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The Government Gets One Right (Townhall.com) April 10, 2008

Posted by daviddavenport in Radio Commentaries.
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Every once in a while, the federal government actually gets one right, as 

Courtesy of Townhall.com

 President Bush did when his first two executive orders, 7 years ago, created the faith-based initiatives program.

Unlike most federal programs, this was not new bureaucracy and more spending, but it lowered legal barriers that had prevented local, faith-based charities from carrying out social service programs with federal dollars that others providers received.  As President Bush said, it leveled the playing field.

Now, on its 7th anniversary, the results are clear.  Faith-based programs work.  They are local and personal and they have delivered as good or better results than traditional programs in prisons, homelessness, health and other areas.  In fact, by now 35 states — with 19 governors who are Democrats and 16 Republicans — have followed suit.

It’s a win-win and in the process, perhaps, the president has fostered a quiet revolution by lowering the barriers and giving religious-charities a seat at the table.

To listen to the audio: http://townhall.com/TalkRadio/Show.aspx?RadioShowID=11&ContentGuid=323993b4-6beb-4fc7-8c94-527f6f0bc615


A Good Speech, But Will It Do Any Good? (Religion and Ethics Newsweekly) December 6, 2007

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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A minister friend used to say: “It’s hard enough to give a good sermon, harder still to give a sermon that will do any good.”  A large congregation awaited Mitt Romney’s sermon this morning, especially in Iowa, as he sought to explain his faith and how it would inform his presidency.  It was a good speech but, given all that he needed to accomplish, it seems doubtful that it will do enough good to propel his campaign through Iowa and other tough Republican primaries.

Romney faced high expectations and an almost impossible dilemma as he delivered this message.  On one hand, the American people as a whole are ambivalent about the matter of faith and religion in their public leaders.  They want leaders who are not too religious in the sense of looking to God to tell them which policies to adopt.  That has historically been a fine line for any candidate to walk, but it has become more difficult in recent years because of the rise of evangelical Christians as a political force and the very different expectations they bring to religion in public life.

One way to assess the speech, then, is to identify the several audiences Romney needed to address and the messages they needed to hear:

1) The average American voter who wants religion, but not too much:

Here we could give Romney’s speech high marks on content, but a lower grade on timing.  The timing problem is that the American people generally aren’t really paying attention yet to Mitt Romney and the stage full of Republicans running for president.  If average Americans know, or care, that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, it is still not clear they know what that means.  So, for the broad range of American opinion, this speech should have been given earlier, when Romney first entered the race, or later, as Kennedy did mere weeks before the general election when people were alert to the issues.

Still, the content was good in that what the average American wants to hear is that a candidate is committed to faith — we’re still not ready for an atheist as president — and that this faith has produced strong character and values in the candidate’s life.  Romney’s appeal to the founders and to our history demonstrated that his faith stands in a strong, mainstream tradition.  He referred not so much to the particularities of his church but to the “great moral inheritance we hold in common.”  His faith is witnessed, he said, in his “marriage and family.”  This would have been a good speech if the average American voter was his most important audience.  But the speech wouldn’t have garnered as much attention if that were its main object.

2) Iowans (and other voters) concerned about a Mormon as president:

This was the audience people have assumed Romney needed to reach with some kind of explanation of Mormonism that would fit into the mainstream of American faith and provide a defense against religious discrimination.  Dealing with the particularities of Mormonism would have been too difficult in a short, national speech and was wisely not the tack Romney took.  Instead, he sought to build a larger frame around his Mormon faith, one that placed it in the great middle of American values.

First, he explained that his was the faith of his fathers and he “will be true to them and to my beliefs.”  Most American’s “inherit” their faith and will understand his loyalty.  Then he addressed his beliefs about Jesus Christ, affirming that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind,” admitting that his church had “its own unique doctrines and history,” without addressing them specifically.  In fact, he said that defending his church’s particular views would mistakenly make him a “spokesman for his faith” and would acknowledge that there was some kind of religious test for candidates.  Instead, he said, we should focus on the “common creed of moral convictions” we all share.

This part of the speech should satisfy many, but not all, who are concerned about a Mormon president.  Frankly, I thinks it’s easy to overestimate that concern since polls say people who express it generally don’t even know much about Mormonism.  But this is probably as far as a candidate can or should go in dealing with the particularities of his religion.  Just as John Kennedy did not deal with the specifics of Catholicism, Romney should build a larger frame around his beliefs and let it go at that, again earning relatively high marks here.

3) Evangelical conservatives who vote in Iowa and other Republican primaries:

At this stage of the campaign, this is Romney’s most important audience for a speech on faith, and here he receives lower marks.  The new force in Republican politics in the last decade is the relatively large and active group of evangelical and other religious and social conservatives.  This group accounts for 30 percent of the GOP voting base, and perhaps as much as 50 percent in Iowa.  It is also a highly energetic bloc that can turn out votes and communicate its message.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that Romney and his faigh message can reach that group.  So far this bloc, which helped George W. Bush, has been unable to agree on any candidate for president in 2008.  In just the last couple of weeks, many evangelical conservatives in Iowa have concluded that Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, could in fact win if they got behind him, so support has been shifting away from Romney and toward Huckabee.  One estimate is that two-thirds of Huckabee’s support in Iowa comes from this group and only one-third of Romney’s, so this is the key religious group for Romney to reach at this moment.

Romney’s speech is not likely to sway this group.  In fact, Romney is not a great match for evangelicals.  Mormons come from a different religious tradition and culture than evangelicals, and Romney’s religion naturally informs his values, convictions, and personal life more than it does his policy positions.  But evangelical conservatives want precisely the opposite:  they want to hear that a candidate is taking a particular stand on abortion and other social issues because of his faith.  Romney’s speech came closed at one point, acknowledging that the “right to life” is a movement of conscience like “abolition or civil rights.”  But then he moved on.  This will probably not be enough connection between faith and stands on issues to satisfy evangelical conservatives that Romney is their man.

One of the difficult aspects of presidential campaigns is you have to stir up your own base and win primaries, but also be able to move toward the center and win general elections.  Romney’s speech would have worked well next fall in appealing to the broad American voter base with his message of faith and values.  But if the evangelical and social conservative voter group is as important to winning the Republican nomination as it appears, Romney may not satisfy them sufficiently to win primaries and make it to the fall general election campaign.  It was a good speech, but may not do enough good wit the one audience Romney most needs to reach right now, evangelical conservatives in Iowa and in other Republican prmiaries. 

Truly higher education (Scripps Howard News Service) February 19, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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For more than 100 years, America’s colleges and universities have steadily pushed religion and spirituality off the campus. Recent evidence suggests, however, that U.S. college students are deeply interested in such matters and universities that emphasize faith in learning are growing by leaps and bounds.

Though one would hardly know it today, most of America’s great private universities, and even many of its state-supported institutions, began as church-related colleges. From Harvard and Yale right on across the country, colleges were founded with religious missions right alongside their academic curriculum.

Over time the spiritual mission was pushed aside in favor of greater academic freedom. The seal of Harvard University tells the story graphically, at first containing the Latin terms for “Christ and the church” right in the center. Eventually the seal was revised to move those words to the edge and to introduce “truth” in the center. Finally the spiritual terms disappeared altogether, as has that emphasis on most college campuses.

But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Research commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation and performed by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA suggests that students are very much interested in spiritual development during their college years and that universities are doing a poor job overall of meeting those needs.

The UCLA study surprised many in higher education with these findings among college students surveyed:

– 77 percent of students believe “we are all spiritual beings.”

– 77 percent of students pray regularly and 78 percent discuss religion/spirituality with friends.

– 71 percent of students find religion to be personally helpful and 71 percent gain spiritual strength by trusting in a higher power.

At the same time, students expressed that their college has note provided helpful resources in their spiritual quest and that their spirituality has declined from their freshman to junior years (the period surveyed). Of students surveyed, 62 percent said their professors never encourage discussion of spiritual or religious matters and 56 percent responded that faculty never provide opportunities to discuss the purpose or meaning of life.

The disconnect between students’ spiritual needs and aspirations on one hand and campus resources on the other is striking indeed. It is as though a whole generation of spirituality minded students has sneaked up on campus administrators and faculty who were raised in a more secular tradition. Or perhaps the spiritual interest has always been there but has not been discovered until these recent studies began to appear.

Addressing spiritual needs will not be an easy task for our universities. Many of them long ago closed down their departments of religious studies and removed any relics of religious symbolism. And the wall of separation that has grown between church and state seems to find its way even into private college campuses where a faculty culture finds discussion of spiritual or religious matters inappropriate. But with religious overtones to war and foreign policy, and spiritual questions abounding in people’s lives, these are matters colleges may no longer be able to ignore.

Not surprisingly, many students are voting with their feet. Unable to find spiritual resources on secular campuses, larger numbers of students are choosing colleges and universities where faith is still part of the mission. Recent figures show, for example, that the 104 colleges that are part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have experienced a 27 percent growth rate since 1997, more than three times greater than the 8 percent growth in all degree-granting institutions during that same period.

Set against so many discouraging trends, the notion that college students are interested in spiritual and religious things comes as a pleasant surprise. Let’s hope that faith-based organizations of all kinds, along with wise mentors on college campuses, will be alert to meeting such needs. Helping its future leaders think through the meaning of life and build a core of strong values can only strengthen the future of our society.

Family: Quayle’s ‘Murphy Brown’ speech was on target (Scripps Howard News Service) November 30, 2002

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When you gather with loved ones for the holiday season, be aware that politicians and public policy experts are more interested in your family than ever before. One of the hottest topics in Washington this year is the politics of the family.

Although he was ridiculed at the time, former Vice President Dan Quayle helped launch this wave of public attention to family issues with his famous “Murphy Brown” speech in 1992. There is now a surprising consensus that Quayle was on the right track and that the family is an essential item on the public policy agenda.

On the 10th anniversary of Quayle’s controversial speech, consider again his main points. In an address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco following the Los Angeles riots, Quayle argued that the breakdown of the family was the root cause of America’s most serious social problems, and that things were getting worse, and not better. He pointed to government policy and the culture — including TV programs like “Murphy Brown” that he thought trivialized fatherhood — as part of the problem.

Today that speech sounds almost bipartisan. Seemingly everywhere, public policy academics and political leaders are on the family bandwagon, agreeing that something must be done about the family if America is to solve its domestic and even economic problems. Of course they do not agree on precisely what should be done or what role the government should play.

The big item on the family political agenda is welfare reform in Congress. Recognizing the link between broken families and poverty, President Bush has proposed spending $300 million from the welfare budget for programs to strengthen families. Although that may seem like a lot, in the context of $150 billion in welfare expenditures for broken families, it is really more in the nature of a limited experiment.

People have also begun to question legal policy as it relates to the breakup of marriages. No-fault divorces make it easier to break up a family than it is to dissolve a business partnership. Most no-fault divorces reflect the desire of only one of the partners, while the other would like to make the marriage work. The children, of course, are the ultimate victims. Pope John Paul II correctly included judges and lawyers as part of the problem in his strongly worded statement against divorce earlier this year.

Perhaps as significant as these several family policy efforts are the new programs and studies that underlie them. Just this month, for example, PBS’s “Frontline” featured efforts to strengthen marriage and the family, both by churches and nonprofits as well as by government. The Family Research Council recently released a detailed study, “The Family Portrait.” Both of these underscored an alarming drop in marriages and dramatic increases in divorce and single-parent families.

Public policy professor James Q. Wilson has studied values in our society for years. This year he published “The Marriage Problem,” arguing that America has become two nations, one committed to marriage and family, and the other raising children outside the preferable two-parent family structure. The implications for society are, as Wilson demonstrates, enormous.

In the end, one wonders how much government can really do about marriage and the family. As scholar and former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once commented, “if you expect a government program to change families, you know more about government than I do.” The problems of marriage and the family are far deeper than mere politics or public policy. They have become ingrained in a culture that does not see the need for marriage. Perhaps it is in areas like this that President Bush’s reliance on “faith-based organizations” and private sector initiatives will be most useful.

Besides the stirring of politicians about the family, there are some other hopeful signs. The fact that social scientists widely agree on the value of two-parent families raising children is itself progress from where we were 10 years ago. With several popular movements in support, marriage and fatherhood are now in favor. And surveys of college students indicate that they are more highly committed to the family than previous generations.

Who would have thought that Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown would still be with us 10 years later?

Much ado about nothing (Scripps Howard News Service) November 15, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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Lately there has been much ado about atheism — a belief in nothing religious — in our national live. Since atheism is hardly new, one wonders why all the attention and what it means for American public life?

Consider these recent headlines:

Federal Court Finds “Under God” Pledge Unconstitutional — An atheist brought a lawsuit because his school-age daughter was required to listed to the pledge of allegiance with the words “under God.” Astonishingly, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal agreed and only a stay of the decision pending review and appeal allows God to remain in the pledge in that court’s western states until the decision is inevitably overturned.

Atheist Challenges Boy Scout Dismissal — Then last week, a 19-year old adult leader in the Boy Scouts was dismissed because he did not recognize a higher power as required by the scouting organization. He is appealing his dismissal internally and, of course, litigation is always possible. Only two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Boy Scouts could exclude adult leaders who are gay.

Godless Americans March on Washington — Not to be outdone by civil rights groups and Promise Keepers that have staged huge events in our nation’s capital, the American Atheists organization scheduled a rally in the city earlier this month. Do not picture the million man march, or the throngs around the reflection pool as Martin Luther King spoke from the Capitol steps: Only about 2000 atheists, humanists and even Satanists participated.

Beyond these national headlines have been lesser stories. Last month was the National Rally Week Recognizing Gay and Atheist Scouts. The month before, an atheist rally was advertised at the University of Alabama, except that on one — other than the media — attended. Even though the most recent American Religious Identification Survey shows nearly 13 percent of Americans have no religion, those folks apparently are not big on attending rallies.

Sir Isaac Newton may have explained this recent spate of atheist headlines as well as anyone when he said that, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Atheists have been concerned to see President Bush drawing upon religion and prayer in helping lead America through the events of Sept. 11. They actively oppose the president’s program permitting faith-based organizations to receive federal funding to deliver social and other services. In short, atheists believe religion is gaining some traction in the public arena, and they are pushing back.

But it will be a difficult battle for atheists to sustain. For one thing, there is no core philosophy to atheism and it has no natural constituency. As my college religion professor pointed out, the root words of atheism are “a,” or without, and “theos,” which sometimes translated “God” but really means “your highest priority.” Yours may not be a divine spirit, but you doubtless believe in something. A political movement simply opposing what most Americans accept will be a tough sell. It will also attract some awkward bedfellows, like the Satanists, who were included in the Washington rally.

Furthermore, the atheists are fighting centuries of practice in American public life. God is in the pledge of allegiance and on our currency. A review of the three branches of government shows the Ten Commandments displayed at the Supreme Court, the president’s hand on a Bible when he is sworn into office, and the Senate opening every session with prayer. When the federal court ruled “under God” to be unconstitutional, the decision was denounced by Republicans and Democrats alike, and members of Congress assembled on the Capitol steps to recite the pledge, including the “under God” provision.

Finally, the atheist message itself is flawed. One speaker at GAMOW (Godless March on Washington) reportedly brought the crown to tears when he described the discrimination he experienced because a religious organization refused to hire him. Religious organizations have an absolute right under federal law, and often a divine responsibility, to do just that. It is the same with the Boy Scouts — if they believe that faith in a higher being is an important part of their program, it is their right as a private organization to exclude leaders who do not share that commitment. The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, not freedom from it.

The overwhelming majority of Americans is supportive of some role for religion in public life, so long as a reasonable separation between church and state is maintained. The atheist political agenda is truly much ado about nothing.

What is a just war? (Scripps Howard News Service) September 24, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Preparing for war requires marshaling resources, a process that is surely under way. The American military is rounding up troops and preparing battle plans targeting Iraq. Diplomats are working our allies and the United Nations to stir up international support. Politicians are busy with television talk shows and hearings to move public opinion.

Not to be outmaneuvered, 100 Christian ethicists came together in a statement opposing a U.S. attack on Iraq, agreeing that, “As Christian ethicists, we share a common moral presumption against a pre-emptive war on Iraq by the United States.” This follows last week’s letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to President Bush raising similar concerns.

That Christians could be marshaled to oppose war is hardly news. There have always been strong strains of pacifism, conscientious objection, and antiwar thought in religious communities. That notoriously left-leaning academics would fire their own pre-emptive strike against the possibility of President Bush launching a pre-emptive strike is not astonishing.

Indeed, why did they rally only 100 Christian ethicists? To be fair, this number would be substantially reduced if we removed the pacifists whose theology would preclude all wars and those whose politics are anti-Bush. Just as these scholars share a “moral presumption” against a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, most professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, would also share political presumptions against such a Bush policy.

I am less impressed when contestants in a political debate label something “immoral” when they disagree with the policy anyway.

Still, these ethicists raise an important question for public debate. In this modern world of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, could a “just” war ever include a pre-emptive military strike? Or, is striking first, as these Christian scholars maintain, presumed to be immoral? A nation with strong moral, ethical and even spiritual ideals should be as concerned about the rightness of our position as we are the strategy or politics.

The doctrine of a “just” war in Christian thought accepts the New Testament teaching that civil authorities are “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Early Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo, and later Thomas Aquinas, have taught that a “just” war should meet several criteria: a just cause, with wrongdoing on the part of the one attached; a legitimate authority carrying out the war; and a good purpose, such as the advancement of good and the avoidance of evil.

Is there just cause for a strike against Iraq? without question Iraq has been a wrongdoer, developing weapons in violation of U.N. resolutions, attacking one neighbor and seeking to annex another.

There is considerable evidence of Saddam’s support for terrorist activities. The difficult question is whether one must await a direct attack by Iraq before acting.

In days of mor conventional warfare, this might have been reasonable, but with weapons of mass destruction, it should no longer be necessary. Just as many wonder why many did not stand up to Adolf Hitler earlier and prevent mass atrocities, we should not leave historians to ask why no one pre-empted an evildoer like Saddam from using his illegal arsenal.

Is there legitimate authority? Those who feel the United States must await United Nations approval forget what Margaret Thatcher pointed out years ago: The United Nations is a political body, not a moral one. Surely it would be preferable to have U.N. support, for political reasons alone, but it is not necessary for moral authority to act.

What is the purpose of the military action? To punish and remove the wrongdoer, is the obvious answer. With Saddam’s record, there is ample moral justification for this. Clearly the weapons themselves are a legitimate target, but in the case of an especially notorious leader like Saddam, a regime change is also a moral option.

The studied opinion of 100 Christian ethicists about the morality of a war is an important word, but not the last word on the matter. There is ample room for Christians, and others, to find solid moral ground for military action against Saddam.

Sometimes Christianity demands its followers to be proactive, not merely reactive or passive. Frequently it requires tough choices between shades of good and evil. Most of all, it requires us to adapt ancient moral principles to modern realities, which fairly includes the pre-emptive removal of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the evildoer who controls them.

Don’t exclude religion from table of public life (San Francisco Chronicle) August 18, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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We live in a world in which the walls are coming down. Perhaps it started with President Reagan’s Berlin challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Globalization, technology, travel and communication continue to destroy walls between nations and people. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes our time as a “world without walls.”

Ironically, while walls are tumbling around the world, here at home some are actually trying to expand a wall – the wall of separation between church and state.

News stories this summer document that, one brick here, another stone there, forces are actively working to expand that wall. Consider these recent developments:

* Michigan revoked a college student’s state scholarship when she declared “theology” as her major. Eleven states now have laws that would withhold aid to students who major in religion, and the U.S. Supreme Court will review the matter next term.

* At the Grand Canyon, three plaques containing spiritual messages were removed at the insistence of the American Civil Liberties Union and returned to the original donors, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.

* Fearing a weakening of the wall of separation between church and state, the Senate failed to pass President Bush’s faith-based legislative initiatives, so he moved ahead by executive order, allowing religious groups to receive government funding for social services.

It is important to note, however, that these efforts are based on a misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution.

The so-called wall of separation between church and state is not referenced in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson invented the wall in a letter to a Baptist association with which he was in conflict.

While saying nothing about a wall of separation, the Constitution does make two important statements about religion.

First, it guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from it. This recognizes the vital role religion played in the settling and establishing of our nation.

Second, the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In other words, religion is not to receive government endorsement.

That does not mean religion cannot have a seat at the table of public life, which the wall builders are advocating, but that it should not run the table.

If organizations are permitted to use public parks, for example, religious groups should not be excluded merely because they are religious.

If state scholarships are given for students to major in the classes or philosophy, they should also be available if students wish to study the academic discipline of theology.

The wall builders do not seek merely to prevent religion from running the table of public life; they would wall off religion so that it may not even have a seat at that table.

Thomas L. Friedman, in his classic book on globalization, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” notes that the symbol of the Cold War system was a wall, but “the symbol of the globalization system is the World Wide Web, which unites everyone.”

The table of American public life, like the Web, is big enough to include a place for everyone, even those who practice religion.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-7.

A place for God (Scripps Howard News Service) June 28, 2002

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We should have seen it coming. Most were surely surprised, even shocked, to pick up their newspaper and learn that a federal appeals court had found the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. But this storm about the place of religion in American public live has been brewing for years, and even the current stay and inevitable reversal of the case will not be the end of it.

No, this crazy court decision is not just the product of a couple of nutty California judges. In finding that children should not be required even to listen to a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, these federal judges followed a widely accepted, but flawed, line of thinking to its inevitable conclusion, removing God from any mention of public life. The good news is that the radical result of this case is so visible, and so unpopular, that perhaps now the pendulum will begin to swing back toward finding an appropriate place for God in the public arena.

The case that drew all this into focus was brought by an atheist father of a California elementary school student, who felt that his daughter should not have to listen to “under God” when the pledge is said in school. The Supreme Court had long ago protected her from having to say the words, holding that teachers could be required to lead the pledge but students could not be forced to say it. A three-judge panel of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the father, deciding that requireing the student to listen to the words “under God” violated the establishment clause of teh U.S. Constitution.

The problem with the court’s reasoning is that its understanding of the establishment clause is more a matter of myth than reality. What the Constitution actually says is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” Is listening to”under God” in a pledge a law? Is carrying a coin with “one nation under God” a law? Is playing “God Bless America” at a public event a law? I think know. No, these are forms of public expression, highly valued and protected.

More important, do any of these references to God in American public life “establish” a religion? Hardly. Those words have been in teh Pledge of Allegiance for 48 years now, and they have not established a religion yet. In fact, the evidence shows that, at least until Sept. 11, religion in most of its forms has been in decline in America. Merely referring to God is a long way from establishing a religion.

We have come to accept a popular myth that the establishment clause requires a complete and total absence of religion everywhere in American public life. Despite the frequency and finality with which it is often states, the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constituion. And the First Amendment to the Constitution actually guarantees freedom “of” religion, not freedom from it. The judges are mistaken when they say that the Constitution legally prohibits a reference to God in our pledges, and presumably soon our coins and public places.

Standing behind the constitutional questions are important lessons from history and culture. Without question, one of the major motivations behind the founding of this country was a strong desire for free religious expression.

At a time when we see the value of celebrating the many cultures that make up our land, it would be ironic to begin erasing the faith of our founders from our public memory. Indeed, as we learned after Sept. 11, God and faith and prayer are valuable elements of national life.

The challenge now is to find an approach that allows God to be part of public life in America, without taking it over. That is complex and important work, but we should not settle for the unconstitutional simplicity of removing God from public life altogether. The work should begin by reversing this court decision and restoring “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, but then it must continue. Our nation will be stronger when it finds chords of public life where religion is one of the notes that can be heard.

Reacquainting ourselves with prayer (Scripps Howard News Service) May 3, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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I admit the National Day of Prayer is not a day I always honor but, as they say, everything is different after Sept. 11. Not only did I pray on Thursday but, since I take stock of thankfulness on Thanksgiving and civil rights on Martin Luther King Day, I took time to reflect on the place of prayer and faith in American life. And I decided they really are different, in essentially good and important ways, after Sept. 11.

One clear difference is that, as a result of the tragic events of Sept. 11, God and prayer have reentered the national vocabulary. In ways that were not entirely acceptable a year ago, it is now OK to pray and to talk about prayer in America. Although George W. Bush is hardly the first president to conclude a speech with “God bless America,” he is the first president of the modern era to openly and consistently encourage Americans to pray. More than that, the president has shown that he is personally familiar with the language and practice of prayer.

As it does in our personal lives, tragedy has brought us to our knees in American public life. We do not turn most readily to God when the stock market is rising and unemployment is low. No, we pray when we need help. Not since Pearl Harbor have Americans felt so shocked and helpless as they did in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Our price as the only remaining superpower and the hubris of economic success finally gave way to expose national vulnerability and fear. Prayer does its best work in weakness and humility, not in arrogance and strength.

It is also true that a political pendulum had to swing to make room for God and prayer in American public life. The separation of church and state, uttered so frequently and forcefully that you would think it was in the Constitution itself, has been carried to far greater lengths than ever intended. For example, the school board in Madison, Wis., had decided to eliminate the pledge of allegiance because of its reference to “one nation, under God.” After 20,000 phone calls and e-mails, and an overflowing 800-seat auditorium protesting the decision, the school board reversed itself, finding the pledge was an appropriate “commitment to our democracy.” Such an outpouring and change in policy would have been unlikely before Sept. 11.

Contrary to mistaken views that have become accepted dogma in the U.S., the Constitution mandates freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. And so the tragic events of Sept. 11 caused a pendulum to swing, not just in Madison, Wis., but around the country, making room for God and for prayer that had not been there only months before. As one Wisconsin citizen said, “The pledge does not ask anyone to subscribe to any religion.” Another added, “In this time of stress and fear, we need our ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ we need our Pledge of Allegiance.”

All this leads to another change since the National Day of Prayer last year: More people have been praying. At least in the immediate aftermath of the tragedies, churches, mosques and synagogues reported significant increases in attendance across America, and some hailed a great spiritual awakening or revival. More recent evidence indicates that these indicators are returning to normal in many places. Nevertheless, as one pastor reported, “the terrorist activities caused people in America to wrestle with the frailty of life.”

My prayer, on the National Day of Prayer, was simply this: that there be room at the table of American public life for prayer. And that more Americans than ever before will honor their president’s request: “I ask Americans to pray for God’s protection, to express gratitude for our blessings, and to seek moral and spiritual renewal.” You don’t have to await a special day to do that.

Faith was central to Bush message (The Ventura Star) August 10, 2000

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Presidential candidate George W. Bush brings faith to the forefront of his vision for leadership.

The slightly fractured English on the hotel sign in Paris has always amused me: “Please leave your values at the front desk.” Yet the message has also struck me as symbolic of how many Christians, including politicians, have dealt with their spiritual values in their careers — they check them at the front desk and rarely carry them into their work.

So I listened with interest as Gov. George W. Bush launched his general election campaign last week with his all-important convention acceptance speech. Knowing that he is a committed Christian, I nevertheless wondered if he would check those values at the front desk as he began the fall campaign.

And if he included them in his speech, as I expected he might, would they be central or merely peripheral? Would his Christianity be only a rhetorical device or would it integrate into the heart of his message and campaign?

I am encouraged to say that for a guy who does not wear his religion on his sleeve, Bush nevertheless integrated his faith fully into his speech.

Actually the message that Bush’s spiritual values make a difference foreshadowed his own appearance, as the pastor of his church was chosen to speak shortly before the keynote address. Then as Bush described the important influences in his upbringing, he clearly included “churches to remind us that every soul is equal in value and equal in need.”

The speech included wonderful rhetorical flourishes built upon his faith: “I believe in tolerance, not in spite of my faith but because of it. I believe in a God who calls us not to judge our neighbors but to love them. I believe in grace because I’ve seen it and peace because I’ve felt it, and forgiveness because I’ve needed it.” In a world where religion is often a wedge issue dividing voters, Bush sought to employ it as a unifier.

Just as one of the subtle messages of the Republican Convention is that “this is not your father’s Republican Party,” Bush’s integration of faith and politics is also not the traditional approach. He actually believes that faith-based organizations have a place at the table in the larger national agenda.

For example, his reference to a ministry helping the poor in Minneapolis led to his conclusion that “government cannot do this work. It can feed the body but it cannot reach the soul.” In a real way, Bush suggests that government should encourage helpers such as churches and ministries. This is a potentially ground-breaking path in a nation that speaks often of the “wall of separation” of church and state.

Perhaps the most important, the central theme of Bush’s speech seemed to integrate his faith and politics. The notion that economic prosperity has not led to moral goodness clearly suggests that Bush is building a national agenda that grows from his faith. Again and again, he returned to themes of character and values, whether in education, aid to the poor, or national priorities generally.

Happily, Bush has not checked his spiritual values at the front desk. Nor has he rolled them out in only traditional ways — to inform us of his views of abortion, or to provide rhetorical highlights in his message.

Rather, Bush has integrated his faith into his central message and his leadership. We will wait with interest to see how Vice President Al Gore, also a Christian, will respond to this faith-based challenge.