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Jewish World Review April 24, 2000 /19 Nissan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Time for people-of-faith
to abandon politics? -- REPUBLICAN GOVS. Christine Todd Whitman and Tom Ridge are warning that the GOP ought to abandon its opposition to abortion or risk annihilation. Their broadsides, coming not long after John McCain's blasts at Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell, raise the perennial question: Do religious conservatives have a place in contemporary politics. And if not, why not?

Whitman and Ridge claim that strict pro-life arguments are politically dangerous and palpably extreme -- as opposed to, say, Whitman's support for partial-birth abortion. They produce no evidence for their charge because there is none. Pro-lifers oppose abortion because they consider it the destruction of a human life. It is hardly unreasonable for people to oppose murder.

Nevertheless, the "extremist" label enjoys enormous prestige in Democratic and Republican circles because organized religion does something many baby boomers find unbecoming. It reminds them that moral standards aren't merely advisory or malleable, but generally rigorous, firm and hard to obey. This is not true merely of floppy-Bible Baptism, but also of Catholicism, Judaism and Islam.

Many people in public life chafe at such judgment. When Republicans impeached President Clinton with precious little Democratic help, the chief executive began nattering about "haters" and "extremists," as if only whip-yielding Calvinists could possibly object to his sink-dance with Monica Lewinsky. He offered not an argument so much as a call to arms -- to rid the political system of meddlesome moralists and priests.

But the impeachment debacle exposed the importance of people who believe in something larger than Bill Clinton's survival. Americans didn't want the president bounced from office, but most of us did want some sign of repentance --- if only to reassure us that he appreciated basic tenets of human decency.

Not only has he resisted such a show of humility, his administration has taken the further step of trying to supplant established religion with laws that propose to embody the latest developments in morality.

The tobacco tax is designed to punish a bad habit. Gun control supposedly prevents men from acting on malevolent whim. Hate-crime statutes impose jail time for voicing unacceptable sentiments. And so on. The Clinton administration has labored more mightily than any of its predecessors to establish its own moral order -- and to imprison those who resist its decrees.

After Bubba
This being the case, it is positively weird to hear such people warn about the "extremism" of religious figures who merely want to say their piece. No church in existence proposes the kind of thoroughgoing behavior modification that the Clinton crew tries to impose on an almost daily basis.

Of course, it is an established principle in American political theory that church and state should lead independent lives. Thomas Jefferson first employed the "wall of separation" metaphor in a private letter to a priest.

But neither Jefferson nor his fellow founders considered religion a source of extremism; just the opposite. They considered it an essential ingredient of liberty -- and warned that without it, democracy would perish. Here's why: Free societies depend on trust. If you can't trust your neighbors, you either must control them or monitor their every move -- and they must do the same to you. This ritual produces something far different than democracy.

Trust in turn requires shared standards. George Washington was clear on this point, as were the rest of our founding crew. They believed that only reliably decent people could maintain a system of "ordered liberty." But they didn't think we simply could make up our own categories of good and evil, right and wrong.

The founders insisted that religion provides the basis of freedom by planting the relevant moral distinctions and, in the process, cultivating seeds of virtue. They declined to select a "favored" religion, however. The First Amendment gives all faiths seats at the table.

Which brings us back to the controversy about religious conservatives. The quadrennial argument is not only boring, but stupid. I would much prefer to hear an "extremist" evangel promote self-control than listen to a political libertine treat the law as if it were a catacomb of escape hatches. In letting people of faith speak, we do not open the door to theocracy. We simply give them a chance to enrich and complicate public debate.

When politicians declare religious arguments out of bounds, they not only condemn discourse to a level of stunning superficiality. They wage war on all faiths. And let's face it, there's nothing more dangerous or extreme than a politician determined to step in and take the place of G-d.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate