Charlotte Allen: Bush and the Religious Vote

Roundup: Historians' Take

Charlotte Allen, in the Los Angeles Times (July 11 2004):

It's a meme typically favored by liberal, Democratic-leaning pundits: Religion — or rather, the public expression of religious belief in political life — is dangerous to America. The idea's propagators are usually talking specifically about President Bush, an unabashed Christian who lards his speeches with biblical allusions and once declared that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher.

In a column titled"Bush's God" in this month's American Prospect magazine, Robert Reich, secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, declares that religion is a graver threat to America than terrorism. Reich predicts that the great battle of the 21st century won't be between terrorists and the West but between"those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority … between those who believe in science, reason and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma."

Reich isn't the only one anxious about religion invading politics. Last year, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, complained that Bush was sending a secret message of solidarity to fellow Christians when he used the phrase"wonder-working power" — taken from a Christian hymn — in a sentence praising Americans' faith and idealism in his State of the Union address. And in a review of several books on the president's family for the current New Yorker magazine, David Greenberg contends that because the inspiration of God and the Bible"is purely personal or subjective, it's not open to debate — and decisions based on it become immune from scrutiny." In other words, it's downright undemocratic for the president to mention God in public.

There's an obvious response to Greenberg's argument: Given that we've got a presidential election in November, offering voters a chance to boot out the Bible-thumping president if they wish, where's the threat to democracy?

But that's beside the point, which is: Although the Constitution explicitly requires separation of church and state, most Americans don't mind — indeed many demand — that their president not only honor religious faith, an American hallmark, but function in some sense as a religious leader. Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, who did not strike most observers as devout, carried his Bible to a Washington church nearly every Sunday morning while president. And Sen. John F. Kerry favorably mentions his Catholic faith, despite his opposition to his church's moral teachings on abortion. It is safe to say that no one who possesses Reich's level of hostility to religion is likely to be elected president soon....

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