Is America becoming anti-religious? — with Glenn Loury (1994) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. Are we moving from a nation based on freedom
of religion to one based on freedom from religion? Has the separation of church and state gone
too far? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale University and author of the
bestselling book, “The Culture of Disbelief”; Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute,
winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion; Glenn Loury, professor of economics
at Boston University; and Father Robert Drinan, professor of law at Georgetown University
and author of “The Fractured Dream: America’s Divisive Moral Choices.” The question before this house: Is America
becoming antireligious? This week on “Think Tank.” “In God We Trust.” That’s what it says right here and on every
piece of US currency. The Pledge of Allegiance declares America
“one nation under God,” and every American child still learns “God Bless America.” What would someone visiting from another planet
make of this country? Well, based on our coinage, our Pledge of
Allegiance, and on some of our habits and views, such a visitor might conclude that
the United States is a near theocracy. Six out of 10 Americans say they regularly
go to church or synagogue. According to a recent poll, 93 percent say
they believe in God, and every president since George Washington has ended his oath of office
with the same four words. Bill Clinton (on videotape, January 20, 1993):
So help me God. Ben Wattenberg: But it’s not so simple. Closer inspection would reveal that America
is a mosaic of different religious beliefs and practices, with everyone free to come
up with his own idea of who God is, what he wants, and, for that matter, whether God exists
at all. While the US government may place its trust
in God, it doesn’t place much trust in God’s representatives here on earth. The Supreme Court has decided that on issues
ranging from school prayer to the display of religious symbols on public property, religion
and government just don’t mix. And if our man from another planet took a
look at our movies, at our television programs, at our newspapers, he might well conclude
that America is a thoroughly secular society, perhaps indeed one actively opposed to organized
religion. Panel, gentlemen — Stephen Carter, sir,
your book, a remarkable book, “The Culture of Disbelief,” has a subtitle on it that
says, “How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.” Let me turn that into — just put a question
mark at the end of that subtitle. How do American law and politics trivialize
American religious devotion? Stephen Carter: We live with an interesting
paradox. On the one hand, as you said, we are perhaps
the most religious nation in the world, certainly in the Western world. But at the same time, while we have this broad
religious diversity and deep religious sentiment among our people, we have a political culture
and a legal culture, in a sense — if you like, an elite culture — that too often
treats religious arguments, say, in favor of or against particular government policies,
as some sort of foreign pollutant in the pure waters of our politics. We have a popular media culture that too often
on television and in films either ignores the deep religiosity of millions — tens
of millions of Americans — or treats it as something to be mocked or at best a subplot
that shows someone’s inner zealotry or viciousness. And when politicians talk openly and publicly
about their religious views, the media too often treats this as either a subterfuge — that
is, something that’s not sincere — or indeed as a reason to fear them. Ben Wattenberg: Father Drinan, do you agree
with that? Robert Drinan: No. I think that’s overextended. After all, this has always been a secular
country. In the 5,500 words of the Constitution, God
is not mentioned. We have, furthermore, a guarantee of free
exercise. And if people think that the Congress is alienated
from religion, they should look at the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed last year overwhelmingly. That reverses at least one Supreme Court decision
and says that if there is any burden on the religious faith of an individual, the moment
he enters his objection, the burden shifts so that the government has to demonstrate
a compelling interest. I think that’s a landmark in the history
of religious freedom. I don’t think that the churches — including
my own, the Catholic Church — should say, well, we need the state more and more to support
us. That’s not the American way. The American way is that churches are on their
own. Ben Wattenberg: Michael, what do you think? Michael Novak: Well, I’d like to make another
distinction here. It’s not just the state and the church. There’s also the people. The people of this country, by every sociological
study, are the most religious on Earth or one of the top two and three out of 160 some
nations in their belief and in their practice. But our elite isn’t, as Professor Carter
was saying. Our elite is different, not just the political
and legal elite, but the movie elite and the symbolic elite and so forth. More Americans go to church over the weekend
on any Sunday — Saturday, Sunday of the year — than will watch all the football
games, even on television, that weekend, or all the baseball games. That is the one thing Americans do more than
anything else. But as my friend, the sociologist Peter Berger,
puts it, we’re a nation with the faith of the people of India led by an elite of Swedes. And I think that puts it very succinctly. Ben Wattenberg: Glenn Loury. Glenn Loury: Well, I agree with that, actually. I think the class dimension of this subject
is too little investigated and that much of the tension that I see and the antagonism
to the Catholic Church that I often see projected under cover of a debate about abortion or
the position of women in the church or whatever and the contempt for fundamentalist, evangelical,
conservative Christians that I see is, in my judgment, is not really public debate about
religion at all, but rather is a conflict of people who have different class and political
and cultural positions in the society. And I mean, we can overplay this thing. I don’t think we put all these people in
a football stadium somewhere, these elites who get together and, you know, conspire against
the masses. But nevertheless, I think the religiosity
of our newsrooms and our university faculties and our other elite institutions is dramatically
different from that of the rank and file. Ben Wattenberg: Father Drinan, your three
colleagues here are not talking about freedom of religion that the government is not allowing
certain things to happen. But if you listen to some of the words that
are coming out here, that they’re “mocking” it, that they “show contempt,” not they
— the government — but we the culture. Those are pretty tough words. Robert Drinan: They’re getting a little
bit hysterical, Ben. Ben Wattenberg: They are? Robert Drinan: Yeah, and a lot of other people
like that — in that they feel oppressed and they’re whining. I’ve been in public life all my life, and
no one has ever mocked me. And they had the highest regard for me when
I ran and won for Congress, and I was there for 10 years. And they are anxious to listen. What they don’t like is when people oversimplify
things. And with all due respect to the fundamentalists,
they narrow the Gospel down to four or five little principles, and they scream at you:
If you don’t believe this, that you’re going to go to hell. And I don’t think that this inferiority
complex, or whatever it is, that now besets some people — not all — in the religious
community, I don’t think that it’s very healthy. Ben Wattenberg: Steve, are you whining? Stephen Carter: Well, I think it’s important,
I agree, not to push the case too far. But at the same time, you shouldn’t minimize
what is a very dangerous situation. After all, through most of our history, on
virtually every public issue that was debated in the United States, the religious voice
had an honored place on both sides of that debate. Nowadays, unfortunately, I think, all too
often you hear people who are defending a variety of programs, or a variety of ideas,
suggesting that the religious voice doesn’t actually belong in our public debates. And in contemporary political and legal philosophy,
you have a growing trend trying to find how we can develop a public conversation carried
on by rules that would exclude the religious voice entirely. I consider this a dangerous thing. Robert Drinan: All right, but I think that
the so-called elite have been very aggravated by some people in the religious community,
such as Reverend Falwell, who have oversimplified everything. “And if you don’t believe this, if you
are not pro-life, then you’re going to go to hell, and I condemn you.” They have politicized their religion, and
people detest that. That’s really fundamentally against the
American spirit. Stephen Carter: I agree with you. Ben Wattenberg: If they detested, say, Jerry
Falwell or Pat Robertson for participating in politics, did they detest Reverend Jesse
Jackson for participating in politics? Robert Drinan: No. They tend to agree with — Ben Wattenberg: And if not, why not? Robert Drinan: Because I think that Jesse
Jackson doesn’t use the Scriptures to conclude that blacks are equal. He has the law on his side. And when the fundamentalists go to the Scriptures
and say that I say right here that sodomy and homosexuality are against the law of God,
we can’t tolerate this at all, and that we have to do terrible things to the homosexuals,
they are misusing religion as they see it to come about with a political objective. Michael Novak: But I think you’re falling
into what is the most acceptable bigotry in American life right now. You are criticizing, very unfairly, fundamentalists
and evangelicals, and most people in the elite think they can get away with that. I saw a cartoon in the paper in Florida recently
that showed monkeys in a tree, underneath it evangelicals. That’s the sort of thing that greeted our
grandparents when they came here as immigrants. It’s the sort of thing that greeted blacks
75 years ago. It’s just wrong. And I don’t think you should oversimplify
their views as you’re doing. Robert Drinan: I’m not getting on a guilt
trip, Mike, though, because I’ve heard this before. And I say that this is all validated by American
history. The moment that people use a Scripture argument
to reach a political conclusion, we have the right to say the Bible does not justify your
political connectedness with — Michael Novak: Well, you can argue all you
want, but you shouldn’t mock and make fun of and downgrade as you were doing. I think that was quite wrong. You don’t have to have a guilt trip about
it, but it would be all right if you admitted you’re — Robert Drinan: I’m not downgrading them,
no. Michael Novak: No, you were. Robert Drinan: I’m just saying that they’re
in error, profound error. Michael Novak: You were. You were explaining detestation of people. I don’t think that’s the right thing to
do. I don’t think people should be detested
because they think the connection between religion and politics is more scriptural than
you do. Ben Wattenberg: Michael Novak, I mean, shouldn’t
religion be private? Michael Novak: No. Ben Wattenberg: It should not be private? Michael Novak: Absolutely not. Ben Wattenberg: I mean in our schools, we
should have public prayer? In our public schools. Michael Novak: Well, there is a difference
between meanings of “public” here and meanings of “private.” I don’t think religion ought to be locked
up inside us because that’s not the kind of animal we are. As Aristotle said a long time ago, we’re
political animals; we’re public animals. We have a public role to play. And our religion has just as much to do with
that as with anything else in our lives. I think it’s really quite wrong to — I’ll
give you an example of how this argument works badly. Take the abortion question, which I think
is the frontline religious question today: the one with the most fatal consequences for
the whole republic and for the very idea of the social contract. It’s a curious thing. People say to me, well, this should be a private
decision, but then the same people want me to pay for it. That is, they want to use tax dollars to pay
for abortions for certain categories of people and want to make me complicit in that. That’s a long — that’s a very long step,
which they don’t even see they’re doing. They want a public policy to back their particular
view of conscience. So even they are not consistent on the issue
of privacy. We’re just not private, lonely, autonomous
individuals. That’s just not what we are. We’re a republic, and we have to decide
things in common, especially crucial issues. And I think the difficulty is that issue was
taken out of the public decision-making and put in the hands of the courts. That was a terrible, terrible political error,
and we’re still suffering for it. Robert Drinan: But, Mike, what do you think
of Ben’s question? Should there be public religious exercises
in the public schools? Michael Novak: There always were, and I think
we were — Robert Drinan: Answer the question. Michael Novak: I’m coming to it, but I want
to put it in a context different from the context your tone of voice implied. We always did have public religious exercise,
as we do in Congress, as we do when a president is inaugurated. We are a religious people. And it does not attach to the state — to
any establishment of religion to permit that public expression of religion in the schools
and elsewhere. Robert Drinan: Well, if I may — Michael Novak: We’ve gone way too far in
the last — Robert Drinan: You haven’t answered. Ben Wattenberg: But I have a 10-year-old daughter
who is Jewish. And if she goes to a public school — which,
as it happens, she does not — should she be forced to say a public Christian prayer? Michael Novak: No, but the real issue on the
prayer in the schools has come down to a moment of silence, of due respect to the pluralism
of the American people. Ben Wattenberg: That I can live with fine. I have no problem with that. Michael Novak: Well, I do think that’s where
there’s a very large consensus, but somehow elites — certain parts of elites still rebel
against that. Robert Drinan: Mike, that’s been corrected
by the Religious Access Act that went through Congress, and that says that wherever students
organize for a prayer session in a public school under certain conditions, they can
have it. So that is the federal law. Michael Novak: But we are also one people,
and there should sometimes be liturgical expressions of that oneness — Robert Drinan: There’s a hundred million
people who are nonbelievers. Michael Novak: That we are a people under
God in the way in which Ben used the little coin expression, “In God We Trust.” There is a quite valid traditional way of
understanding that, even if you’re not a believer in God, in the light of conscience,
in the light of honesty. Ben Wattenberg: Glenn Loury, let me just move
the topic a little bit. Insofar as Professor Carter’s book is correct,
that we have at least gone somewhat down the road toward trivializing religious devotion
in this country, what have been the social consequences, in your judgment? Glenn Loury: Well, that’s a large question. Ben Wattenberg: We specialize in large questions,
sir. Glenn Loury: My view is that they have been
substantial and negative in the main. The question of license, of the elevation
of freedom to do what one wants over responsibility, is deeply troubling to me. We don’t talk about responsibility. We only talk about the rights, and I think
we’re headed for trouble. I think when we look across our society, whether
it’s at teen pregnancy or it’s at violence, whether it’s the alienation and nihilism
in our youth or whatever, we see the price that we’re paying in numerous ways. And I believe that some of the excesses that
we see on the Christian right and other places in the society is a reaction against that,
people sensing that something profound is being lost. And, in some cases, desperately trying to
fight for a ground, the place that they can preserve in which their way of life as they
understand it — perhaps in some instances, nostalgically so — can be preserved. Stephen Carter: I think there’s a lot to
that, and if you look at school prayer for a moment, you see some evidence of this. There is a great groundswell of support for
organized classroom prayer in recent years. I am against it, but that puts me in a minority,
especially in the inner cities and the black community. The leaders of the school prayer movement
in Washington, DC, are Marion Barry and recently Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. And this is being explained and justified
in the inner cities as a way of helping to bring some kind of moral compass to our youth. Now, I don’t think school prayer is going
to do that, but I do think that what one sees here is a desperate yearning by very deeply
spiritual people for spiritual and moral conversation in America. It’s a conversation we desperately need,
and I don’t see how we can have that open, public affirmation of important values without
the participation of the religious voice. Michael Novak: Well, you know, our second
president, John Adams, said once that what the world owes more to the Hebrew people than
to any other is the idea that there is a judge of all and that no matter how powerful or
how rich a nation or its people may become, all are under judgment. He said that concept is what makes civilization
possible — that is, that we all have to persuade each other. We can’t coerce each other because we’re
going to be judged for how we behave toward one another. And he said that opens up the whole path of
republican government, of self-rule, of rule by a kind of self-governance. And I think he’s profoundly right about
that. Robert Drinan: But, Mike, that’s a long
time ago and in a totally different society. Michael Novak: But we live by those same institutions,
and I believe firmly that our institutions presuppose such a notion and that all argument
and persuasion back and forth among us depends on our standing underneath a standard of truth
and evidence. Robert Drinan: But in 42 cases before the
Supreme Court, you’ve lost the argument since 1947. So you’re opposed to that whole line of
cases. Michael Novak: I am opposed to that line of
cases. I think they’ve gone — Robert Drinan: All right, well, let’s — you
want to go way back, then, when the First Amendment really doesn’t apply to most of
the cases in America. Michael Novak: No. What I want to argue is that the second part
of the First Amendment, the free exercise of religion, has been lost sight of in an
attempt to interpret the non-establishment clause as if it meant this must be not a pluralistic
country. Not a religious people, but a secular society. That’s a misinterpretation. Robert Drinan: Yeah, but Justice Scalia really
fouled that up, and the Congress reversed him, as I just mentioned, in the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act. Michael Novak: Well, there is a lot of confusion
in the court. If you just look at the way our court deals
with the word “religion,” they almost always surround it with pejorative words,
like “divisive” and “dangerous.” They treat it like a disease that has to be
quarantined. The court should be much more scrupulous about
the way it interprets history. It is foisting a one-sided view of history
on the rest of us in a way that I think is contributing to the growing sense of discomfort
at even illegitimacy. Stephen Carter: Well, I think I was with you
up to a point, Michael. That is, I am not sure that it’s true that
we can’t have public deliberation unless there’s a shared sense that we, in effect,
stand before judgment. But I do agree with you that it’s vitally
important that that sense be admitted to public debate as long as one recognizes that there
are people who don’t share that sense and certainly have as much right of access to
the public square as anyone else. Michael Novak: If they have the sense that
we need to be judged under the light of evidence, under the light of honesty or candor. The picture of the eye on the seal of the
United States, I think, expresses that very well. You don’t have to believe that’s the eye
of God, but you do have to believe that’s the eye of conscience or honesty. Otherwise, I’m afraid what we’re down
to is it’s your opinion, it’s my opinion, and let the one with the most force win. Stephen Carter: That’s why I think we need
public conversation about what values we do share in common in the effort to promote a
stronger prominent agenda of good, positive values. Michael Novak: But Stephen wait, one second. Ben Wattenberg: I want to add a parentheses
to this because you mentioned the dollar bill, and the Templeton Prize that you recently
won carried an award of one million dollars. And I am not going to let myself or you get
out of this program without telling us how it feels to win a million dollars. Michael Novak: I said afterwards, “Thanks
a million.” (Laughter.) I didn’t mean to, but that’s the way it
came out. As I was telling Father Drinan, I’ve received
at least a million suggestions on what to do with that million dollars. (Laughter.) Ben Wattenberg: Congratulations. And let us continue the discussion. Glenn Loury: I think that there is an interesting
paradox here, to a certain degree, because as we become a more diverse society, which
we are, we need all the more, it seems to me, a transcendent common understanding of
our humanity and of our mutual obligation to each other, which it seems to me is necessarily
in some sense spiritual. I think we focus too much on what the state
does. I don’t think the state needs to be the
primary venue within which we talk about this stuff. But what disturbs me is not necessarily what
public schools do, but what the attitudes of the press, the media, and all the rest,
the trivialization that Stephen talks about, which I think deprives us of something quite
valuable for the working out of our common — Michael Novak: Not only discover it, but celebrate
it sometimes. I mean, there has to be a public expression
of it, I think, too. Robert Drinan: Maybe the religious groups
don’t have enough credibility. You dump on the media and other people like
that. Mother Teresa is universally revered. And if we were more Christian, if we loved
each other more, if we did more charity, we’d be getting a much better press. Let’s turn to the churches. Maybe they’re the negative ones. Stephen Carter: I’d like to believe that
that’s right. I was at a conference a couple of years ago
at which a Jewish scholar said that many people are complaining about calls for the US to
be a Christian nation. I just wish it would act like a Christian
nation more often. Michael Novak: Yeah, but, you know, let’s
all meet that test. I wish my secular friends would be more reasonable,
too, and more humane. I mean, if we’re going to set a high standard
for religious people to jump, let’s make it the same standard for everybody. Stephen Carter: But I do think it’s correct,
though, that religious groups themselves are responsible for some of this, often through
a process of self-censorship. I know a lot of religious people who will
not tell their friends that they’re religious because they’re afraid of what their friends
will say. I talked to a minister in Boston who was trying
to get some people — some religious figures to join in a hunger project, and they wouldn’t
join. And he thought it was because they didn’t
agree with the project. When he talked to them, they thought if there
were too many ministers involved, the project would get a bad name. Ben Wattenberg: Is there a religious answer
in politics? Stephen Carter: When you say, “Is there
a religious answer in politics?” I simply would like our culture, especially
the courts — which, in spite of Bob’s assurances, I’m not sure are going to back
off in light of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the courts, pundits, and various commentators
and a lot of political activists to stop suggesting the sky is falling every time an individual
suggests that his or her religious beliefs may have some bearing on a question of public
policy. If that were our view, then the letter from
Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, a profoundly religious document, the “God
is marching on” speech of Martin Luther King, these would be seen as documents that
should not have an honored place in American history. And yet they do precisely because of King’s
willingness and the willingness of others to say sometimes religion and spiritual values
have an inescapable connection to public affairs. Michael Novak: Well, they also came under
the rubric of “In God We Trust.” And so when he says that God looks at our
behavior and sees it this way, and you look at it, yeah, it’s plausible, a lot of people
changed their minds. And I think that’s — I want to argue,
those public symbols are very important. And I celebrate Stephen Carter for raising
it in a crucial book on this issue. Then President Clinton I praise for making
religious speech more public and in a reasonably intelligent and flexible way, I think. You know, I think we’re making some progress
in getting the argument into the public square. Glenn Loury: I want to say something else,
too, about the inner city. There are profound questions of values. I mean, the issue has to do with sexual behavior. It has to do with telling little girls and
little boys how it is that they conduct themselves and what they do with their bodies. You know, your body is the temple of the Holy
Spirit, whom you have received from God, right? That’s what it says in the Bible. We’ve got to reach these youngsters, not
throw condoms at them, right? I agree. If the churches were more effective at bringing
that message in a way that it could be understood and internalized by these young people, they
would have rightly earned a greater respect from the American public. But that’s not necessarily a popular agenda. When I say it’s a spiritual issue, when
I say it’s a values issue, people want to give me an economic critique. They want to tell me that the reason youngsters
fornicate when they’re 15 years old is because they’re poor. That denies the humanity and the possibility
of those young people. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Father Drinan, Professor Loury,
Professor Carter, Professor Novak. And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our audience very much. Please send your comments to the adress on the screen. For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

  1. Plenty of Americans still love God, its just that we have a rediculous amount of communists here now. Communism is fundamentally incompatible with a Godly society.

  2. Perhaps, though it seems to be a large matter of convenience or perhaps a misunderstanding of what religion is. For instance Muslim and Jewish are often used as a describer of race, when those are religions.

    Because of this many people treat instances revolving around them as a race issue when in reality you shouldn't. It is a religion and as such like Christianity or Buddhism or really anything else, they are open for critique. However the media tends to treat any criticism as racism, hence Islamophobia. Oh sure people like that exist, but often times the response isn't really targeted at those people, or even appropriate to the subject at hand.

    I mean these are the same people that would use a passage in Leviticus to criticize Christians but if someone were to do the same with the Quran then obviously they are X,Y,Z as well as an Islamaphobe. Either all of it is ok, or none of it is ok. As many people like to say "you can't just pick and choose". Media in general however likes to do just that. It makes it easier to paint your enemy as a monster because then it isn't a question of fact, but moral outrage. Emotions lead the conversation and that never produces anything good or worthwhile.

  3. Separating Church and State is IN THE CONSTITUTION. Making the slightest, honestly half assed, attempt to enforce that is not anti-religion. Religion should have no place in politics and governance. Making a law or passing a law because of your religious beliefs is unconstitutional. If they are your personal beliefs, fine, so be it. But don’t quote god and religion IN THE SPEECH you give.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *