Our national life is cobbled together from a mix of noble dreams and grubby politics. That is no shame, but rather a realistic combination of the forces that move us as a people. Yet, more and more Americans, in full backlash against one another, want purity of purpose in the sausage-making of policy. And when they don't get it, they often identify the culprit as religion: there is both too much of it, and too little of it, in our shared civic life.
These are strange days.
I grew up at a time when it seemed every second adult had a cross of ashes on his or her forehead on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian penitential season of Lent. I grew up at a time when half my schoolmates would open up their lunches for a week in the spring, to inspect the version of a "sandwich" their mothers had cobbled together from various fillings and matzoh. Passover days were part of the heartbeat of the neighborhood, keeping time for everyone as we moved through the year.
Also in spring, hundreds of other kids were dragged to department stores for their Easter clothes, and on that Sunday the streets were filled with surprisingly cleaned-up-looking kids, some with Brylcreemed hair, coming back from church and heading to relatives' for dinner.
In the fall came Sukkoth, a Jewish harvest festival, and makeshift shelters sprouted on fire escapes, in alleys and backyards and driveways, as the Jews of the neighborhood gathered outside on the last few nice nights of the fall for a festive dinner.
I tell you this for a reason. Not to hit your bloodstream with a sudden jolt of saccharine about the good old days. Not to flood your eyes with sepia-toned images of girls in frilly first communion dresses and boys in yarmulkes heading to religious instruction before handball and stickball.
It's something much more basic than that.
From life in a world soaked in religious imagery and practice, where the seasons of the year were punctuated by public displays of piety, I learned that the best distance to keep between church and state was a broad and respectful one. The Lord's Prayer wasn't said at school. There were no creche displays in our public parks. There was no agitation for scripture readings at school. When a clergyman (and they were all men then) was at school for a major occasion, he could be relied upon to deliver a broad, bland, and monotheistic prayer.
On one fairly routine day covering the Chicago City Council, I watched as the aldermen stood for an invocation, delivered on this day by the late George Hagopian. The request for divine help in the work of the city council started innocently enough, with praise for God and thanks for his kindness. Then it veered away from the kind of prayers the council's four Jewish aldermen might include in their private devotions, ending in the name of "Your Blessed Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and Mary, His Ever-Blessed Virgin Mother."
Was the prayer appropriate? I asked two of the council members during a break in the session later that day. One said, "Oh, that's just George. There's certainly nothing hostile about it. It's something you get used to."
I asked if they should have to get used to it. The other member chimed in. "You're too young to remember public school beginning every day with a Bible reading. Over the loudspeaker system. And the Lord's Prayer! And my school was heavily Jewish. It's Chicago. That's just the way it is."
It is, granted, a small thing. But in the moment of recalling youthful exclusion, a successful American Jew became almost rueful, trying to explain to a reporter what the constant reminder of his different-ness, even as an elected member of a governing body, really means.
By the time I started school, in 1962, American public schools were changing. We learned to pray, if we prayed, at home. We learned about the Bible, if we did, on our own and our family's time. Nobody felt that anything was missing. I was born into what I've since been told was the decaying and fallen world after Supreme Court decisions like Abington Township School District v. Schempp. Talk to older Americans and they'll routinely date the decline of American morals from the series of Supreme Court decisions that severely restricted school prayer. School prayer is still a topical issue and an important component of the political and cultural wars of this young century. Until 1963, Pennsylvania had a requirement that ten Bible verses be read to begin the day in the state's public schools. In finding for the Schempp family — Unitarians who found that the readings both contradicted their own beliefs and isolated their children — Justice Tom Clark wrote, "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to ... freedom of worship ... and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." When you write a phrase like that, you might be forgiven for thinking you are locking in a legal view for the ages. Yet the fight continues.
I was in kindergarten when Schempp was handed down, and am the middle-aged father of a first grader as I write this today. In the decades since that 1963 court decision and others that followed, the country has become not only more religious but more religiously diverse at the same time. Today, our national family now includes tens of millions who profess no religion at all.
However, those same years saw, first, the construction of a workable consensus around the place of religion in the public sphere, and then a militant backlash against that consensus. The United States is now contested terrain, a place where many of the commonplace ideas of the postwar decades are now reopened for negotiation — and battle.
The battle over the place of religion in public life has pushed more people to the poles of the debate. We are whipsawing between bare-knuckled partisan combat waged with all the tools of modern communication — satellite teleconferences and e-mails, blast faxes and pressure campaigns — and a contest of psychobabble: a world where people are, moment by moment, "insensitive," "hurt," "oppressed," and "marginalized."
This is a battle fought by gesture, sign, and signal. This is a fight in which symbolic acts are given deep significance. The acts are significant to those who carry them out for an audience of TV cameras, and assigned great importance by the people who see them.
I find myself wishing my two loves, my church and my country, would find some different ground rules for their relationship, because their current intertwined embrace has nothing particularly good in store for either of them. The politicization of religion has led us to strange outcomes, such as one congregation's expelling members who voted for John Kerry.
The "religionization" of politics has also led us to some odd places, such as battles over whether taxpayers' money can and should be given to religious organizations for natural- disaster relief.
We can't get American religion out of politics, or politics out of religion. It's too late for that. It would be like trying to get the sugar out of a cup of coffee. But finding a way these two behemoth institutions in American life can coexist, while respecting the convictions of believers and protecting the rights of nonbelievers and those who disagree, is the riddle we must solve.
It's hard, looking back, to remember the moment when I realized everything I grew up with had changed. Maybe it was when George H.W. Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian unschooled in the fine points of modern evangelical testimony, struggled to define exactly when he was born again. Or maybe it was Bill Clinton's deeply odd mea culpa at the National Prayer Breakfast after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. There are plenty of candidates: three-star general Boykin's denunciations of Islam, in uniform, in churches; the brandishing of a Bible by an American president telling a congregation, "This is the handbook of the Faith-Based Initiative"; the public assertion of Harriet Miers's membership in a conservative evangelical church in Texas as if it were a qualification for a seat on the nation's highest court.
By the time flags on American public buildings were flying at half staff for the recently deceased Vicar of Christ on Earth, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II . . . well, something had certainly changed. In just over forty years we had gone from Senator John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic candidate for president, carefully distancing himself from one pope, to a "born again" Protestant president ordering national, public recognition of the death of another.
American public life is shot through with religion: religious sentiment, prayer, "God talk" of all kinds, is now part of our civic debate in a way that would have made an earlier generation of politicians downright uncomfortable and still trips up political candidates today. If only it stopped there.
The politics of gesture is in fall cry, particularly suited as it is to the symbolically freighted world of religion and politics. Take as one modest example the confrontation in Guilford, North Carolina, over courtroom oaths and the Koran. Recently a local Muslim association offered to make a gift of Korans to courtrooms where they might be needed to swear in witnesses from North Carolina's growing Muslim population. A local jurist, senior resident judge W. Douglas Albright, refused to accept copies of the book Muslims believe was dictated by God, via an angel, to the Prophet Muhammad. "An oath on the Quran is not a lawful oath under our law," declared Judge Albright, who runs the county courts. State law mandates laying a hand on the "Holy Scriptures" — which Albright limits to the Bible. "Everybody understands what the holy scriptures are," he contends. "If they don't, we're in a mess." You might have assumed that oaths are taken in court as a way to remind witnesses they are expected to tell the truth when they testify. You might also wonder what is more important to the judge: to make a point about the centrality of Christianity to North Carolina's history or to get non-Christian witnesses to affirm their intention to tell the truth in open court. In this case, symbol trumps substance when a judge decides that "holy scriptures" means the same thing to all people. For Judge Albright, if that fuzzy phrase doesn't mean the Holy Bible, and preferably a King James Version, "We're in a mess." His Honor and I agree, we are in a mess. But we two, American-born Christian citizens, probably disagree about plenty, as well. I'm just "relativist" enough to think that the best document for a witness to swear on is the one that will yield a public oath most meaningful to the swearer. He or she is standing in a public place, the court, and looking out at fellow citizens and engaging in a symbolic act. Anyone taking the oath can decide to lie, no matter where his or her hand is resting. A decree that members of any non-Christian religion must swear a public oath on a book that might carry little meaning for them, or one that might contain repugnant ideas, is not a ringing endorsement for pluralist democracy. The message here is not that of the Constitution's article 6, section 3, "No religious test shall ever be required, as a qualification to any office or public trust, under the United States." On the contrary, the message is more like, "We run the show, pal. Better get used to it."
Excerpted from The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America. Copyright 2006 by Ray Suarez. Excerpted by permission of Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.