The emergence of religion as an issue in this presidential campaign reminds me of a story about a camping trip taken by fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They go to sleep and wake up soon after dawn. Holmes asks, "Dr. Watson, what do you see?" Watson replies, "I see the sun rising in the east and mountains off to the west. What a wonderful day to be alive!" Holmes responds, "You fool, while we were sleeping someone stole our tent."
If you've read Arthur Conan Doyle's stories you know that Watson doesn't get much respect-but I think Watson had the better of that conversation. Yes, tents are valuable much of the time, useful for keeping out rain, flies, snakes, and other critters. But on some mornings, if they block our view of glorious horizons, we're better off without them. (My best nights out, when young, were tentless.) And if putting up a tent means that candidates can't talk about the truly important things in life, open air is certainly better.
Some reporters are writing about the Lieberman and Bush expressions of belief in God as if this were the first time in generations of presidential politics that campaigners went tentless. That shows how short journalistic memories are. Ronald Reagan, for example, talked about God a lot-and after his escape from assassination was very serious about it, according to Tom Freiling's new book, Reagan's God and Country (Servant Publications). A scholarly study of Reagan speeches in 1983 showed that one-tenth of all his prepared remarks were religious in nature-but most remarkable was not the quantity but the lack of defensiveness.
I know it's become fashionable among some Christian academics to look down on Mr. Reagan, but some of the dismissive rarely mention God in their work and are apologetic whenever they do. Ronald Reagan never apologized. That's in part because he had a better sense than most of what rendering unto Caesar means. He put it this way during a speech in 1984: "There is much talk in this country now of religion interfering with politics. Actually, it is the other way around. Politics ... has moved across the barrier between church and state."
This is a critical understanding that makes no sense to those for whom everything is political. For the proponents of bigger government, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's means giving government total sway. But even if we accept that non-constitutional notion of a "wall of separation" between church and state, the important question is where that wall should be situated.
In the Reagan understanding, the Supreme Court's legalization of abortion on demand is an example of national politics invading religion, because it takes away the ability of people in their local communities to defend agreed-upon standards of right and wrong. When local laws require parental consent to ear-piercing but judges declare parental consent to abortion a violation of supposed constitutional rights, national politics once again invades religion.
Prohibition of voluntary prayer in public schools represents yet another invasion, because what goes on in public schools should represent the consensus of local parents (the overwhelming majority of whom want prayer) rather than distant judges. The same logic applies concerning weakening of laws against pornography: Since we are citizens and not subjects, neighbors who can agree on community standards should have the right to keep vile materials out of neighborhood stores.
Some might argue that the cases I've cited involve questions of morality rather than religion, but here I've learned from a columnist of the religious left, Garry Wills. He wrote recently about student responses to three questions: Should church and state be separate? (They said yes.) Should religion and politics be separate? (Yes again.) Should morality and politics be separate? (They said no.) But since most Americans base views of morality on religion, that last answer essentially says that religion and politics should not be separate-and if they are not, then any wall of separation between church and state is porous indeed.
What all this means is that we have to go beyond bumper-sticker thinking on this subject. The Anti-Defamation League is objecting to the discussion of religion in this year's campaign. "We believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours," an ADL letter said.
But what is that point?
My suggestion to the ADL: The point is where candidates suggest that a particular denomination should be given special privileges, because that is what the First Amendment was designed to preclude. Short of that, we're all better off if we can see the sun rising in the east and the mountains in the west, instead of fearfully pulling down the flaps on our tent.