As our article on the recent rash of atheistic best-sellers in this week's issue notes, the hills are alive with the sound of musings about the purportedly increased role of religion in American public life. But, contra the alarmists, George W. Bush and others have merely tried to return Washington to the principles enunciated by George Washington.
The earlier George had two excellent, bedrock principles regarding religion and public policy. First, as he wrote in 1789, "Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." Second, if Americans stopped believing in God, the nation was in big trouble.
Here's Washington's ringing affirmation in his 1796 farewell address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."
Washington offered specific warnings: "Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."
He concluded, "Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"
The New York Times on June 14 complained that the Bush administration, instead of looking with indifference upon such shaking, "has recast the federal government's role in civil rights by aggressively pursuing religion-oriented cases. . . ." The word "recast" is truer than the Times probably intended: Its article suggested a radical change was underway, but "recast" actually means "cast again." The administration's policy is traditional, an attempt to reclaim what has been cast away.
(If you want to know more about the history, Stephen Mansfield's Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America . . . And What's Happened Since, a book published last month by Thomas Nelson, provides a good overview.)