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Faith Talk

12:00 AM, Sep 11, 2000 • By J. BOTTUM and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The nation's liberty, George Washington pointed out more than two hundred years ago, cannot be maintained without morality, and morality, in turn, largely rests on religion. But over the last four decades, the forces of secularism -- with considerable aid from America's judges -- have won innumerable battles in the war to banish religion from the nation's public life.

Of course, there has been resistance. Thinkers from Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square to Stephen Carter in The Culture of Disbelief have fought back, waging an unfashionable fight on behalf of public religion in America -- not so much for the sake of religion, as for the sake of America.

Now it seems the resistance has succeeded. It looks like victory when the Democrats, seeking a vice-presidential candidate to help them distance themselves from the dishonor of President Clinton, light on an observant Jew as the most obvious exemplar of morality.

It looks like victory when the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded to fight discrimination against Jews, is forced to the confusion of censuring that candidate because he's been speaking aloud about his Judaism.

It looks like victory when both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees speak openly of their Christian faith, and the Democratic vice-presidential nominee stands in a church pulpit, as Senator Lieberman did on Sunday, August 27, to call upon the American people to "renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

It looks like victory when the editorial page of the New York Times, in its attempt to persuade Senator Lieberman to abandon his religious rhetoric, is reduced to the dubious expedient of trying to correct George Washington on the meaning of America's founding.

The question is: What exactly has been won? After all, at the moment the most obvious victor is Al Gore. The Democrats are "going to take back God this time," a campaign official claimed earlier this year -- and, by God, they have. From the Democratic party's point of view, Joe Lieberman's fight with the Anti-Defamation League could not have been better timed. Strongly religious people have tended to vote Republican in recent years, precisely because they have seen the Democratic party as captive to a radically secularist ideology. But how can they not respond sympathetically when they observe a believer in God attacked for mentioning his belief? Almost nothing the Democrats do can really put at risk the votes of the secularists, and with Lieberman, they may have successfully weakened the Republicans' hold on the religious. In other words, the Lieberman nomination has allowed Gore to accomplish a pair of nicely judged triangulations: appearing to censure the behavior of the president with whom Gore would otherwise be indelibly associated, and appearing to distance himself from the secularist radicals in his own party.

Still, the Republicans have resources with which to respond, and the passive silence of George W. Bush since the Democratic convention is astonishing. So -- Bush ought to be asking -- is Gore going to select judges who will permit the religious "reawakening" and "rededication" for which his running mate now calls? The secularization of public life has occurred not by the will of the American people, but by the will of the American judiciary. A handful of cases in recent years have, by a series of close votes in the Supreme Court, slightly reversed the trend. The next president will likely have several appointments to the Supreme Court, and will name hundreds of judges to the lower federal courts. Won't Gore select judicial nominees who will uphold his views on abortion, affirmative action, vouchers, and a secular public square -- all the standard Democratic litmus tests? How can that possibly allow the return of public religion that Lieberman desires?

Indeed, won't Gore be unlikely even to staff his own administration with religion-friendly types? Clinton, one remembers, ran as a new sort of Democratic moderate, but his administration quickly silted up with all the old, familiar leftists -- because the Democrats don't actually have anyone, except Lieberman, who is willing to run the risk of alienating important Democratic constituencies.