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Jean Bethke Elshtain
The Know-It-All State
For better or for worse, "God talk," at least as much as "rights talk," has been, and remains, the way Americans speak. Our politics is indecipherable if severed from the panoply and interplay of America's religions. Much of our political ferment de rived, and derives, from intense religious commitments. The majority of Americans has long held that religious liberty—free exercise—is much of what distinguishes America—or did historic ally—from so many other polities. Given the complex intermingling of religious and political imperatives in our history, it is unsurprising that such a huge chunk of American juridical life has been devoted to sorting out the inaptly named church-state debate. In a less churched society this would be a far less salient concern.
Were one to examine American history, and views on the power and role of religion, through a lens that began only with Jefferson and continued down to present separationists who approach religion as a kind of polluting force in political life, one would miss the boat altogether. Jefferson's blithe dictum that it mattered not to him whether his neighbor believed in no God or 20 gods—it neither picked his pocket nor broke his legs—suggests an agnosticism about religious belief not shared by the vast majority. It is, then, not at all surprising that when Alexis de Tocqueville toured America during the Jacksonian era, he noted, in his subsequent masterwork, Democracy in America, that settled ideas about God and human nature were indispensable to the conduct of daily life and that, in general, when a people's religion is destroyed, it enervates and prepares them, not for liberation but for bondage. (Here he had the horrors of the French Revolutionary Terror in mind.)
In America, by contrast, the social and political implications of the belief that all were equal in the eyes of God were being played out on a grand scale. Religion contributed powerfully to the maintenance of a democratic ...