LIEUTENANT GENERAL William Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and a highly decorated officer, has intimated that the United States is a Christian country and that he is, himself, a Christian. Journalists across the nation are shocked and horrified. Apparently the general has been traveling around the country speaking in churches, and has gone so far as to suggest that all religions are not equivalent and that, while he relies on his own God, the one bloody-minded terrorists praise and celebrate must be a different and a false one. Naturally he has apologized (to "those who have been offended by my statements") and promised never to do it again. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made things worse by refusing to kick Boykin when he is down, and by adding such weird, unaccountable pronouncements of his own as, "That's the way we live. We're a free people." At this point, the world's hyperventilating pundits need time to compose themselves. While they are resting, here are a few simple, healing truths about which we can all agree. (Pretty much.)
Of course the United States is a Christian country. In fact it is a baseball-loving Christian country. Which doesn't mean that everyone is a Christian or loves baseball. Which doesn't empower the government to establish a national baseball team or force non-Christians to be baptized. It is just a statement of fact.
It is also a statement of principle. The essence of conservatism is to build our future in harmony with our past. (It is a moral, intellectual, and artistic principle: Naturally the structure must grow and is always growing, but in what style?) The Founding Fathers made clear that they wanted the federal government out of the religion business. No federal functionary (and no wiseacre journalist) had the right to dictate anyone's religious beliefs, or force him to keep quiet should he choose to express them.
Some journalists are all in favor of General Boykin's right to say and believe what he chooses--so long as Secretary Rumsfeld fires him. They are working under the theory that it is unacceptable for a DoD official to say that Christianity is true and that other religions are, therefore, false. The general also stands accused of calling for a Christian "jihad"--but he never used that word, and the accusation has long since been exposed as phony. And Boykin has been accused of casting aspersions on Islam--Heaven forbid! (What prigs we should all feel, after Islam has been so sweet to us.)
Of course there is no justification for insulting people gratuitously; but clearly that was not the general's intention. And clearly, too, religion ain't beanbag. If you believe in one, ordinarily that entails disbelieving in the others. Muslims are familiar with the principle. Some journalists are not. But it's not so strange; the same thing usually holds for philosophical, scientific, artistic, and political "religions."
It used to be accepted in America that it was a Christian's right to believe in Christianity and to say so in public. The right even applied to soldiers--in fact to highly placed ones. In the Order for Sabbath Observance of November 1862, Lincoln quoted to his army George Washington's own first general order following the Declaration of Independence: "The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country."
So the "offended" to whom General Boykin apologized can hardly claim that we sprang religion on them out of nowhere. The Judeo-Christian strain in the sacred documents of this country is too formidable to ignore. America's mission as Lincoln defined it is to act with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right. He spoke for America's better self, and still does. (Lincoln said that he wished to be a "humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty." He said, "Whatever shall appear to be God's will I will do.")
But, some people argue, that was long ago. Demographics and beliefs have changed. We have changed our minds about religion.
Says who? Since when? Of course this is no longer the almost exclusively Christian nation it was in 1776. But does anyone doubt that it remains an overwhelmingly Christian nation nonetheless? We are solemnly warned that, nowadays, public expressions of Christianity are "controversial." Among whom? Look up "controversial" and you will find that "upsetting to the Los Angeles Times" is not the definition.
Granted, ours is the Offended Age. All right, I'm offended. (Might as well get with the program.) As a practicing Jew I am offended when Jews all over the country pop up to denounce angrily some hapless truth-teller who says what is obvious, that this is a Christian country. (The angry denouncers are by no means only, not even mostly Jews--but the Jewish contingent is of special interest to me.) The Constitution confers on Jews and Christians equally the right to behave as if they believed in Judaism and Christianity respectively. Christianity is (at any rate) a variant of Judaism, formed on a Jewish armature; the work of Jews, propagated by Jews, focused on Jews. When Jesus is asked by a "certain lawyer" how one might deserve eternal life (Luke 10:25), the two Christian fundamentals that emerge are each verses from the Hebrew Bible--the Bible Jesus knew. By erecting and maintaining America on Christian principles, Christians have tendered Jews the deepest of compliments. Why not accept it in that spirit?
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.