The New York Times


August 21, 2004

'One Electorate Under God?'


ne Electorate Under God?" is the kind of book that writers are warned against. Never mind that its subject matter, the role of religion in American politics, has been far hotter this summer than the actual weather. Never mind that the book, edited by E. J. Dionne Jr., Jean Bethke Elshtain and Kayla M. Drogosz, and published last month by the Brookings Institution, has a star-studded list of just over 50 contributors.

That list includes congressmen, pollsters, theologians, historians and other scholars. It includes Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers - and, of course, Republicans, Democrats and independents. Three former presidential aides found in these pages suggest the book's ideological spectrum: a conservative, Gary L. Bauer; a liberal, Paul Begala; and a libertarian, Doug Bandow. From the sociology of religion come such prominent - and different - practitioners as Robert Bellah, Andrew Greeley and Alan Wolfe, and one can say the same of jurisprudence and political science.

This very diversity indicates the problem. Here is a nearly endless buffet of reflections rather than one or two main courses to praise or criticize. The collection is "anchored" - the editors' carefully chosen image - by two presentations made at an event sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. One was by former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, a liberal Democrat and Roman Catholic. The other was by Representative Mark Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana and an evangelical Protestant.

"To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door," Mr. Souder said, "is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do."

Every day, he said, he must make moral decisions, based on his religious convictions, about legislation. "I find,'' he said, "that I am allowed to use these Christian values in speaking out for national parks and in speaking out against spouse abuse but not when I speak out against homosexual marriage, pornography, abortion, gambling, or evolution across species."

Mr. Cuomo did not ask that religious beliefs be checked at the public door, but he limited entrance to those that "would serve well as an article of universal public morality," that were "not narrowly sectarian" but fulfilled "a universal human desire for order or peace or justice or kindness or love."

Advocating, in effect, a very loose version of "natural law," a tradition historically associated with his Roman Catholicism, Mr. Cuomo spelled out two moral principles that he asserted "would occur to us if we were only 500,000 people on an island without books, without education, without rabbis or priests or history, and we had to figure out who and what we were." These two principles - respect for one another and collaborative improvement of the world - nicely captured Americans' perpetually competing concerns for individual freedom and for community, he said, and "are shared by most if not all our nation's religions."

To which Mr. Souder replied that "the notion of a natural law common to all religions" was a particular worldview itself, and one at odds with his Christian faith.

"I cannot relate to the idea of a generic, natural law God,'' he said. "My God is a particularly Christian God." Moreover, Mr. Souder questioned whether all religions really had "a common denominator that is workable in the American political system."

These presentations may have been less than definitive treatments of the role of religion in politics. But they were clear and solid enough to stimulate lively commentary in the book's dozens of essays, each longer than a sound bite but shorter than a treatise.

Some essayists faulted Mr. Cuomo's natural-law principles as too soft and baggy to be useful, while several evangelical thinkers urged Mr. Souder to reconsider his dismissal of natural law. Michael Cromartie, who directs projects involving evangelicals at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, invoked thinkers like John Calvin and concepts like "common grace," all with impeccable Reformation credentials. "A proper appropriation of the natural law tradition," Mr. Cromartie wrote, "can provide a public grammar for making appeals in the public arena to people who hold diverse philosophical worldviews and presuppositions."

The essays bristled with insights going far beyond the introductory presentations, however. One of the book's most overtly religious and even theological essays came not from a theologian but from John J. Sweeney, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Alongside his practical plea for religious attention to the needs of working families and the role of labor unions, Mr. Sweeney offered a capsule theology of work, rooted in the sacraments and a doctrine of "God's ongoing act of creation."

Many essayists made abundantly clear why their religious convictions tilted them either toward or away from the Bush administration. Mark Noll, professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College and one of the nation's most eminent church historians, highlighted seven issues "related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith that grounds my existence": social redress for African-Americans, the protection of prenatal life, equity in taxation, the expansion of free trade, the availability of medical care to all, free exercise of religion and adherence to the international rule of law.

"Neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even something remotely resembling this combination," Professor Noll wrote. "Unless something unexpected happens, I will not be voting for the presidential nominee of either major party."

One note repeatedly sounded was the sheer persistence and pervasiveness of religion in American political life. "American politics is indecipherable if it is severed from the interplay and panoply of America's religions," Ms. Elshtain wrote.

Contributors nailed down the point with presidential declarations from Washington to Jefferson to Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian now writing a biography of William Jennings Bryan, noted that the American left, despite its contemporary secularism, "has never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have us do."

What makes this collection easy to sample but impossible to summarize is what, according to the book's editors, explodes a number of prejudices: "Religious voices are not confined to the Right - or to the Left or the Center. Worries about improper entanglement between religion and government are not confined to liberals. Moral passion rooted in faith is not limited to the ranks of religious conservatives."

"This unusually diverse and thoughtful group of writers," the editors concluded, "challenge the stereotypes that insist that when religion enters the public square civility inevitably gives way, tolerance disappears, and rational argument becomes impossible."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company