The Church/State Debate

Secular Politics under Attack, Left and Right

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” said James Madison. In a country in which 75 million voters self-identify as fundamentalist Christians-that is, biblical literalists-let’s just say no one’s clamoring to inscribe Madison’s words above judicial benches.

On May 17 at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, liberal Rabbi Michael Lerner and conservative Catholic layman Michael Novak will debate whether there is too much, or too little, religion in American politics. Based on their new books-Lerner’s The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right and Novak’s Washington’s God-a more appropriate question might be: What sort of religion should characterize American politics? Lerner favors a liberal, compassionate God; Novak a patriarchal, fire and brimstone type. Where they agree is on the need for some sort of spiritual relief from the “technocratic” (as Lerner calls it) nature of modern American society.

Michael Novak

Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine and a former Berkeley radical, is quite liberal; at one point he describes Congressional Democrats as “unable” to capitalize on Representative John Murtha’s call for an immediate pullout from Iraq. Lerner deplores the religious chauvinism of the Christian right and finds its ascension of influence under the Bush administration a matter of considerable distress. Of equal distress, however, are the spiritual blinders from which Lerner believes the American left suffers. “There is a real spiritual crisis in American society, and the religious right has managed to position itself as the articulator of the pain that crisis causes and as the caring force that will provide a spiritual solution,” he writes. According to Lerner, the left is “clueless” about this spiritual crisis, and it has “never occurred to them to be shapers of this social energy instead of merely responders.”

There is much to recommend Lerner’s fine book. His palpable anger at the bigotry of the religious right is matched by a compassionate and generous view of human nature. He writes with verve and supports his various pronouncements with a convincing mixture of data and anecdote.

Yet many readers may be troubled by Lerner’s prescription for the spiritual “crisis” assailing the American electorate. In his call to leverage spirituality as a political tool, he undervalues the fact that, in a nation between 85 and 90 percent Christian, matters spiritual are, effectively, matters Christian. Introducing them into political discourse will further weaken the separation of church and state. Moreover, the alienation and anomie engendered by modern, market-driven society doesn’t necessarily need God as its solution, politically speaking. Barack Obama seems to be achieving political traction with a message notably ideological and civic in tone. Yet in so doing, Obama, like JFK before him, rarely invokes God.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Novak, the current director of Social and Political Studies at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, is quite conservative. The best his publisher could come up with for back-cover book blurbs was a couple of notes from obscure right-wing journals and a rave from the rabid, conservative tabloid the New York Post (a history book being fted by the Post is a little like a science book being stroked by the Weekly World News). Novak’s book, Washington’s God, is unsophisticated in its use of arguments and evidence, and his thesis-that Washington (generally thought to have been a Deist) was “secretly” quite devoutly Christian and that he intended for the nation’s politics to reflect biblical teaching-will convince no one who doesn’t want to be convinced.

Novak, who in 2003 tried and failed to convince the Vatican that the Iraq war was not only defensible but “mandatory,” is not on new ground in his implication of Washington in the call for more religion in U.S. politics. When justifying their displeasure at the constitutional separation of church and state, conservative Christians (and Catholics) regularly invoke the religiosity of the founding fathers. If Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and their brethren were deeply Christian, they argue, the manifestly secular constitution they forged must not reflect what they actually felt about political society. Aside from its logical incoherence, this contention suffers from a bothersome deficiency of evidence. Garry Wills, perhaps the greatest living scholar of American history (with the acclaim and awards to prove it), recently put it this way: “The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government-until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present.”

Pascal, the French philosopher, distinguished between the fealty public officials owe their religion and the service they owe the public. The first, he said, should never supplant the second. Our leaders need look no further than the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights to find the same sentiment, inscribed in ink on parchment.


Michael Novak will conduct the 6th Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate, Thursday May 17 at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. The discussion is free and open to the public, and books will be available for purchase and signing. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit


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