The American Enterprise Online
April 24, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

Howard Dean recently announced that “The religious community has to decide whether they want to be tax exempt or involved in politics.”

Does he really mean that? Does he really believe that all other tax-exempt organizations can enter the public square, share their ideas, take a moral stand on this issue or that, inform their followers and supporters about a candidate’s record, host those who write and execute and interpret our laws—but the “religious community” cannot?

If so, he is advocating a radical change in American politics and society.

We may pretend there is a wall separating church and state, but there isn’t. Any country where people vote at churches is not really secular. Religion is intertwined with politics—and so is the religious community. Church and state coexist in the public square. The danger of one co-opting the other is a subject for another essay, but it doesn’t take a theocrat to recognize the central (and often positive) role faith plays in America’s public square.

-Recall that the ancestors of our Founders were people of intense faith, who came to this continent to practice that faith and build a society shaped by that faith.

-Twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Gen. George Washington had a minister detached to his regiment.

-Jefferson’s masterpiece document announcing the nation’s birth invokes “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God” and claims “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

-In the prologue to his edition of The Federalist Papers, Isaac Kramnick notes that many of the Founders, most of them Anti-Federalists, believed “religion was a crucial support of government.”

-And although the Constitution and its amendments were vague on the dividing line between faith and government, the two grew up together, their roots overlapping and mingling in the same soil. As Tocqueville explained in the 1830s, “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” He called religion the first of America’s “political institutions,” marveling at how it somehow facilitated freedom.

-Both sides of the Civil War were led by devout men who turned to church and scripture to defend their divergent causes. “Lincoln’s second inaugural address, with its profound reflection on the mysteries of providence,” as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has observed, “is in some ways worthy of St. Augustine.” And it was the Civil War—a war fought over issues of governance and citizenship—that birthed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which imputed messianic qualities onto the Union armies: “As He died to make men holy let us die to make men free.”

-When FDR and Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic, they led a choir of sailors in singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”

-At the height of the Cold War, John Kennedy declared, “here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

-And when 9/11 awoke America to a new kind of war, it was hard to differentiate the words of America’s commander-in-chief from those of America’s elder pastor: “The Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn,” President George W. Bush intoned at the National Cathedral, on a National Day of Prayer. (Why would a secular nation need such a facility or sanction such a day?) Rev. Billy Graham then steeled us for battle. “We say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes,” he warned. “Some day those responsible will be brought to justice.”

Of course, whether or not Governor Dean realizes it, Bush is not the first president or politician to climb the pulpit steps. In 2000 and again in 2004, Al Gore visited churches to rally the faithful. In 2004, The American Prospect reported how Gore was “hitting black church after black church” in Florida. Likewise, during his campaign for the presidency, John Kerry attended a church where the pastor recognized him as “the next president of the United States.”

Bill Clinton made a habit of visiting churches during his presidency. Just recently, he and his wife (and several other politicians from both parties) took to the pulpit at Coretta Scott King’s funeral to preach on various subjects.

This is nothing new. Bush and Clinton, Gore and Kerry, are merely products of a nation that embraces faith. George Washington invoked God at his inauguration; so did the devout Adams and deistic Jefferson; so did TR and his archenemy Wilson; so did Carter on the left and Reagan on the right; so did the taciturn elder Bush and his born-again son. All of them began their presidencies by putting a hand on the Bible—by custom and tradition, not by force of law.

In short, faith is not quarantined from politics in America; neither are people of faith. They have a right and a responsibility to speak up, to challenge and change their government, to follow the example of others who have followed the call of conscience into the public square. Tax exemption should not disqualify them—or their places of worship—from doing that.