PRINCETON, N.J.-What seems like unnatural acts in Texas-dropping into academic conferences, reading The New York Times-are part of normality here. So on Friday, Oct. 22, an otherwise unimportant day because it was after the playoffs yet before the World Series, I heard and read blasts from the past but saw that they are no longer going uncontested.
The academic conference concerned "the role of religion in American public life." The leadoff hitter was the venerable liberal historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Since it was 11 days before Election Day, he of course lambasted President Bush as "the most aggressively religious president in American history"-that's bad, very bad-but his target was larger.
Theologically conservative Christians, Mr. Schlesinger suggested, are anti-democratic because they display "absolutist thinking" that fits poorly with the negotiation and compromise that are part of politics. He argued that things were better in the good old days when the nation's founders and just about all the presidents since were open, nonjudgmental fellows.
If this conference were a normal university affair, every speaker after Mr. Schlesinger would have piled on the hapless Christians. Students would have walked off confirmed in the biases their professors typically attempt to instill. But because this conference was hosted by the James Madison Program at Princeton, a beachhead of sanity where a few professors stare up at the gun emplacements of academic liberalism, students heard a serious intellectual exchange.
For example, retired professor George McKenna (who is writing a book on the Puritan origins of American patriotism) responded to Mr. Schlesinger by noting that the Declaration of Independence has some downright absolutist language-self-evident truths, inalienable rights. He pointed out how presidents in the past have regularly looked at the nation in providential terms that included some sense of God's judgment. (Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address suggested that every drop of blood drawn by the slave overseer's lash might require restitution in kind.)
Other speakers showed that theologically conservative Christians could press for a strong biblical position while at the same time accepting that in a democratic society that position might not win the day. They pointed out that most Christians see no problem with engaging in negotiation and compromise when necessary, because political action clearly requires cooperation. (For example, some pro-lifers still say "all or nothing" concerning legislation protecting unborn children, but most say "all or something," with the goal of saving more lives.)
That's clearly not the liberal stereotype of Christians or of the politician most prominently identified as a conservative Christian: Leaving the conference that day I picked up a New York Times and saw columnist Maureen Dowd blasting away at President Bush (and, by extension, his co-religionists) because he "really believes he's the one. President Neo."
Ms. Dowd went on: "W.'s willful blindness comes from mistakenly assuming that his desires are God's, as if he knows where God stands on everything from democracy in Iraq to capital-gains tax cuts," as if he has "detailed and perfect knowledge of everything that God wants." Since nothing in President Bush's record or utterances indicates that he thinks that way, I suspect that Ms. Dowd is taking the way a few arrogant Christians talk and broad-brushing all, including the president.
But even in The New York Times, as at Princeton, reality gained a foothold on Oct. 22. Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, noted in a guest op-ed page column that lawmaking inevitably involves a battle of beliefs: "If we say that we 'ought' to do something, we are making a moral judgment. When our legislators turn that judgment into law, somebody's ought becomes a 'must' for the whole of society. This is not inherently dangerous; it's how pluralism works."
He continued, "Democracy depends on people of conviction expressing their views, confidently and without embarrassment. This give-and-take is an American tradition, and religious believers play a vital role in it. We don't serve our country-in fact we weaken it intellectually-if we downplay our principles or fail to speak forcefully out of some misguided sense of good manners."
That says it well. Christians, like others, should compete democratically. We're all best served when we put forth our views vigorously. As Mr. Chaput concluded, "Patriotism, which is a virtue for people of all faiths, requires that we fight, ethically and nonviolently, for what we believe."