Defending the Enlightenment
Whose nation under God?
By Robert Kuttner April 27, 2005
WHEN John Kennedy was running for president and passions were running high about whether a Catholic could serve both the American citizenry and Rome, a joke made the rounds about a priest and a minister whose friendship nearly came to blows. Finally the priest phoned his old friend. ''What a pity," he said. ''Here we are, both men of the cloth, fighting over politics." ''It's true," said the minister. ''We're both Christians. We both worship the same God -- you in your way, and I in His."
America, which separated church and state precisely to protect the private right to worship, has long had its share of religious absolutists who have wanted to harness the power of the state to their own view of revealed truth. But never before in our history has the government deliberately and cynically intervened on the side of the zealots.
President Bush, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and company are playing with serious fire. As the joke suggests, there is no challenging revealed truth. That's why the state stays neutral.
What's under siege here is nothing less than the Enlightenment. Please recall that what we benignly remember as the Renaissance coexisted with centuries of vicious religious persecution -- Christians persecuting heretics like Galileo, expelling and slaughtering Muslims and Jews, then doing bloody battle with each other following the Protestant Reformation.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment were men of science who understood that faith could not be disputed but that reason could be subjected to the test of logic and evidence. The American Revolution was a triple triumph -- for political democracy, religious tolerance, and for the free inquiry demanded by the scientific method.
Today's religious extremists are not only trying to use the state, with all its power, as religious proselytizer. They oppose science when it happens to conflict with their version of revealed truth. They twist history to claim that the Republic's freethinking Founders, like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, were really theocrats like themselves. They long for the predemocratic world of absolutes circa 1500.
Although proponents of state sponsorship of ''faith-based" activities claim that all faiths are equally eligible, the politically dominant soon attempt to dictate the approved faith. Leon Wieseltier has observed, ''It is never long before one nation under God gives way to one God under a nation."