July 12, 2002, Friday
SECTION: National Review Online; Michael Novak
LENGTH: 2672 words
HEADLINE: The Atheist Civil-Liberty Union?
BYLINE: By Michael Novak; Michael Novak, the George F. Jewett scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Novak is the author, most recently, of On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.
The American Civil Liberties Union has a public agenda, and that agenda appears to be this: to make the United States in all her public manifestations reflect an atheist's view of the nation's Founding and continuing existence. Is it item #84 on the ACLU's published agenda that calls for the elimination of "In God We Trust" from our coins? "Under God" must also be torn from the Pledge of Allegiance. The Commandments given Moses must never appear as public symbols under government auspices. This nation must so thoroughly appear to be atheist in public as to be, in fact, and for all practical purposes, atheist in all public spheres.
The sweet air of liberty must be replaced with an invisible gas that detects, exterminates, and suffocates any breath that would expel a religious word in public life. Publicly, religion must be totally repressed, so that soon only atheists will find the public atmosphere comfortable.
The accommodation this nation long ago reached between believers and nonbelievers must be abandoned. Religion shall be banned from all public appearances under government auspices, until it is totally squeezed down into private life, underground. There, harmless, it can survive as long as it may.
Ideally, some atheists have written and many have heavily implied, religion will perish forever. Its vanishing will free the planet from divisiveness, intolerance, hatred, persecution, and the desire to sweep alternative views from public existence.
Secularism, the world's best hope for tolerance, will then rule triumphant, sweetly, having driven its foes from every inch of public existence.
To save the world from intolerance, the ACLU must be rigorously intolerant.
Public life in the United States must be made religion-free.
Atheism is a long-term project. It is not completed when one ceases believing in God. It is necessary to carry it through until one empties from the world all the conceptual space once filled by God. One must also, for instance, abandon the conviction that the events, phenomena, and laws of the world we live in (those of the whole universe) cohere, belong together, have a unity. What is born from chance may be ruled by chance, quite insanely.
Most atheists one meets, however, take up a position rather less rigorous. To the big question - Did the world of our experience, with all its seeming intelligibility and laws, come into existence by chance, or by the action of an agent that placed that intelligibility there in the first place? - the run-of-the-mill journalistic atheist replies, By chance.
Problem is, such fellows blink at the point grasped so fearlessly by Nietzsche. If the answer to the Big Question is chance, then all the coherence among the little questions may mean nothing at all - is intelligible only in appearances, and is otherwise a big lie. Courage is not really any better than cowardice; that's only a preference. Hate is not really worse than love; to think so is merely a weakling's prejudice. Freedom is no better than slavery; both are equally absurd. Destructiveness is no better and no worse than creativity.
Most atheists, of course, would rather get rid of God, but still keep the rationality in the universe that comes from actually having a God, Who understood all things before they were, and then made them to be. Atheists of that sort would even like to keep the Jewish vision of community, justice, and compassion, as set forth in the Prophets. All this, without keeping the God of Israel.
A nice deal, if you can negotiate it.
Even Jean-Paul Sartre thought being an atheist is a lot harder than that. At a minimum, he thought, one has to be honest, and not steal what one no longer has title to steal.
In America, however, most of our atheists are actually thinly disguised Christians, or sometimes thinly disguised Jews, who want to retain the humanism taught by the Creator, without believing in the Creator. They believe in the image of God, without believing in God. They want the Kingdom of God - the Kingdom of compassion, justice, peace, love, integrity, honesty, and commitment - without God, the King.
A terrific deal, if you can get it. A steal!
What makes the life of the ACLU difficult is that the actual history of the United States has been borne aloft on the wings of Jewish and Christian faith since its very beginning:
The first act of the First Continental Congress in 1774 was a motion to pause for prayer, for guidance in a sudden extremity (British troops were reported to have landed with flame and violence in Boston). When that motion was carried, the prayer chosen was a Jewish prayer, Psalm 35.
With American troops suffering terribly at Valley Forge, under the blows of defeat after defeat following July 4, Congress decreed an invitation to the states to celebrate a national day of fasting and humiliation [December 11, 1776], to beg God's pardon for the manifest sins of Americans of all ranks, and to ask for His assistance in the present just and necessary war. [Where was the ACLU that December, when we needed them?]
Even Tom Paine wrote that he was not so much of an infidel as to believe that Almighty God could abandon a people committed to the liberty to which he had called them.
Commander-in-chief Washington ordered his soldiers to begin each day with public prayer, in ranks, in the presence of their officers.
During the Jefferson administration, the largest church service in the United States was held in the US Capitol Building, and Jefferson publicly attended, and saw to it that music was supplied at government expense, by the Marine Band. Decades later, a large church service was also held each Sunday in the Supreme Court building.
The American way was not separation of church and state. It was accommodation. The Americans did not want a national, federally chosen established church, such as the Church of England was in Britain. They insisted that the Congress accommodate itself to existing establishments of religion in the several states, and not prohibit existing exercises of religion, public or private.
They also wanted unfettered freedom of individual religious conscience, for that is what alone of all world religions, Judaism and Christianity distinctively require.
The American people, led by the Baptists of James Madison's district in Virginia (who forced Madison to change his intentions on the matter, if he wanted their votes), demanded a constitutional amendment to make freedom of religion explicit in the Constitution. The final amendment prohibited Congress both from any action regarding the establishment of any one national religion, and from any action regarding the disestablishment of any of the existing established churches (in the five states that had such). Congress was to "make no law respecting the establishment of religion," neither for nor against establishment.
In sum, the official actions, decrees, and laws of the Founding generation, and for generations after them asserted or implied that whole peoples and states, as well as individuals, have duties toward their Creator. In fighting for their independence, the American nation had formed a bond with Him to treat liberty as His sacred trust. By giving humans liberty in their natural endowment, liberty above all when face-to-face with Himself, the Creator had led them to believe that "rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." Setting liberty as a pillar of light advancing before them, He had guided them through the night of war. With His help, they outlasted a far superior power and won their independence. They felt a duty to be grateful, as a nation.
It is hard to imagine American public life over the next four or five score years after independence without the public presence and leavening power of Judaism and Christianity.
Think of the abolition movement, the temperance movement, the Sunday-School movement, the Social Gospel.
The early Protestants were uncommonly attached to the Jewish Testament, as the best practical guide for a new people building a new nation. They saw themselves in a position much like that of the ancient people of Israel, the "First" Israel, to which they imagined themselves the "Second." They were coming out of captivity, crossing through a wilderness, trying to build a city on the hill, trying to establish a new nation, and to find a method of government both successful and pleasing to God. (Many sermons in those days took as their texts the biblical history of the Jewish nation. So, often enough, did John Locke himself.)
Imagine American history once the ACLU gets finished cleansing it from public mention of religion. Consider the plight of Abraham Lincoln. The ACLU will have to ban the public singing of the anthem that more than any other symbolized the crusade against slavery, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." There's a lot about God in that hymn, and His Truth, and its power to keep marching on, trampling on vineyards, loosing lightning-swift swords. Even the Easter of the Savior Who died to set men free. In other words, quite publicly, quite officially, the armies of this nation sang aloud, over tramping feet, that human freedom is a sacred cause, singled out by Judaism and Christianity as the central historical responsibility of every single woman and man created by God, the author of liberty.
Few other world religions require that their God must be worshiped "in spirit and in truth." It is not clear, for example, that Buddhism is even to be understood as a theistic religion; and probably not Animism, either. For most world religions, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome, all that is required is external observance: bow your head, bend your knee, burn the incense, say the words. There is no personal God to see directly into your heart as in an open book.
Not so, Judaism and Christianity.
Here the appeal is directly to the conscience of each, in that sacred arena in which the Creator and each human creature are present to each other, as Madison's Remonstrance puts it, prior to civil society, and prior to all obligations of any man to either state or civil society.
The Jewish and Christian God, like no other, offers His friendship to each man and woman, and each of them, inalienably, must reply, Yes, or No.
Neither mother nor father, nor brother nor sister, can reply for you. You must reply, as I must reply, alone. Inalienably.
There, for Madison (as for the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Statute of Religious Liberty), on ground that comes not from philosophy but from Judaism and Christianity and them alone, lies the foundation of natural rights. Arguments from philosophy may complement this religious conviction. But they are not nearly so tight or precise in pinpointing the individual conscience, or the source of its sacred inviolability.
So also, Tom Paine sailed to France in 1789 to beg the French revolutionaries not to turn to atheism, lest in that way they undercut the ground of their human rights. Paine was no orthodox Christian or Jew of any stripe, but from such sources he had imbibed much about conscience, Final Judgment, and the ground of human rights. He warned the Jacobins that atheism would lead to rivers of blood. He was thrown into jail as many meddlesome preachers before him had been. A great deal of blood flowed, in the name of Reason, as he had feared.
For such reasons, virtually all America's Founders (take the top 100, for instance), believed that religion, at least natural religion, of the Jewish and Christian type, that is, putting individual conscience, human liberty, and the brotherly community at the center of political striving, was indispensable to the thriving of republican government. Without liberty, no republic. Without virtue (sound habits of specific sorts), no liberty. Without religion (at least for most people, and over the long run), no virtue.
A large majority of Americans learn their moral principles in the context of a Judge to Whom they must render an account, and in the form of the Commandments given to Moses (and all civilized peoples) by the Creator. For them, the good civic habits that protect liberty come from religious nurturing. When their religious faith weakens, so does their moral strictness. They loosen up. Moral entropy is a constant theme down the generations. Great Awakenings, followed by lower standards and broader permissiveness.
A few modern Americans may not see the importance of religion to the morals of many others. Recent surveys suggest some 7 to 9 percent count themselves atheists, who seem to find that at least they can have virtue without religion. Could be. Yet as George Washington put it in his Farewell Address: Whatever may be said of persons of a peculiar character [such as Jefferson?], religion and morality are indispensable foundations for republican government. So also said the Congress, in the same year as the drafting of the Constitution, 1787, in the Northwest Ordinance.
One must feel sorry for atheists. They seem so lonely. Alone not only under the vast stars of a summer's night, in all this immense cosmos. And passing through it as we do all, as evanescently as fireflies. But alone also in this religion-drenched country, most of whose public spaces reek of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
With great self-restraint on the part of our people, the God who blesses America is seldom referred to as Savior, Redeemer, or Holy Trinity, in the traditional Christian symbols, but rather as Governor of nature's laws, Creator who endowed in us our rights, Judge of our hidden consciences, and Providence in whom we place our trust - all of which are Jewish names for God.
Poor, lonely ACLU. If you have friends with membership cards, give them each a hug. Despite all, they have every right to feel included. We want them to feel included. We do our best to accommodate them, without making over the whole of public life in their image.
For Jews and Christians are obliged to respect liberty of conscience, since, they have been taught, God Himself respects it. They will be trigger-quick to point to eras in which Christians have not respected consciences. We have similar fears about atheist regimes we have known. And this is America, 2002.
Atheists in our midst are proof that all consciences can be accommodated here, even those that have no ground for holding that conscience is sacred, inalienable, and prior to civil society.
So also we accommodate - even give tenure to, in certain privileged universities - those who hold that animals, who are not required to respond to God in spirit and in truth, nonetheless bear the same dignity as humans, and have natural rights just as humans do.
We make this accommodation, even though we see vividly that animals can't have rights in the same sense, exactly, as humans do, not bearing the same relationship to God that God has uniquely established with human beings.
Unless, of course, there is no God. In which case, our own rights are as meaningless as those of animals. Perhaps that is why animals don't respect one another's rights. And why it's a bit odd that we humans do try to respect one another's rights.
At least those try, who live in the civilizations shaped by the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity.
And what will happen to our own civilization, when the full atheistic agenda of the ACLU has finally and completely been accomplished? When there is no one who can speak publicly, under government auspices, about the ground of our rights? When no public symbols or ceremonies remind the young of these sacred sources, from whose depths alone spring their special nobility and unique calling? When the United States of America has thoroughly abandoned in public the faith of our forebears, and only the desolate winds of atheism blow across our monuments? When our rights are reduced to those of a barnyard?
No more than the Jacobins of France in 1789 do they know what they do.