The necessity of truth

Culture | The weak "faith" some want to allow in the public square will not yield any social benefits

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville, foreign observers have consistently noted that the United States is one of the most religious countries on the face of the planet. Year after year, Gallup polls reveal that nearly 90 percent of all Americans consider religion either "very important" or "fairly important." Yet at the same time we are increasingly reluctant to make critical moral distinctions. Whether things are true or false, right or wrong, good or evil doesn't seem to concern us very much any more-so long as we are all pleasant to each other and do nothing to call into question our collective self-esteem. How is it possible to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when His moral code is flouted? To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes? To be a theist and a relativist, a traditionalist and a postmodernist-all at the same time? How is it possible to maintain liberty while banishing from the public square any reference to a transcendent moral code? It simply is not possible. In the view of our country's Founding Fathers and our greatest moral teachers, religion-and the truths to which religion points us-is essential to the success of the American experiment. If we are to resolve the problems that currently threaten to overwhelm us, we first must recover this traditional understanding of religion as the way in which we determine commonly agreed-on moral precepts. To illustrate the traditional American understanding of religion, I'll begin with Pennsylvania, not merely because I harbor a certain partiality toward that great commonwealth but also because, as Paul Johnson argues in his History of the American People, "Quaker Pennsylvania was the key state in American history." The principal reason is the charter of government that William Penn gave his fellow Quakers in 1682. In his famous "Frame of Government," Penn pledged that all citizens who believed in "One Almighty and Eternal God ... shall in no way be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion or practice in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever." In short order, Pennsylvania became, in Mr. Johnson's words, "the center of Quaker influence throughout the world, the headquarters in America of Baptists, an Anglican center, a place where many important German sects-Moravians, Mennonites, Lutherans, German Reformed-established their headquarters, and yet a place where large numbers of Catholics and Jews were tolerated." Given the stereotypes about religion that prevail today, one might expect that a state throbbing with so much religious enthusiasm would become a haven for bigotry and radical fundamentalism-a kind of 17th-century Tehran. In fact, Pennsylvania became a center of liberty and learning. How is it possible that a state filled with so much religion yielded such a bountiful harvest of freedom, tolerance, and reason? With no faith enjoying state support, the fires of religious persecution, which burned so fiercely in Europe, were decisively extinguished; and with each faith thrown back on its own resources, a free competition of religious beliefs ensued, with every church and sect striving to put its best foot forward. Pennsylvania's successful experiment in religious disestablishment was eventually emulated by the other states, and has come to typify America's approach to religion. But it's important to remember exactly what Penn-and all those who followed his example-set out to do, and what they did not set out to do. They did seek to sever all connections between a particular church and the coercive power of the state. They did not seek to exclude religion and expressions of faith from the public square and from public debate. They acknowledged that religion, and the moral code it reveals, is necessary for the success of the American experiment.

  • First, religion protects us from tyranny. As historian Allen C. Guelzo observes, the American revolutionaries "concluded that the whole British system of monarchy was built on corruption, and that it was held together by bribery and self-interest." To prevent the new United States from being similarly corrupted over time, its institutions had to be founded on the solid rock of "self-evident truths." To the Founders, these God-given truths-that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"-are no more open to debate than the laws of gravity.
  • Second, liberty depends on religion. The Founders hoped that the majority would never become so misled as to reject the existence of the "laws of nature and of nature's God." They constantly stressed the centrality of a divinely based moral code in instilling Americans with a sense of virtue. They regarded the newly created United States as an "experiment in ordered liberty." For the American experiment not to fail, it was necessary for the power of government to remain limited. Yet how could government power remain limited if people regularly lied and stole, cheated and killed? As Edmund Burke put it, "Society cannot exist unless a controlling power is put somewhere on will and appetite, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without."
  • Third, religion furthers freedom and tolerance. The Founders' understanding of the relationship between faith and freedom is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution. This was something new in the history of the world: a great country formally renouncing the very possibility of an official, state-sponsored and -supported church. But in no way did the Founders view this as hostility to religion. On the contrary, they understood that the surest way to corrupt a religion, to turn its spokesmen into cynical and self-seeking apologists for the status quo, is to involve it too closely in the affairs of state. If you want to know why America is such a religious country, why the disdain that we periodically feel for our elected officials does not rub off onto our religious institutions, why anti-clericalism is so potent in Europe but so insignificant here, look to the First Amendment.
  • Finally, religion advances social betterment. Religion burns deeply in the hearts of men and women, emboldening them to confront injustice and improve the condition of society. Being "one nation, under God" is not at all the same as being a godly nation. Our history bears ample witness to the fact that we Americans, like every other people, are a community of sinners. But that same history also makes it clear that men and women with a fervent faith in God's Word have valiantly sought to curb our evil impulses. But we recently found ourselves in a different place. Fifteen years ago, First Things Editor in Chief Richard Neuhaus observed a "naked public square"-grown too small and intolerant to accommodate the convictions of religion. I believe that we are in a somewhat better place today. A level of access to the public square has been granted to "faith." There is a growing consensus, right and left, that faith has social benefit. Believe in God and you'll live longer. Go to church and you'll stay out of jail. Turn to God and you'll kick your habit. But all that the gatekeepers have really allowed into the public square is an attenuated, watered-down version of religiosity. Modern secularists must be delighted. What passes for "faith" today is little more than a toothless tiger, and even if it should wander off the reserve to which it has been largely confined and happen to enter the public square, it could not do much harm. Certainly, it cannot challenge the postmodernists who proclaim, as the U.S. Supreme Court put it in 1992, that "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Today, the consequences of an approach to public policy that does not seek to identify and accommodate commonly agreed-on moral precepts are to be seen all around us-the disintegration of the family, surging rates of juvenile crime, persistence of racial prejudice, and the nightmare of our inner cities. To be sure, the federal government has spent trillions of dollars in trying to cure our social ills; it has raised an army of social workers, commissioned a host of research studies, and launched a vast array of programs designed to bring us a "great society." The reason they have not succeeded is that, as education policy expert Chester Finn observes, the problems currently afflicting us reflect an "impoverishment of the soul more than the pocketbook"-and government is simply not equipped to address problems of the soul. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in building character. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in turning people away from drugs and violence, idleness and despair. Nothing is as powerful as religious faith in helping all of us to lead worthy, decent, compassionate lives. What gives religion this extraordinary power? It is religion's claim to truth. Taking away religion's claim to truth is like shearing off Samson's locks: What's left is just a hollowed-out shell of what once was a great and vibrant force for good. It follows, then, that if we want a society that reveres life, that defends the family, and that discourages delinquency and promotes decency, we cannot force a privatization of religion. But will this open up the floodgates of sectarian strife? The American experience in general, and the Pennsylvania experience in particular, refute this fear. Indeed, it is only in a culture that does not dismiss the truth about man that liberty, tolerance, and knowledge will flourish. The challenge is now before those who begrudgingly have accepted the social benefit of "faith" and allowed it to clothe our public square. They must recognize that, when faith works, it is faith in something. Faith works because it is faith in God. Faith works because it acknowledges a moral code-a transcendent truth-that makes a claim on us, individually and collectively.

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