"GOD BLESS AMERICA." These words have been repeated millions of times since September 11. They have echoed in countless stadiums across the country, been sung by a bipartisan group of congressmen on the Capitol steps, appeared on hundreds of thousands of yard signs, bumper stickers, and billboards. And in Rocklin, California, they were posted on a sign outside Breen Elementary School.
The reaction of the American Civil Liberties Union was swift and predictable. In a letter to the school board the ACLU argued that the posting of "God Bless America" on a school marquee is unconstitutional, that the words convey "a hurtful, divisive message" to a group of "religiously pluralistic" students.
The school district held its ground. It cited a California Supreme Court decision declaring "God Bless America" to be a traditional, nonreligious, patriotic phrase. The dispiriting debate was thus joined. "God Bless America"--is it a "hurtful" and "divisive" form of hate speech, or a patriotic bromide, akin to cheering "Hooray for America"?
No one seemed interested in defending the obvious: that "God Bless America" is an invocation of divine aid and comfort, the need for which we feel with special urgency at a time of national agony and crisis. The entry of "God" into the public square, even in such seemingly benign and inoffensive form, is a positive evil in the eyes of the ACLU, and too impolitic to acknowledge in the view of the offending school board.
America's Founders, of course, would have taken a far different view of the debate over the Rocklin case. Thomas Jefferson, on behalf of the school board, might well have argued that it is critical to affirm the link between God and the origin of American liberty--particularly for the benefit of the impressionable young minds at Breen Elementary School. In "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1782, Jefferson wrote, "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?"
Through the centuries since, our presidents have understood that the bedrock of the American concept of democratic equality is this understanding that our rights come not from Washington but from the Creator. President George W. Bush placed himself squarely within this tradition in his inaugural address when he made what he described as a solemn pledge. He said, "I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity. I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image."
In the months since the terrorist attacks, the American people have begun to reevaluate the place of God in their lives. The Pew Research Center for the People and Press commissioned a study in mid-November that contained this remarkable finding: "Fully 78 percent now say religion's influence in American life is growing, up from 37 percent eight months ago, and the highest mark on this measure in surveys dating back four decades." In response to a horrific event fueled by religious fanaticism, in other words, the American people seem to be placing a renewed emphasis on the value of religion in their own lives.
The public policy implications of this phenomenon will be tested in at least two Senate debates likely to play out in the coming months: the president's faith-based initiative, and the scheduled debate this spring on a proposal by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas to prohibit human cloning.
From his primary campaign on, President Bush has heavily promoted his faith-based initiative. He included a reference to the proposal in his inaugural address: "And some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer. Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws." The faith-based providers minister to the least among us because they understand, with the Founders, that the homeless man retains political equality with the most affluent corporate executive. Far from operating outside the American political tradition, faith-based providers give concrete meaning to the notion that we are all created equal.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for his part, was adamantly opposed to allowing the president's initiative to be considered in the Senate this year. He declared the House-passed bill, H.R. 7, dead on arrival five months ago. Despite the president's willingness, in the wake of September 11, to set aside what liberal critics consider the most objectionable parts of the House bill in order to focus on providing emergency relief to address the dire straits of many small community-based charities, Daschle refused to budge from his position.
President Bush continues to press his case and has made it clear he expects a Senate vote on some version of the faith-based bill in early 2002. This impending confrontation will represent an important test of whether post-September 11 religious expression will be given a renewed position of respect in the public policy debate.
On an even more fundamental level, the cloning debate will reveal whether America remains committed to the notion that all individuals derive their worth and their liberties from their Creator. Here again, the president has staked out a clear position. He has condemned the cloning of embryos as "wrong" and warned that "we should not as a society grow life in order to destroy it." The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive ban on human cloning in July, but the Senate under Daschle's leadership has yet to act. The issue should be brought up there in March. The debate will go a long way toward revealing whether the sacredness of the individual is an immutable American principle or subject to redefinition based on technological developments.
A belief in the centrality and literalness of the principles of the Declaration of Independence has sustained America in our times of crisis. At the heart of that understanding is a simple truth that American elites have come to treat with contempt or embarrassment: God is the author of our equality and our liberties. The policy debates of 2002 may answer this question: Does our nation still hold to this fundamental truth?
Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington-based consulting firm.