Differing Without Demonizing

By Jon Meacham

We should always be wary of falling prey to the tyranny of the present—the temptation for every generation to think its owns predicament and passions unique and unrivaled. I do believe, however, that the America of the early twenty-first century is as divided culturally and religiously as it was 80 summers ago, at the time of the Scopes trial in my native Tennessee. The issue of God is divisive, not unifying, or merely neutral, and that is helping to produce a polarized age in which even the prospect of calm national conversation risks becoming ever more remote. It is wrong to assign blame for this to what is known as the religious right; secular Americans bear responsibility as well. Progress will come only when believers and agnostics, conservatives and liberals, the faithful and the secular, begin to recognize that ultimately we as Americans have more in common than we appear to appreciate collectively at the moment.

First, some numbers. The consensus is that 27.8 million evangelical Christians voted for George W. Bush in 2004, up from 25.5 million in 2000. The percentage of evangelicals voting for Bush in 2000 had been 66 percent, and the number rose to 73 percent in 2004. The Republicans’ hope to bring evangelicals to the polls for the race against John Kerry was realized, and one way they did that was to encourage ballot initiatives in battleground states on same-sex marriage—including in crucial Ohio, where Bush eked out his victory, and where the same-sex ban passed by 302 votes. The anti-gay marriage measures carried in all 11 states.

There is no doubt, then, that the question of values played an essential role in the presidential campaign of 2004—78 percent of voters cited “moral values” as key for them. But let us be clear: an almost equal number of voters cited terrorism as their main concern, and 85 percent of them supported Bush. And the president’s largest percentage increase in any voting group was among Jews. So we have what I would call the biblical base—we are way past the Bible Belt—of the Republican Party, a large number of Americans who are people of strong faith and who fear an-other attack on our soil.

The key question now is less about the ballot box and more about what such voters want and don’t want from the administration elected. From the teaching of evolution to stem-cell research to abortion rights, we are to see soon whether we will muddle through (to borrow Walter Bagehot’s definition of the British constitution) or whether we will turn decisively rightward. The evidence is, as usual, mixed. Since the election, evangelical leaders, joined by senators who should know better, have essentially declared war on the American judiciary, which has, since the days of John Marshall, been an effective umpire in what has been, for the most part, a progressive expansion of personal liberties, in turn producing national greatness. Yet there is also a persistent sense among people of faith that they are somehow facing an unusual level of persecution in what is known as the public square—all while secular voters live in a kind of outraged, quivering fear of a growing theocracy in the heartland.

The first step toward turning cultural conflict into a conversation that may prove productive is to acknowledge that we are all acting with good intentions.

I think both extremes are wrong, but the feelings held by those on both sides are genuine, and the first step toward turning a seemingly endless cultural conflict into a conversation that may prove productive is to acknowledge that we are, all of us, acting with good intentions amid the world’s most enduring experiment in self-government and human liberty. In his last speech to the House of Commons as prime minister 50 years ago, Winston Churchill said, “Never flinch, never weary, never despair”—and I would add something I think Churchill would have liked: “Never disparage.” We can disagree without caricaturing and differ without demonizing. Such should be the American way.

As we ponder the issue of how to govern a religiously plural nation, we must first, it seems to me, determine the scope of the problem. We have been divided before: Whig v. Tory during the Revolution, free v. slave through the nineteenth century, and, in what I said earlier I think is the most relevant analogy, in the 1920s, at the time of the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. The twenties were much like our own time: an age of general affluence, of rapid social transformation with the move from farm to city, of the rise of a mass national media in the form of radio, and of questions about America’s role in a global order that, in World War I, had cost us blood and treasure and might again. In the culture wars at home, down in tiny Dayton, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan went at it over the tension between reason and faith, science and theology, freethinking and fundamentalism.

Faith has always been a source of tension in American life. From John Winthrop’s sermon at sea to George Washington’s improvised “So help me, God” at the first presidential inaugural in 1789 to Lincoln’s dependence on Scripture to Franklin Roosevelt’s D-Day Prayer to John Kennedy’s climactic inaugural line—“On earth, God’s work must truly be our own”—religion and religiosity have been part of our public lives.

There is no escaping that. Nor is there any escaping that faith is only one force, not the only force, in our national life, and it is most effective when it is handled with humility, not hubris. Literalism is for the weak; crusades for the insecure. The beginning of our way forward lies in the opening line of one of our oldest founding documents, Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom of 1786: it says, “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free. . . .” Listen to that again: “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free. . . .”

The genius of that thought is how it is at once a rational and theological notion. It assumes, as the great monotheistic traditions long have, that we are all God’s children, that the world and “all that is therein” are the products of God’s hands and heart. He has given us tongues with which to speak, ears with which to hear, and minds with which to ponder, explore, discover, and create. He did not create a race of automatons or, obviously, the reflexively obedient; he created man and woman and endowed us with the great gift of reason. Not to draw on that gift to our utmost would be to defy the Lord and what he wrought—it would be, in religious terms, a sin, a short-coming, a missing of the mark.

The faithful should not fear science, whether it is the study of fossils or genes. For anything and everything that is found under the sun—and, we now know, beyond the sun, in galaxy after galaxy, from here to eternity—is God’s. Thus the acts of contemplation and discovery, of writing poems and finding cures and positing theorems and composing symphonies, are for the religious, acts of piety, and of thanksgiving. For the secular, such things may be about the wonders of nature, or of rationality, or of logic. So be it: the point is that we are all on the same journey, if for different reasons. Aristotle said, “All human beings desire to know,” and Saint Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

There, in two ancient thoughts, one pagan and one Christian, are words that should give us hope in this new century, for both suggest that life is an unfolding story and an endless search. Many Americans of faith believe the quest will end in a place where, as the prophet Isaiah said, God “will swallow up death forever . . . and will wipe away tears from all faces.” The secular, by and large, may not be so sure of that, but the genius of America is that we have together sustained a nation in which all of us may believe or disbelieve as we wish, reassured that we have the right to be left alone.

An early church father once asked: “What does Athens have in common with Jerusalem? The Academy with the Church?” I would argue that they have everything to do with one another, and the religiously observant, however conservative, can find much common ground with the fiercely secular, however liberal—and vice versa. I admit this is a counterintuitive thought in the Age of Red and Blue, but I think many Americans—and not only those who aspire to be bishops—would prefer to live in a nation that is more purple than not.

Jon Meacham is managing editor of Newsweek and author, most recently, of the book Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (Random House). These words are adapted from his keynote address on June 8, 2005, during Harvard Divinity School’s Alumni/ae  Day luncheon.

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