January 20, 2005

Religious rhetoric isn't bad; hypocrisy is

President Bush's inaugural speech was like all of his other presidential speeches: It was filled with religious rhetoric. Bush's speechwriter, Michael Gerson, has unabashedly admitted to intentionally employing that tradition in presidential addresses.

Many liberals believe that this practice is disrespectful to those Americans who are not part of a particular religious affiliation. They believe that it is one more example that Bush is pandering to the religious right, that he is making a distinction between Christians and non-Christians, and they believe that he should stop. I disagree.

Bush probably is pandering to his base, but couching his words in religious symbolism is not morally reprehensible and doing so is certainly not new. Kennedy and Clinton used religious rhetoric in their speeches. So did FDR. Lincoln's speeches were heavily influenced by the cadence of the King James' Bible. In his second inaugural speech, arguably his best speech, Lincoln declared: "With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in." Religious rhetoric in presidential speech extends far back into history and across the spectrum of ideology.

What is morally reprehensible is when the religious right tries to codify their faith so that it is favored under our law. Efforts to write any religion into our laws are without question unconstitutional. Speaking of your faith is fine, but legislating your faith is not. Americans are comfortable enough in their own beliefs that they can make that distinction.

We liberals need to make a distinction between attacking politicians who see their faith as a necessary part of them and those who want to see that their faith becomes a necessary part of us. While politicians can be both those things, it is important that we are accurate in our attacks or we might miss our mark.

Conservatives need to recognize that distinction as well. The whole campaign of saving Christmas for Christ by demanding that public institutions display nativity scenes and other Christian images was quixotic. It is honorable to try and return to the spirit of the holidays as a season of goodwill, but one's faith is not diminished when a public place does not have a specific religious symbol. But if that public place were to have a specific religious symbol, it would most certainly be damaging to citizens not of that faith.

Granted, the line can often seem blurred. The civil liberties debate in America has always been about where to draw that line. Part of that tension comes from the Constitution. The first words of the Bill of Rights are, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Those two enumerated restrictions can conflict. Is prayer in schools an exercise of a student's right to religious worship, or is it an example of the government establishing religion?

Yet, this much is clear. Religion is a part of America, but it should not be a part of our law. Moreover, in this age of visual hypersensitivity, we are so incensed by symbol that we too often ignore the substance. We spend far too much time fighting over symbolic politics, leaving national problems alone. That misuse of our passions is tragic and often hypocritical.

And nowhere is that hypocrisy more transparent and abhorrent than among the religious right. If the religious right is so convinced that, here on earth, God's work must truly be our own, then why are they not spending their time and energy on vanquishing the poverty that exists in this country and all over the world? Jesus' Sermon on the Mount begins, "Blessed are the poor," does it not? Why are they not working to establish the peace that Abraham Lincoln yearned for—"a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Doesn't Jesus proclaim, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God"? The Bible teems with social justice, urging all to create peace and end suffering. Where is their zealotry for that?