It has been a learned joke for 40 years that long-serving Chinese premier Chou En-lai, when asked the principal consequence of the French Revolution, replied: “It is too early to say.” As events unfold in this rather dismal election year in the United States, that does not now seem such a jokey comment. The Revolution in France was carried out in successively more radical stages in the name of Reason, culminating in the bloodbath of the Terror of Prairial in 1794 under the Committee of Public Safety headed by Maximilien de Robespierre. Robespierre menaced the National Convention; he was deposed, declared outside the law, and executed without trial. The calm of Thermidor ensued and there followed pell-mell in the next 165 years a cavalcade of directory, consulate, empires, restorations, republics, and occupations.
The central struggle, in France and in most of the West, was over the role of the state, and more generally, over the cohabitation in Western civilization of the forces of Faith and the forces of, broadly speaking, Reason. (Between 1793 and 1871, one archbishop of Paris fled, one was publicly guillotined, one executed by firing squad, and two were assassinated — pretty rough treatment for normally serenely eminent pillars of society; yet, at intervals, the Church was exalted.) This naturally unstable balance, as the sage Chinese statesman realized, is unresolved, even in America. Most of the leaders of the American Revolution were not religious men; of the six principal founders of the United States, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams, only Adams was a practicing Christian. Washington managed the vocabulary and rites occasionally, as when he prayed at Fort Necessity in 1754 (as well he might, after effectively starting the Seven Years’ War with France and being in a desperate military siege), or when he recommended, for war profiteers in the Continental Congress, a higher gallows than Haman’s in the Old Testament (reckoned to have been 50 feet tall). Jefferson was a deist but managed to refer to “Nature’s God” and Man’s “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence.
The principal intellectual inspiration at the founding of the country was the cult of Reason chiefly sponsored by the French philosophes, especially Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. None of them admitted to being an atheist, but they were all assumed to be indifferentists (agnostics). Voltaire professed to find Christianity “ridiculous, absurd, and sanguinary”; and Montesquieu’s seminal Esprit des Lois, which — more than any other source — inspired the U.S. Constitution, was long condemned by the Holy See.
Though the constitutionally declared U.S. presidential oath does not refer to God, those who take it have, in practice, appended the words, “so help me God” to the oath, and most up to Franklin D. Roosevelt, including Washington and Lincoln, kissed the Bible after being sworn. The most familiar patriotic songs are very explicitly religious. “My Country ’Tis of Thee” exhorts: “Long may our land be bright, / With freedom’s holy light, / Protect us by Thy might, / Great God our King.” Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” could hardly make a more direct invocation, and urges the Almighty to “stand beside her, and guide her, / Through the night with a light from above.” More precise still is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which scripts the Union Army, in specific emulation of the death of Christ, to seek to “die to make men free.”
The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress to prohibit the free exercise of religion, and there are unofficial overtones in many faiths, including most Christian denominations, that the United States has been a providentially favored country, almost a promised land. If a 19th-century British bishop could famously aver that “God is an Englishman,” the United States asserts that “God has favored this undertaking” (the establishment of the American republic, the proverbially “last best hope of earth”). Culturally, all learning and advancement of knowledge is encouraged, and fundamentalist Christian efforts to suppress the teaching of evolution and other scientific concepts apparently inconsistent with the Bible have always been unsuccessful. The state has not oppressed religion, and no level of religiosity or religious authority has been officially permitted to restrict freedom of scholarly research and expression (there have been countless local infringements in both directions, but none sanctioned by higher courts or entrenched in statutes invulnerable to judicial review).
America’s greatest leaders have expressed — with magnificent eloquence, on the most urgent occasions in the country’s history — this seamless fusion of faith and reason, as when Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, said that “if God wills that . . . all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and . . . every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” No matter what the cost in lives, in God’s name, the Union would suppress the insurrection and emancipate the slaves. At his inauguration, at the bottom of the Great Depression in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Our problems, thank God, concern only material things.” On his address to the nation and the world on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the U.S., Britain, and Canada invaded Northwest Europe, FDR’s speech was effectively a prayer. He said that the survival of our republic, our religions — of all civilization, effectively — depended on the success of this assault on “the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. . . . [Our young men] yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home. Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.” (Last year, the Department of the Interior tried to excise those words from the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, because the reference to God was deemed to be potentially provocative, though it is a memorial to FDR and that is what he said. It wasn’t deemed provocative at the time.)
Where the George W. Bush administration championed faith-based initiatives, the Obama administration has moved to compel the Roman Catholic Church to pay for the contraceptive, abortion-inducement, and sterilization treatments of employees and students of Roman Catholic institutions, although that Church, indulgent or at least forgiving in most cases, counsels against such practices as a matter of doctrine. The Church believes that this contravenes the First Amendment and the matter is before the courts. Lower-court tests of the constitutionality of government efforts to compel compliance with laws that require violation of traditionally unexceptionable conscientious sectarian practices have generally found against the legislators involved, but the area will be ambiguous until the case is resolved by the Supreme Court.
The Enlightenment, the coruscation of the Age of Reason, implied that the whole concepts of divinity and of spirituality were, to say the least, questionable, and that each day, as the march of empirical knowledge progressed, the plenitude of knowledge was being approached. While God was a dodgy concept, man might be perfectible (man as God), and, though a heavenly paradise was a superstitious or wishful confection, an earthly paradise might be attainable by the implementation of a political program. Obviously, such a view has, in its most perverted enactments, led to hideously oppressive and wicked political systems. No such gruesome fate is in prospect in the U.S., but this administration does not pay any lip service to the country’s religious traditions, and has carried secularism to levels never attempted by any of its predecessors.
Though he did not put it in these terms, and was not an altogether serious presidential candidate, Rick Santorum touched on some of this in his campaign, in his opposition to the separation of the conduct of the state from the bedrock of Judeo-Christian principles. If this administration is reelected, there is no reason to doubt that it will continue to restrict, on the spurious pretext of separation of church and state, any moral or practical authority except that of the government. It stops short of the 19th-century German societies that had services of state worship highlighted by flags, artillery, and anthems, but it threatens to generate far more serious cultural disputes than the deep ideological divisions already existing in America.
From the most simplistic and mawkish religious views to the most intellectually subtle ones, the body of ecclesiastical beliefs and practices has been, in many countries (but not always), the most reliable restraint to overweening statism. However much these views may be despised by the academic, bureaucratic, and media elites that are the core of the strength of the Democratic party, most Americans are somewhat religious, and most are cautious, as were the Founders, about the powers of government. Most Americans do not respect the Supreme Court, and the great majority have been contemptuous of successive Congresses and administrations.
In trying to subordinate and marginalize America’s religious institutions, the Obama administration is playing with high explosives. It is a bad, dangerous, and devious encroachment on constitutional liberty, and could undermine one of the greatest pillars of American national success. The balance between faith and reason is for the determination of each individual, and of the people as a whole, not of unauthorized government officials uttering impious humbug as they arbitrarily try to define that balance.