Religion in the Public Square
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute, a public policy think-tank, and publisher of American Outlook. His most recent book is Decade of Denial: A Snapshot of America in the 1990s (Lenham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001).
Two ideas about human nature vie for the hearts and minds of America. Locked in an age-old intellectual wrestling match, these twin philosophies—one ancient and one modern—offer radically different visions for society that carry with them major implications for the presence of religion in the public square.
For the most part, Western democracies sprang up downstream from the worldview of Augustine. Believing that human beings were created good by God, but fallen, the venerable bishop of Hippo viewed earthly human power with an appropriate measure of suspicion. Lord Acton, the great English historian and defender of democracy, summed up this perspective when he uttered the famous words, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Founding Fathers almost uniformly subscribed to this view. The Constitution, therefore, is an Augustinian document predicated on countervailing forces which are intended to restrain original sin.
Modern philosophy, however, can be seen as a protracted attempt to break free from this classic understanding. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher whose views helped to inspire the French Revolution, wrote that liberty represents the abolition of all dependencies and “slaveries,” such as the family and religion. But as the Founding Fathers of this nation fully understood, without such alliances, without the mediating structures of family and Church, the Social Contract cannot exist.
It is this Rousseauian vision, however, that haunts contemporary America. The lineaments of social organization are being challenged in every quarter. Respondents of gay marriage push an agenda that will cut the bonds of family ties. Secularists oppose the use of the expression “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Avatars of late term abortion are willing to engage in infanticide in order to maintain personal freedom.
Social order based on humility in the face of God has been reduced to basic materialism. I can recall the words of O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984 who explains: “You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.” Alas, governments unrestrained by religious belief invariably try to mold human nature. But while humans are malleable; they are certainly not infinitely malleable. Whether one accepts it or not, there appears to be “intelligent design” in human nature.
Einstein noted that the earth was not organized with a simple throw of the dice, a chance moment in creation. Religion reaches for a vision of human nature beyond the material. Most significantly, it also is the antidote to solipsism and to a morality of “me.” In the late sixties Jerry Rubin wrote Do It! If it feels good, do whatever it might be. But feeling good and doing good are not the same. A society based on a personal sense of satisfaction cannot sustain itself.
Similarly, a culture that accepts anything which produces wealth will ultimately destroy itself as well. Wilhelm Röpke, a leading free market economist, wrote “the market does not create values, but consumes them and it must be constantly reimpregnated against rot.”
The choice before Americans is the advancement of incremental rot or reimpregnation. One can use the value of materialism or the values that spring from religion. Adam Smith, author of the Wealth of Nations and sometimes described as the father of the free market, was also a moral philosopher. He recognized that a free market unrestrained by virtue is ultimately corrosive.
From what roots does virtue spring? The answer is apparent to those who know the story of the nation’s founding. It is also apparent in the order of the universe and intelligent design. As Browning noted “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.” Well, all may not be right, but if God is not in His heaven, all would certainly be wrong.