The Precarious Position of Religion in the Public
October 19, 1999
by Ryan Streeter
Religion has gotten some wild press lately.
Jesse Ventura, most notably, has drawn fire for his unoriginal assessment of organized religion. (The "crutch" simile is rehashed several times each year by famous people). The Brooklyn Museum has tested our sensibilities about the freedom of expression by its display of a dung-stained Madonna.
Recent shootings on church grounds, in schools and a community center have been motivated by ill-will, even downright hatred, toward people of faith.
Both élites and bigots have vented the wide-ranging distaste for religion that exists in America.
All of this has happened during a time of increasing enthusiasm for the power of "faith-based organizations." Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have given landmark speeches expressing their intention to work with religious groups to deliver social services. President Clinton recently voiced his approval of government-faith partnerships.
Across the nation, state social service agencies are forming partnerships with faith-based organizations. The power of faith to move people from welfare to work and from drug-addiction to self-reliance has convinced many civic leaders that religion must be involved in public crusades against social problems.
The tension in America over the role of religion in public life is not new. In fact, the coexistence of the current disaffection with religious belief and widespread enthusiasm about its transforming power reveals the historical essence of America's relationship with religion.
America's founders were well acquainted with both the dangers and benefits of religious fervor. Living in the wake of deadly religious wars in Europe, they insisted that co-mingling faith and politics would likely corrupt both. They also thought religion's capacity for creating responsible citizens could never be wholly divided from public affairs. How did they live with this tension?
They saw no contradiction because they were mostly concerned with preventing factions. Religion was, in their day, prone to become what we now call ideology: the attempt to cram life's complexities into an overly narrow set of basic principles.
Ideology generates factions. It is always a grave threat to liberty, equality, and prosperity. It creates immense conflict by trying to force all people into a box big enough only for a few. Marxism and fascism may be our century's most obvious ideologies, but America has had its own versions ranging from free-market philosophies to feminist faiths.
Those who base their beliefs solely on ideologies usually contribute nothing to the formation of responsible citizens. They create factions that have historically existed at great expense to the public through bad policies and even wars.
Religion as ideology, not as a contributor to the common good, frightened our founders. David Hume, the Scotsman from whom Madison and Hamilton drew fundamental inspiration, was perhaps the first person to remark that religion was troublesome not in itself but when it became the mask of ideology.
Reflecting on ideological political parties, Hamilton said, "For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution." Ideology, in its extreme forms, resorts to violence whether it's masquerading as politics or religion.
This was also Jefferson's view. How else could the man credited with the phrase "separation of church and state" have argued for religious content in the curriculum of publicly-funded schools? He said, "If you cannot control the heart, you cannot control behavior...Religion deals with the heart."
Americans have always been dubious about efforts aimed at giving religion control over people's minds when their hearts are not receptive. In the past century, however, many academics and élites have assumed that liberating people from faith is the socially responsible thing to do.
Their assumption has been driven not by a fear of faction, as with America's founders, but by a dislike for religion's incompatibility with their own ideologies. The rest of America has begun to see through this. Keeping religion from becoming a divisive ideology does not mean we should keep it out of public life altogether.
The recent enthusiasm about the contribution of religious organizations to the common good is merely a recovery of something deeply embedded in our inherited institutions and practices.
Governor Ventura's recent remarks are outdated, not because they don't speak to the concern many have about ideological manipulations of religion, but because they are so obviously wrong about religion's current social contribution. Moving a mother who has spent 15 years on welfare into a life of self-sufficiency is a feat far greater than the move from pro wrestling to the governor's office.
Americans will always be suspicious of religiously-motivated attempts to control policy and personal choice. But they are ready to reclaim what religion offers a citizenry lacking the basics in personal and social responsibility.
As the perpetrators of recent mass shootings have shown us, ideology, not religion, is our greatest enemy. Our policy makers, our courts, and our schools will do well to remember this.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.