary clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court’s bowdlerization of this amendment is mostly to blame for our present confusion over how government should protect religious belief and practice.

Ever since its 1971 ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the high court has barred government aid to religious organizations if it (1) does not have a “secular purpose,” (2) “advances or inhibits” religion, or (3) fosters an “excessive entanglement” with religion. The second prong of this aptly named Lemon test is its most problematic. It interprets the First Amendment to protect something that it does not want to “advance” as a result. In other words, the Court promotes the fallacy of government neutrality toward religion under a Constitution that expressly calls for its protection.

By adopting the First Amendment, the American people decided that religion deserved government protection. They did so because they believed that religion was good for human beings—why else would they demand its protection?! Thus, to protect religious liberty is precisely to advance religion. What the unanimous Lemon court found “opaque” in its reading of the First Amendment seems fairly obvious on a cursory reading of the religion clauses.

When the Court interprets the “establishment” clause to trump the “free exercise” clause, it divorces the protection of religious liberty from its end—that religion might flourish in the lives of free citizens. Can we think of anything else that receives government protection that we do not expect to thrive as a result? In this case, freedom of religion becomes freedom from religion, quite the reverse of the intention of the First Amendment.

This oxymoronic doctrine of protecting citizens from religion for the sake of religion has led to all sorts of practical negations of religious freedom, from the banning of Christmas carols and invocations at public school commencements and sporting events to the denial of funds to religious organizations that provide community services. A few
Supreme Court justices have even argued that because religion should be neither encouraged nor discouraged by government, the continuance of explicit government endorsement of religion—like Congress hiring a chaplain or a court clerk yelling, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court”—passes constitutional muster only because they have become so traditional as to lose any intrinsically religious meaning!

So, should the recent inauguration prayers have invoked “the Lord Jesus Christ”? Probably not, for the occasion was a government ceremony representing all American citizens. A prayer offered on behalf of the national community should use inclusive language that reflects as much unum as the nation’s religious pluribus can muster.

But what about our agnostic or non-believing neighbors and fellow citizens? It’s hard to get around the fact that the United States separated from Great Britain on the basis of a political theory informed by natural theology. In other words, we declared our independence by arguing that our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not the arbitrary grant of government but the equal endowment of our Creator. Government’s appeal to the religious convictions of the citizenry in the conduct of its affairs simply invites citizens to be full participants in the process of self-rule.

Under President Bush, citizens need not check their religion at the door of political life. And to this all Americans should say, “Amen.”

Lucas E. Morel is assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.