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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Leftward Bound (August 23, 2000)
Can you teach a New Democrat old tricks? Christopher Caldwell on Gore's gamble with Lieberman.

The Legacy Haunting Gore (August 9, 2000)
Trade, not scandal, Jack Beatty argues, is the legacy of the Clinton years that could cost Gore the election.

The Issues That Aren't (July 26, 2000)
Where does George W. Bush stand on Microsoft? Where does Al Gore stand on Kosovo? On Big Tobacco? You don't know? You're not alone, writes Christopher Caldwell.

The Democratic Difference (July 13, 2000)
Ralph Nader says the Republican and Democratic parties are indistinguishable. Jack Beatty looks at the record on labor, "the issue our era will be measured by," and sees quite another reality.

Your Morality, My Values (June 28, 2000)
Values and morality may sound like the same thing, Christopher Caldwell writes, but Democrats have been able to capitalize on one, while Republicans remain stuck on the other.

Who Owns Capitalism? (June 15, 2000)
Has democracy at last caught up with capitalism? Jack Beatty on the balance of power between the corporation and society.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.


Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.


The Tyranny of Belief

Some politicians, including Joe Lieberman, seem to want to blur the line between religion and politics. They're gravely misguided

by Jack Beatty


September 13, 2000

To much publicity and some debate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate, a few weeks ago said that believers were probably better people than nonbelievers and that religion should inform politics and government more than it does today -- to the betterment of both. His view about religion and private life is offensive to those of us who do not believe in God. His view about religion and public life is dangerous.

Does religion make you a better person? It just ain't necessarily so. Religion can encourage decent treatment of others -- Matthew Arnold said it had the power of "lighting up" morality. It can also encourage fanatic beastliness toward nonbelievers. Morality is belief-neutral. You can act morally toward your fellow human beings because God commanded it. But you can also do it out of a kind of moral instinct. If you were not blighted emotionally by toxic parenting, treating others with a tincture of the love that came to you as a child is natural. Morality also reflects values, and religion has no monopoly on these.

Christianity may be the source of the idea of human equality; to maintain, however, that only religion can sustain that value is to commit a fallacy: the origin of an idea is not its destiny. Equality before the law, fairness, and respect for the rights of others -- these values have long since been secularized.

You can treat people decently, finally, on pragmatic grounds, because it is not only the right but also the smart thing to do; excepting the badly damaged, people will probably reciprocate. To put it crassly, moral conduct usually pays off.

Turning from religion and morality to religion and politics, Lieberman said that the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court has tended to push religion to the margins of public life, but that it belongs in the center. To the contrary, we unbelievers would argue, the relative absence of religion from American politics is a triumph of Constitutionalism, the cornerstone of tolerance, the political virtue of virtues.

Historically, and with lethal passion in the twentieth century, belief systems have driven tolerance out of politics. The Communists and Nazis did not believe in God, but they exploited the primitive core of the psychology of belief: a susceptibility to idolatry and to projecting salvific powers onto charismatic leaders, causes, or ideas and a vulnerability to group paranoia, with an accompanying intolerance of the threatening "other," the tribal, racial, ethnic, or religious outsider. Above all, the totalitarian movements and states exploited the propensity of anxious human beings to accept one truth, one way, one path to salvation, from which it is error, heresy, treason, or ideological deviation to dissent. God may have been absent from twentieth-century history, but not Belief. Joined to government, it has bred the tyranny of rectitude.

Whether exploited by traditional religions or political religions, psychological totalism -- the unquestioning fealty to one God, one truth, and one right, embodied in one faith, one cause, one party -- has everywhere provided the tinder of persecution. One does not want to put all the blame on irrationality: religions have not lacked for murderous doctrine. God may be love for Christians today, but they can thank secularization for that. Religion was not love when popes, kings, and governments killed in its name. How lucky for America that the Enlightenment thinkers who wrote the Constitution put a "wall of separation" between religion and state power.

That "wall of separation" is not, as conservative commentators argue, a hindrance but rather a boon to religion, making it a critic of power instead of an instrument, and ensuring the clarity and ecumenical reach of its moral voice. Even we nonbelievers applaud that value -- the dissenting public value -- of religion.

Yes, a Jerry Falwell makes a caricature of the critical role of religion when he circulates tapes virtually accusing the Clintons of murdering Vince Foster. But consider the critique of the nuclear arms race made by Catholic bishops at the height of Cold War in the 1980s. It required no belief in God to accept, for it was moral not religious in language and concept. But, answerable to a power transcending the nation state, the bishops would have none of the idea that our nuclear missiles were less morally dubious vehicles of mass murder than the missiles of the Soviet Union. Or consider the Church's moral polemic against capitalism as an economic system rife with cruelty and nihilism. No secular institution has done anything like this, and the Church could not have done so but for the wall of separation.
Conservatives who want the wall lowered, I suspect, believe that a closer link between religion and state will leave power and capitalism without fundamental moral challenge. They are right. With the academy increasingly compromised by state and corporate subsidy, with journalists given over to mockery of idealism or absorbed with personalities and the froth of events, with socialism tarnished by history and defeat, religion alone still speaks truth to power -- but only as long as it stays on its side of the wall.


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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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