Our system does not claim knowledge of the ultimate nature of things. It does claim to know quite a lot about less-than-ultimate things, not least that we Americans believe we have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. And from this founding principle many others necessarily follow.
Unless you wish to be remembered in the history books as a policy wonk- -a fate no good American can wish upon you–you must not only talk about but must care deeply, truly, passionately about the moral condition of the people. As George Washington reminded us in his Farewell Address, national morality is the “spring of popular government.”
A system such as ours can only function if its people are largely convinced of and act in accord with the high moral dignity and basic spiritual orientation of a democratic republic. On this point, the normally reticent Washington was quite outspoken: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Pay special attention to those last two words. Washington lived at a time when most people read the speech he delivered, and he took particular care to say what he meant. Religious principle is not vague popular piety but a spiritual vision with real bite.
In recent years, religious people in America have felt themselves excluded from much national debate on the grounds that their concerns are illegitimate in public discourse. We are at a point, for example, when just to state orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Muslim views on topics such as homosexuality is to risk accusation of committing a “hate crime” or perpetrating “hate speech.”
Evangelical and Catholic leaders, Orthodox Jews like Laura Schlessinger, and many other sincere religious people have found that our much-invoked principle of public tolerance is applied to everyone but them. Their plight is unjust, but it raises an even more basic question: Can any nation that dismisses the historic religion of its people expect to survive?
Let’s call this attitude by its proper name: bias. Yale law professor Stephen Carter has argued recently, using that very term, that the problem goes deeper than the controversy over specific issues. Many intellectuals and policymakers now assume not only that separation of church and state is necessary but that religion should have no role in politics.
Or, when they allow that some religious influence is permissible, they argue that we begin with the state and ask how religion fits into the politics that are a democracy’s lifeblood. For Carter, this is a fatal error: “If we start out thinking about the needs of the state, we have already relegated religion to an inferior position.”
The proper stance for those who would follow the great principles of the American founding is to see that, for religious people (which is to say most Americans), faith is a wider category than politics, and all earthly regimes answer to higher principles. It is difficult to see how slavery, for example, could have been abolished on any other basis. Carter regards the antireligious bias as one of the sources of the current “crisis of legitimacy.” The sad result is that America itself is at risk.
The importance of marriage and family
Americans are quite willing to tolerate homosexuality and many other practices once thought harmful to the public good. They are not willing to give these practices special state sanction. Every decent society has recognized that heterosexual marriage is an important public good. It is through that institution that most children come into this world and are fitted to be good persons and citizens. No other relationship among people contributes so much; no other relationship’s absence or corruption causes such great social harm.
We have made some headway against the social consequences of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and teen pregnancy–including welfare dependency, crime, and drug abuse–if only because we have seen the disasters produced by overly indulgent tolerance of “alternative lifestyles.” But we have yet to return to full public acknowledgment the good we aim at, whatever we are willing to tolerate.
You and your opponent talked a great deal about families during the campaign. Every politician today must. But you must now show whether you really believe in the family as the basic unit of society.
Most Americans came to believe over the past few decades that they have been subsidizing self-destructive behavior through various public means. Thus, welfare reform finally gained a bipartisan consensus. But much remains to be done to remove other policies that harm the family, such as the marriage tax penalty. Families perform irreplaceable public functions; they should be uniformly honored and supported for those services by public policies.
For instance, we need a more robust and varied response to the problems of those who are most vulnerable among us. Everywhere that school vouchers or privately funded scholarships have been offered to inner- city students, for example, black and Hispanic parents have lined up for them.
Some public schools do a decent job; others need to reform. But that will take years, at best, and we have means available to give those most at risk a way out of poverty and social chaos right now. We cannot allow the future of America’s children to be held hostage to sound-bite politics pitting the conscientious choice of parents against the alleged needs of public schools.
Challenges of education and abortion
The school problem encapsulates many others. Schools only need to do three basic things: teach students to read and write, enforce standards of order and good behavior on the premises, and transmit an understanding of the political system in which we live. (A number of other educational achievements are desirable but not essential.) We know to a certainty that many of them are failing at all three, while taking on tasks that were once the province of parents. Such tasks cannot be well done by a public institution, no matter how much funding is provided.
At the same time, these schools have virtually outlawed any public affirmation of faith, family, and moral principles: the three foundations that make private schools, often operating with far smaller resources, successful. These social foundations have often been dismissed in public schools as excluding those with different family situations–to the great detriment of us all. A public school, unlike a private one, cannot be the vehicle for religious principles, but it can certainly welcome them as an important source of national life. Otherwise schools become mere faith-free zones at odds with sound homes and society. And on family and morals, the school, like the nation, must reflect certain universal truths without which, as we have seen, no number of programs can repair the damage.
A word on what is obviously the most contentious political issue in the nation: abortion. During the campaign, Vice President Gore stood on a platform with abortion-rights activists and proclaimed a woman’s right to choose “a fundamental value.” It is not and cannot be that without looking at what she is choosing. Otherwise we would not be in the sad position we are today. After the death of over 35 million Americans in the womb, large numbers of people have a vested interest in keeping abortion legal, if for no other reason than they want public approval for their own past behavior. The opinion surveys show that a large majority of Americans want abortion to be legal. But the debate barely begins there.
Large percentages also express dislike for most kinds of abortion currently being performed. Even Roman Catholics, who are not much different from other Americans on this issue, say that a women’s life or health, or a pregnancy that is the result of rape, may make abortion a moral choice. But that is where Catholics and other Americans part ways with the abortion activists.
Equally large majorities oppose abortions when the reason is that the woman does not want the child, or cannot support it financially or emotionally. Over 90 percent oppose abortions after six months of pregnancy, and 95 percent oppose abortion for sex selection. In other words, three-quarters of Americans dislike abortion in several of the most common cases today. Calling abortion a “fundamental value,” then, is tantamount to saying these millions of Americans are un-American, in a category with monarchists or slaveholders. This is an issue where effective leadership can both do the right thing and appeal to the best instincts of the American people.
At this juncture in our national life, that kind of leadership is our deepest need. Historically, most democracies have failed. The Federalist Papers opens with a reminder that what is at stake in our American experiment is “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” It then warns us that one reason for the failures has been the “dangerous ambition” that often lies behind those who claim to champion “the rights of the people” instead of “the firmness and efficiency of government.” Demagoguery is often a prelude to tyranny.
You have won, as every successful democratic politician must, by an appeal to various–and often contradictory–popular attitudes. But you must govern both with a prudent eye on what the American people can and cannot be expected to do, at this moment in their history, and with your own vision set on an ideal toward which, ever so slowly, we must move. This dual demand on your energies will not be easy. But if you keep them both constantly in mind and work to make them bear fruit, you have a chance to become one of the great presidents of this great democracy. You have the opportunity to achieve something even greater than your hard-won election victory.