The Challenge of Cultural Renewal
By The Honorable Tom DeLay (R-TX)
House Majority Whip
National Press Club
Thursday, May 4, 2000
A tragedy such as the shooting that occurred here two weeks ago at the National Zoo assaults our most basic assumptions about the character of our country. It's an incident that forces us to consider two critical questions: What kind of people are we? What kind of people do we wish to be? I believe finding the answers will require a difficult -- maybe even an uncomfortable -- discussion about the direction of our country. And that discussion must, in my view, include a candid conversation about a clash between two competing worldviews, a clash that ultimately will determine our future. It will come as no surprise to any of you that I am not a disinterested observer of this struggle. In a talk delivered earlier this year, I asserted that the cause that will carry us into the new century -- and the answer to many of the challenges that now confront us -- is the rediscovery of our core American convictions. I believe this rediscovery will demand that we boldly move to rebuild the three key elements of our nation's unprecedented success: the strength of the American family; the moral authority of American foreign policy; and the fundamental virtue of American culture. I have come to the National Press Club this afternoon to discuss the last of these, cultural renewal. The issues and events most important to the debate over the culture don't always dominate the headlines or interest the television talking heads. In fact, very often these matters attract little attention at all. For instance, just a few weeks ago, a panel of three federal judges declared that the motto of the state of Ohio -- "With God, all things are possible" -- is unconstitutional. In a 2-to-1 decision, the judges ruled that this motto -- which has graced the official documents and public spaces of Ohio for over 40 years -- is an unacceptable state endorsement of religion. The conflict presented in this story is central to the question of cultural renewal because it captures two very different worldviews. The first worldview is that of the cultural elite. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Ohio to have six simple words -- "With God, all things are possible" -- banished from the public square. They were offended when the governor proposed engraving the motto on the statehouse plaza. This is the same worldview, mind you, that supports publicly funded religious symbols as long as they are covered in excrement. The second worldview -- the worldview held by most of the citizens of Ohio and America -- stands in marked contrast to those who control so much of mass culture. It is a philosophy built on values that are moral, universal, and -- I believe -- the source of our greatness: Faith in God. The sanctity of human life. The existence of right and wrong. And the certain knowledge that we are all ultimately accountable for our actions. This is the worldview of the 12-year-old boy who first suggested the Ohio state motto. His mother, he said, repeated these six words to him several times a day. He found them comforting and inspirational and thought others would as well. In Ohio and the rest of America, a growing tension exists between these two philosophies. Some call this tension a "culture war." But I don't believe America is divided by a culture war. That phrase suggests an open, declared conflict between two independent, established entities over a matter in clear dispute. Fortunately, the American people continue to embrace what has been the essence of our national character for over two centuries. They don't consider matters of family and faith to be in dispute at all. And as a result, they don't feel they are at war with anyone. Rather, the American people are trying to resist a cultural coup d'etat -- a revolution launched by a privileged few who are determined to discredit and, ultimately, replace core American traditions. So, we aren't witnessing the clash of two great armies, but instead a guerrilla assault by a fashionable elite on our nation's founding principles. That elite is concentrated in the media, universities, tax-exempt foundations, the legal profession and the arts -- wherever opinions are made and the terms of debate set. The dominance of the fashionable elite over our culture-forming institutions gives them a strength greater than their numbers. They use that power skillfully to shape a culture that is increasingly at odds with the convictions of most Americans. Of course, the fashionable elite recognize that a lack of public support requires that they avoid, whenever possible, direct confrontation in popular elections. Instead, the cultural assault I have described has been carried out far from the view of most voters and using institutions not subject to the scrutiny of the political marketplace. Conservatives have been slow to recognize and counter this tactic. But counter it we must if the enduring beliefs supported by the great American majority are to continue guiding our national life. I believe we should concentrate our resistance to this coup d'etat at our culture's most formative point: in the schools that should be teaching our children not just the skills of the marketplace, but the virtues of a democracy. Schools that are meant to challenge and uplift our children -- not unlike the phrase, "With God, all things are possible." We must resist the growing hostility to religion in our public schools, a hostility that the Left pursues in the name of religious "neutrality." And we must restore respect for the many gifts of religious faith in our private and public lives. Critics are likely to cloud the debate by charging that I'm calling for a role beyond religion's proper scope in public life. This could not be further from the truth. What we need is simply a return to the healthy appreciation for religion that has always sustained the nation. Government can't enforce religious teachings or doctrines of specific faiths. But at the same time, federal power must not be distorted into a wedge that splits the vast majority of Americans from the sacred ideals that guide their lives. The fashionable elite who have turned our schools into religion-free zones are not new to the American scene. In many cases, they are the adult version of what used to be called the "adversary culture." The adversary culture tried to radically remake society by attacking the institution of the family, attacking moral conventions, and even attacking the notion of truth. What that counterculture did in the name of revolution, the new elite culture does in the name of fashion. They are selling what one historian calls "the morality of the cool." The morality of the cool teaches that flag burning and nude dancing are protected speech, but prayer before a football game is not. Or that new federal laws could have stopped a murder in Michigan by changing the heart of a six-year-old -- a six-year-old raised by parents who illegally sold guns to support their drug habits. The fashionable few congratulate themselves for their "courage" when they make predictable, morally empty films. They herald their commitment to tolerance while they police the speech of those who disagree with them. And these people dare imagine that they can teach the rest of us how to save the planet. Nowhere is the fashionable elite more at odds with the overwhelming majority of Americans than in their attitude toward religion. The sociologist Peter Berger once said that if India is the most religious country on earth and Sweden the least, then America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. The statistics are startling. According to one survey, a staggering 96 percent of Americans profess belief in God, and 67 percent identify themselves as members of a church. Ninety percent say they pray at least once a week and 75 percent pray daily. By contrast, much smaller percentages of those who make the movies we see, publish the magazines we read, and produce the television we watch admit to any religious belief. So, while 60 percent of Americans attend church or synagogue at least once a month, only 19 percent of journalists do. And the number is only 13 percent for major movie producers, directors, and writers. Only six percent of Americans call themselves agnostics or atheists. Yet, 22 percent of the media elite and 32 percent of entertainment elite hold these views. What is true of the majority of Americans today has always been true. We are a nation born of the desire for religious liberty and tempered by the promise that our claim to that liberty is a grant not of government, but of God. From the opening words of the Mayflower Compact -- "In the name of God, Amen" -- to the Declaration of Independence's tribute to "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God," religious principle has been the moral foundation of our nation. The Founding Fathers understood that a free people must be a moral people. And a moral people must be a religious people. George Washington warned in his Farewell Address that our young republic would not survive if Americans indulged in the "supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. " "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," said Washington, "religion and morality are indispensable supports." As we grew from a collection of religious refugees into the world's only superpower, Washington was proved right over and over again. Throughout our history, religion has been the ally -- not the enemy -- of freedom. But today, rather than accepting religion as central to self-government, the fashionable elite sees it as democracy's greatest threat. Rather than welcoming the return to moral standards encouraged by religious belief, the elite rejects the existence of standards altogether. They have stood the convictions of the Founders on their head. A free people, they seem to say, must be liberated from moral conventions, not bound by them. Therefore, institutions that impose moral standards, such as religion, are unwelcome in a free society. In short, in the name of liberation, the fashionable elite created their own perverse ideology; in the name of "tolerance," they are profoundly intolerant. The media show this disdain for faith by the way they depict religious conservatives: as either hypocritical totalitarians on shows like NBC's "The West Wing" -- or as "poor, uneducated and easy to command," as The Washington Post once put it. In the universities, dissenting voices are silenced before the powerful few who rail against the "religious patriarchy." And in many other institutions -- in schools, public assistance offices, and in our public spaces -- the new intolerance has meant a purge of religion from public life. The morality of the cool teaches citizens that religion in private is one thing, but it better not spill over into the public sphere. This same elite conveniently forget to criticize the powerful role that religion played in the civil rights struggle. Or, for that matter, the involvement of the National Council of Churches in the effort to return Elian Gonzalez to Castro's communist Cuba. All of this might simply be an annoyance to conservatives and people of faith if it weren't for this fact: the morality of the cool is a trickle down philosophy. And it is designed to destroy the existing system of values to make way for a new moral order. The great injustice of the cultural elite today is that they are shaping a world in which they themselves will never really live. Having driven religious principles from our public institutions, the fashionable elite have deprived those who rely on those same principles most to lift themselves out of poverty, overcome addiction, or simply raise decent, healthy children. Nowhere is this truer than in our public primary and secondary schools. Voluntary prayer has been banished from the classroom, and the Ten Commandments ripped off the walls. The ACLU even sued a Kentucky school district for posting the Mayflower Compact in the classroom. Experiments with real school choice are under siege in Florida and Ohio. This summer, the Supreme Court will rule on a case from my home state of Texas in which voluntary, student-led prayer before high school football games was banned as a violation of the First Amendment. And even as we turn our schools into religion-free zones, social science is showing that religion makes a key contribution to what should be the goal of education: producing competent, upstanding citizens who can meet the challenges of self-government. Studies have shown that regular religious practice is associated with stronger families and better marriages. Children who attend church regularly are less prone to commit crimes or become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Particularly among the young and the poor, religious belief contributes to fewer out-of-wedlock births. Less suicide. More optimism. Better relationships with parents. And a greater chance of escaping poverty. But the families that desperately want and need these benefits are being deprived of that option by those who think they know better how to nurture the minds and hearts of children. Of course, the very people now standing in the schoolhouse door regularly exercise the choice to send their own children to private and parochial schools. Even President Clinton -- who vetoed legislation to allow underprivileged parents here, in Washington, to choose the best schools for their children -- opted to send his daughter to a religiously affiliated school. Today, 12,000 children are using taxpayer-provided dollars to attend the school of their choice -- giving them the chance to access the type of education opportunities available to the elite. Studies show these programs closing achievement gaps between kids rich and poor, inner city and suburban. Parents report overwhelming satisfaction with school choice. Yet, defenders of the status quo irrationally fight these reform efforts as destructive to religious freedom. The New York Times even went so far as to insist that these education programs represent nothing less than "unambiguous threats to the separation of church and state." Let me suggest that The New York Times has a strange understanding of liberty and the Constitution. Our religious faith is what de Tocqueville called the "first institution" of American civil society. As he understood, religion and freedom are not opposing forces -- but complementary virtues. Religion helps to sustain American freedom precisely because we have no official, government-established church. We are free to worship as we please. Our faith animates our virtue as a people. Our virtue gives us respect for the rule of law and for each other. And that respect makes freedom possible. It is this spirit -- of freedom reinvigorated by religious virtue -- that is missing in our educational institutions today. The rediscovery of our core American beliefs requires that we put to rest, once and for all, the absurd notion that religious principles can have no role in public life. As individuals and as a nation, we are what we believe. Our collective convictions about life's most important issues cannot be divorced from the condition of our country. Next January, I believe that a newly elected Republican President, working with an expanded GOP majority in Congress, will together share a window of promise to begin renewing America's culture. That opportunity must not be squandered. Leaving it to the courts to decide such matters is, quite frankly, the coward's way out. Americans have a right to expect that their duly elected leaders be the arbiters of the most fundamental question of our democracy: the protection and preservation of our freedom. While the Republican Congress has labored over the past five years to preserve and protect America's core principles, we have made only a beginning. Under a renewal partnership, I predict that, next year, Congress and the President will start clearing up two decades of confusing court decisions governing religion in our schools. We should begin by codifying in federal law the proper understanding of that portion of the First Amendment that concerns religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." That means that our public schools must be neutral with respect to religion. But neutrality must be applied consistently. Just as public schools can't promote specific religions -- neither can they inhibit religious principle simply because such beliefs are grounded in faith. And when schools treat a voluntary bible study or a prayer circle differently then they treat any other voluntary activity -- from the chess club to the honor society -- they inhibit religion. When they prevent a first grader from offering a picture of Jesus as his contribution to a Thanksgiving mural, they denigrate religion. And when the government prevents a parent from doing with a school voucher what millions of parents do every year with a Pell grant -- to take it to the institution of their choosing -- government is not being neutral toward religion. Congress should put an end to this by using its spending power to attach two religious nondiscrimination provisions to federal educational funds. The first would be directed at the federal government itself. In the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Congress outlawed denying any American the benefit of federal spending on the basis of race, color or national origin. We should now do the same for people of faith. We should attach a provision to federal education spending that outlaws denying any American, or group of Americans, the benefit of such spending on the basis of their religious expression, belief, or identity. Just as the federal government can't deny the benefit of taxpayer funds on the basis of race, it should not single out groups or individuals for discrimination based on their religion. So if a Catholic school wanted to participate in a program to provide computers to classrooms, it could do so without the need for a fulltime federal police presence to make sure none of the computers were used to seek out religious material. Or, if a parent wanted to use their tax dollars to send a child to a school that benefits from the discipline that comes from religious principle, they would be free to do so -- or not. The state doesn't have a say in the matter. The second provision would complement the first. It ensures states and school districts that accept federal funding do not discriminate against religious expression by prohibiting private, voluntary prayer and religious activity. This provision would make clear what has long been unclear in our public debate over religion in public schools: that there is no constitutional requirement that religious expression be excluded from public schools, provided that such expression is strictly voluntary and not subject to direction or manipulation by the state. So a group of middle-schoolers in Alabama who want to meet before school to pray are free to do so; a first grader in New Jersey who brings in a Bible story to read won't be censored; and a group of high school students in Texas who voluntarily decide to bow their heads in prayer before a football game can do so without first calling their lawyers. These are not radical concepts to most Americans. I began this speech by asserting that the vast majority of us who work hard, have families, and go to church are not engaged in a culture war, but are resisting a cultural coup d'etat by the fashionable elite. It is also clear to me that we must transform our resistance into an aggressive counterattack. Americans have always responded to threats to our way of life by relying on the values that are at the root of our greatness. These convictions have always provided our nation with the strength -- the "moral capital" -- needed to meet any challenge and to confront any adversary. America's greatness is the product of America's goodness. And our continued prosperity depends upon our continued commitment to the ideals that make us much more than just another country at another moment in history. It is impossible, of course, to renew religious belief merely to achieve some public policy goal. Faith comes from the heart. It cannot be summoned at will. It does not exist for the sake of social utility, but for personal redemption. My friends, it's time to put our politics to work to renew our culture. To defeat the mounting effort to expel all religious belief from public life. There are many reasons for optimism as we begin this task. Both of the presumptive presidential nominees, Republican and Democrat alike, have endorsed the idea of bringing faith-based organizations back into our public life. While this apparent consensus should not, for a moment, suggest Mr. Gore can ever match Governor Bush's credibility on the matters of the culture, it is an important indicator of where the debate is headed. And we must relentlessly drive that debate in the right direction. Our culture is determined first and foremost by the education of our children. It is here that we must stake our ground and rally to our values. Not in the name of intolerance, but in the spirit of true tolerance. The tolerance that comes from the recognition of an authority that is higher than us; a God who commands us to respect each other as we would respect ourselves. So, this is a call for cultural affirmation. A call to resist the worldview that robs human beings of their dignity and life of its meaning. A call to embrace a worldview that is inspired, not offended, by the six words: "With God, all things are possible." I am confident we are up to the challenge. And that one day we will look back on this year as the moment our nation began a rediscovery of the values that made Americans a good people long before America was a great power. Thank you very much.