The cliché is tired but it evokes the truth: When in polite company, most of us have been told to mind our manners regarding the discussion of two subjects thought to be toxic in their combination: Religion and politics. Who of us who have dared to transgress that boundary has not paid a price in the odd glance, abrupt end of a conversation, or worse?
But I would argue robustly that this is a cliché in need of revision. That’s because, from the very founding of America and up to and including the present day, faith and public policy have always gone together in the American experience. Indeed, religion and government have complimented one another in a way that is robust, fitting, and keeping with our best traditions in American political life.
No party, right or left, is exempt.
This combination of faith and politics has found great success because of the prudent co-mingling – yet respectful bright lines – between what St. Augustine called the "City of God and the city of man." Chuck Colson has rightly said there exists a natural tension between the two because each has its own singular function. Colson calls them “kingdoms in conflict,” and he is right.
Yet that natural tension between earthly and heavenly concerns, between the sphere of revelation and religion versus the sphere of government and the secular realm, is a good thing. It produces a healthy dynamism that is one of the animating principles of Western Civilization.
There would have been no abolition of the slave trades, co-education of women, a civil rights movement, or the present pro-life movement (which is the most important of the civil rights movements of our era) without a robust engagement between the pulpit and the political podium, giving to us debates in the halls of power and the fellowship halls of churches and synagogues. These debates, discussions, and conversations are signposts of a healthy, robust, confident, and civil country.
Going into the 2012 presidential, gubernatorial, senate, and House races, I predict with confidence this co-mingling will continue. In fact, we have already seen it.
President Obama commemorated the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by reading the luminous 46th Psalm at Ground Zero. That is something Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan could have done with ease. But can you imagine a German Chancellor or French President doing so? Of course not. It is because, as the theologian Michael Novak has observed, we are indeed and remain a “religious republic,” and mass secularization has still not categorically washed up upon our shores.
Governor Rick Perry called for a major prayer rally in Houston two months ago and has called for official "Days of Rain" in a drought-ridden Texas.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said that before running for office, she prayed to God for guidance. I am certain many of her House colleagues, Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, did the same, and have talked about it when asked in churches and along the campaign rope lines.
Former Massachusetts Governor Romney gave a multitude of forgettable speeches during his first run for the presidency in 2008 but his speech about the relationship between his Mormonism and public life. His address was not only powerful and effective but also it evoked a similarly powerful speech that our great nation’s only Catholic president, John Kennedy, delivered famously in Houston in 1960. -- Romney probably should have delivered that speech earlier in his campaign.
Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University Law professor, wrote in The Washington Post recently, “Politicized piety is at the heart of the 2012 campaign. We need to rebuild the wall between church and state that has long protected us from ourselves. The question is: Do we have enough faith in secular government to get it done?”
What is Professor Turley actually advocating? Allowing the government to protect us from the very faith that defines us as a people and as a nation, the same faith that has been at the very foundation of our country? His is a hollow, historical argument and plea.
Religion and politics have gone together from our founding.
Intellectual giants as different as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson disagreed on major things when framing the country – the size and scope of government, whether there should be a Constitution, the list is endless and important – but they agreed on one big thing: That our liberty came not from government but from God, and that to secure our liberty there must be a robust virtue among the people, a robust moral excellence.
That virtue, they believed, arose from the Judeo-Christian tradition, from Holy Scripture. Virtue was the other side of liberty, and helped nourish and sustain American freedoms. They were right to see that natural relationship between God and government.
Heading into the 2012 election year, I am uncertain how the great economic, foreign policy, and security questions of our time will evolve and be shaped and formed by our public women and men. But I am certain the prism of religion will remain at the surface, and that moral reasoning will fully inform the various campaigns. That’s because, in America, we would have to decouple our history as a people from the impact of the single most influential book on our founding: the Holy Bible.
Justice is the end of government. As Americans, the idea of right and wrong, even in our more secularized era, still flows through Scriptures and the writing and lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Paul, Timothy, and Jesus Christ. The Judeo-Christian tradition is and remains the moral foundation of this exemplary nation.
Timothy S. Goeglein is the Vice President for External Relations at Focus on the Family and is the author of the new book "The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era," just out from Broadman and Holman Books, 2011.