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Faith-based voters

Interview | Author and Democrat Bruce Ledewitz on the coming American Religious Democracy

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

Bruce Ledewitz received his J.D. from Yale Law School in 1977 and is a Professor of Law at Duquesne University, where he has taught constitutional law since 1980. His book American Religious Democracy (Praeger, 2007) argues that the era of ardent separation of church and state is over-and that the change is not something to fret about.

Many Christian conservatives have also written about secularism run amuck, but Ledewitz is neither conservative nor Christian: He served as western Pennsylvania coordinator for the presidential campaigns of Gary Hart and Al Gore, was secretary of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and is Jewish.

WORLD: Why do you think the United States is becoming a "religious democracy"?

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LEDEWITZ: My definition of religious democracy, which is "simply that a substantial number of voters in America now vote the way they do for what they consider to be religious reasons" and that government policy increasingly reflects that reality, suggests that America has always been a religious democracy, which is true to an extent. The difference today is that voting for religious reasons is more self-conscious than before, especially among conservatives.

The changes in policy include President Bush's faith-based initiatives, the veto of federal funding of stem-cell research, state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, among much else-and in the U.S. Supreme Court, appointments of justices who do not appear to favor strict separation of church and state.

WORLD: What makes you think that the Supreme Court will probably end up in support of the positions of Justices Scalia and Thomas-"that government may permit and encourage a kind of generic religious expression and belief, even monotheism dependent on a Creator"?

LEDEWITZ: Predicting the future movement of the Supreme Court is notoriously difficult, but reversing the lower court that removed the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, even though on technical grounds, was consistent with past decisions allowing government religious language in the public square, such as legislative prayers, opening the court sessions with "God save this Court," and so forth.

The current makeup of the court probably contains four justices already who endorse this position. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the pivotal fifth vote, is also not committed to strict separation. So, in the absence of reinvigoration of government neutrality and the wall of separation, which does not appear likely, permitting government encouragement of generic religious expression seems the only place the court can go.

WORLD: You suggest that secularists who seek change through the courts are the real anti-democrats. Why?

LEDEWITZ: In recent years, liberals have had a tendency to seek social change in the courthouse rather than at the ballot box. This is most evident today in the context of abortion and gay marriage. Conservative legal theory has criticized this tendency, though conservatives engage in the same judicial tactics. I point to the secularists in this regard because it is they who often describe religious voters as anti-democratic, whereas on a variety of issues, it is secularists and others on the left who seek to stymie the majority will of the voters by bringing suit. Of course, I am not criticizing resorting to the courts per se, only pointing out that those who do so cannot criticize their political opponents as anti-democratic.

WORLD: What do you make of the accusation that Christians want to establish "theocracy"?

LEDEWITZ: It is necessary to distinguish among three terms: democracy, theocracy, and constitutional democracy. In democracy, the majority will of the voters determines public policy. Thus, even if the voters enacted the book of Leviticus, that would be democratic in any fair understanding of the term. In theocracy, public policy is determined not by majority will of the voters but in some other way, often by giving clerical offices some form of veto over public policy, as in Iran.

Constitutional democracy places limits on what the majority will of the voters is allowed to enact as public policy. Thus, secular opponents might be correct, from their point of view, in accusing religious voters of undermining constitutional democracy, but not of promoting theocracy.

WORLD: You write that the Supreme Court could get around the impasse about prayer at graduation ceremonies or football games by developing a different understanding of what "government" is, and then conceiving of civil society apart from government. Please explain.

LEDEWITZ: Constitutional law conceives of only two political actors: government and individuals. The government may not foster religion but individuals have the right of free speech. This leads to the result that at high-school graduations, no prayers may be offered, but individual students are free to praise Jesus Christ. This student speech can be more disturbing to religious minorities than the nonsectarian prayer that school boards used to offer.

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