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Toward a more religious politics

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, November 3, 2006

In the aftermath of the last presidential election, the media made much of exits polls showing George Bush had won because of “values voters.” In the eyes of the press, this category meant that Bush’s victory was due not to anything real, not to anything that ought to matter, but simply because voters perceived him as better than John Kerry in some immaterial yet decisive litmus test of either “character” or “Christianity.”

With their signature swift incompetence, some Democrats had attempted to hijack this category by voicing bald platitudes of religious devotion even before the election. One remembers Howard Dean’s exquisitely Episcopalian martyrdom over a bike path, and John Kerry’s waxing “papist” by inventing a new pope – Paul XXIII, was it? – to justify ex cathedra his support of abortion.

At the sight of such spectacles, one could only assume Democratic strategists had concluded thus: since “values voting” is all perception and no substance, since religion in the political sphere is about “wedge issues” and “voter bases” and not about the will of a God who does not exist anyway, shameless soul bearing is appropriate if it can pick up the vote of some fence-sitting Methodist from Ohio. They assumed Bush was just playing a cunning political game with the irrational sentiments of the American people, and that they had every right to do so as well. The exit polls reminded us, though, that whatever one may think of Bush in other respects, when he speaks about God, he sounds as if he actually believes in Him. Bush may be as nihilistic as the Democrats – I don’t know – but he at least did God the credit of learning to sound as if he wanted to serve Him.

In any case, after the election three schools of analysis arose about the “values vote.” The media generally decried it as the invasion of our free electoral system by those un-American zealots who dare to be, simultaneously, Christian and citizens with a right to suffrage. Others, such as my namesake, a professor at SMU, said the exit polls overstated the influence of “values” on the election. A third, no doubt minority, group suggested that the exit polls indicate Americans indeed are resistant to the apparent secularization of our politics – a program spearheaded by the soulless humanitarianism of modern liberalism. The majority, then, voiced the old saw that “religion and politics should be separate.”

Such a demand is as old as America. Indeed, much older. Many wars have been fought in the name of getting religion out of politics. The seventeenth-century wars, mistakenly called the “wars of religion,” were actually squabbles among various European monarchs to win sovereignty over stable geographic masses, eliminating the role of Church authority. David B. Hart has written that our persistence in calling these wars “of religion” demonstrates how powerful the ideology of the state has been. Since the decided effect of these conflicts was the invention and normalization of the temporal state as sovereign, where the ruler could claim legitimate control over every minute aspect of his territory – including what his subjects could believe in their hearts – one should call them and the resultant Peace of Westphalia what they really were: wars aimed at reducing the destiny of man to his use-value for the state – the “birth pangs” of Leviathan.

The French Revolution, though as complex an event as any in modern history, was in part an attempted genocide by the party of “reason” against the “superstitious” powers of the Catholic Church. “Oh, Reason, what crimes are committed in your name,” the martyrs cried from the guillotine. And “Reason” seemed to have won, when Robespierre rechristened Notre Dame a temple to the worship of Her. France continued its unhappy war against religion in politics for more than a century, punctuating it by exiling many French priests and drafting others for the trenches during WWI. They may serve God on Sunday, if they survive, but the rest of the week, their bodies belonged to the Republic.

The great triumph in the enlightened war to get “religion out of politics” came with WWII. Only then did we encounter a fire-breathing modern paganism anxious to incinerate Christianity by usurping its claims to divinity. Hitler learned the lesson of the previous three hundred years and exploited it almost successfully: the modern state could not merely deny the truths of religion and say that the highest truth and only power was that of the secular, temporal realm. The Church would bounce back from that too easily. The state must deify itself and baptize its citizens a “chosen nation.” Hitler learned so much from the Jews, perverted their ideas in order to out-Christ Christianity, and then tried to kill all the Jews for good measure.

One can only say, with this history behind us, “Oh, secular politics! Oh, secular state! What crimes have been committed in your name!”

What about the Crusades, one asks? The longstanding complaint about them was that the Crusaders went to the Holy Land to pillage, rape and murder, nominally for God, but in truth only for the satisfaction of pillaging, raping and murdering. If that complaint is just, then one may as justly say that the Crusades were a war, but they were not religious.

Or rather, that the fault found in the Crusaders is that they did not take seriously enough the Gospel they claimed to be defending with the sword. Had there been a good deal more religion – specifically, Christian charity – in the Crusades, perhaps they would not have been fought in the first place. Since they were fought – for however just or unjust a reason – the advocates of “secular politics” thrill to find in them the ultimate “wedge issue,” the ultimate abuse of a “conservative voter base,” but this is ahistorical.

The publication of David Kuo’s book on the Bush Administration’s office of faith-based initiatives suggests that Bush can be as disingenuous and scheming in his use of religion for political gain as the Democrats have been hollow and incompetent. But the lesson is not what Lou Dobbs or the ACLU would have us believe: that we need religion out of politics.

One possesses the virtue of religion because one reveres Truth, and only if we wish to serve the common good in the light of Truth do we have any claim to participate in politics. We need more religion in politics. But we need it less as empty rhetoric and more as a sincere plea for the weak before the mighty, a cry on behalf of the immortal soul of every human person against the massive machinery of a modern state that will commit any crime necessary to extend its sovereignty.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow who likes his politics local and his Church universal. He can be reached at jwilson5@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer