Two commentators of great skill, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute and Professor Michael Pakaluk of Clark University, appear to have "squared off" over how great an influence religious faith and its expression should have on political discourse. Miss MacDonald's article takes a strong secular position, whereas Pakaluk's adopts a position more favorable toward traditional public invocations of faith. Both evince considerable passion, both mount elegant arguments, and both miss the point.
The brilliant Michael Novak, America's foremost thinker on the interface between religion and politics, recently responded to a challenge from Miss MacDonald that Christianity prove its claims to truth:
Mac Donald is right to demand as much.
Either the Catholic Church (to stick to what I know best) is true, or it isn’t. That’s where the Church makes its stand. (As Lenny Bruce used to joke, “It is the only one true church.”) It can do no other, for the name it accepts for God is that God is “Spirit and Truth.” The very first commandment, handed on to the church by Judaism, is “thou shalt not have false gods before me.” Between false gods and the true God the decisive point is truth.
The significance of Novak's approach will be lost on many persons of our time, mostly because of the shallowness of contemporary education. Any religion that addresses the great questions of the human experience must deliver answers that, at the very least, do not require us to accept demonstrably false statements. If a creed's claims are consistent with the truths revealed by reality, it may get a respectful hearing. Of course, with the passage of time, Mankind becomes more capable of testing such claims; accordingly, a faith that appeared consistent with temporal reality in year X might not look so good in year X+100, or X+1000. But that's built into the nature of intellectual inquiry.
The two great Thomases, Aquinas and Jefferson, agreed that true religion does not demand that the mind accept absurdities, Tertullian's nonsense notwithstanding. In other words, they conceded that the evidence of the world around us, delivered through our sense organs and the instruments we build to extend them, is primary; it trumps theories of all kinds, not merely scientific ones. Neither Hillel nor Christ uttered a single word to dispute them.
Wherefor, then, the wrangle over the political admissibility of faith? Politics -- "the art of the possible" -- is concerned with achieving particular conditions and results in this world. Politicians have unlearned the nasty habit of predicting that their opponents will roast in Hell; among other things, the concomitant lip-smacking tends to leave spots on one's tie. More important, the temporal world operates according to strict rules of cause and effect, without regard for one's faith. A political platform that promises results of some kind because God, if properly petitioned and propitiated, will intervene to deliver them is massively presumptuous, to put it mildly.
The great orators of America's past were sensible enough to confine their public religious statements to expressions of faith and gratitude. Those who argued for this or that policy or program "because God wants it that way" are less well remembered. But conversely, secular sorts were once far less disposed to take offense at public figures' expressions of faith in or gratitude to God. Our contemporary anti-theists have turned militant, as if for President Bush to quote Isaiah or cite Christ as his favorite philosopher were somehow a mandate laid upon them as well. That's a modern vice which we would do well to unlearn.