Ronnie and Religion

I was reading the current issue of The Federalist and I ran across a segment of Reagan’s Prayer Breakfast Speech here in Dallas in 1984. I’ve said before that I think that Ronald Reagan was the last libertarian president that have had, and this speech solidified that opinion for me. This enunciates perfectly my own views on religion and politics.

If all the children of our country studied together all of the many religions in our country, wouldn’t they learn greater tolerance of each other’s beliefs? If children prayed together, would they not understand what they have in common, and would this not, indeed, bring them closer, and is this not to be desired? So, I submit to you that those who claim to be fighting for tolerance on this issue may not be tolerant at all.

When John Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he said that his church would not dictate his Presidency any more than he would speak for his church. Just so, and proper. But John Kennedy was speaking in an America in which the role of religion — and by that I mean the role of all churches — was secure. Abortion was not a political issue. Prayer was not a political issue. The right of church schools to operate was not a political issue. And it was broadly acknowledged that religious leaders had a right and a duty to speak out on the issues of the day. They held a place of respect, and a politician who spoke to or of them with a lack of respect would not long survive in the political arena.

It was acknowledged then that religion held a special place, occupied a special territory in the hearts of the citizenry. The climate has changed greatly since then. And since it has, it logically follows that religion needs defenders against those who care only for the interests of the state.

There are, these days, many questions on which religious leaders are obliged to offer their moral and theological guidance, and such guidance is a good and necessary thing. To know how a church and its members feel on a public issue expands the parameters of debate. It does not narrow the debate; it expands it.

The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they’re sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.

A state is nothing more than a reflection of its citizens; the more decent the citizens, the more decent the state. If you practice a religion, whether you’re Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or guided by some other faith, then your private life will be influenced by a sense of moral obligation, and so, too, will your public life. One affects the other. The churches of America do not exist by the grace of the state; the churches of America are not mere citizens of the state. The churches of America exist apart; they have their own vantage point, their own authority. Religion is its own realm; it makes its own claims.

We establish no religion in this country, nor will we ever. We command no worship. We mandate no belief. But we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe; all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief, to apply moral teaching to public questions.

I submit to you that the tolerant society is open to and encouraging of all religions. And this does not weaken us; it strengthens us, it makes us strong. You know, if we look back through history to all those great civilizations, those great nations that rose up to even world dominance and then deteriorated, declined, and fell, we find they all had one thing in common. One of the significant forerunners of their fall was their turning away from their God or gods.

Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.

6 Comments

  1. Kevin Baker says:

    I agree with everything in that speech but this:

    “Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”

    It is possible to be atheist and still be moral. The conscience isn’t prompted by God, but by one’s sense of rightness. There has been much evil done in the certainty that it was “God’s will.”

    The problem this nation seems to have is its abandonment of Judeo-Christian morality without replacing it with anything else. I’m not an Ayn Rand Objectivist, but I do believe that a workable objective morality based on the “Do unto others” rule – apart from the threat of eternal damnation – is valid and possible. And we’d better acquire one, or this nation very well might go under.

  2. Phelps says:

    Is it possible? Sure. But it is also possible to have benign communism. It just isn’t bloody likely. It takes an exceptional person to be both athiest and moral. There are lots of them, but athiests themselves are exceptional. When athiesm spreads from the intellectual elite to the common person, I do not think that you will see the same level of moral values (and I would argue that most athiests now aren’t notably moral, they just aren’t notably amoral. Yet.)

  3. Kevin Baker says:

    Hmm… That sounded just a bit hostile (“Yet.”) and somewhat challenging.

    Hell, I’ll rise to the bait.

    One’s morality is what one is raised into, and for centuries the dominant morality of civilised lands has been overwhelmingly based in the Judeo-Christian ethic. And it’s a good ethic, overall. It would have to be to have become as widespread as it has, but it’s not based in reason so much as it is in dogma.

    Atheists, you say, are exceptional. True, self-proclaimed atheists are, but I think you must admit that a very large percentage of people who proclaim themselves some flavor of Christian do not follow more than minimally the tenets of their religions. They support abortion, extramarital sex, etc., etc. Their morality is only loosely based on the Judeo-Christian one.

    You have a good point that “(w)hen athiesm spreads from the intellectual elite to the common person, I do not think that you will see the same level of moral values,” but that will be a failure of the society in its transition, and I do see that transition in progress. As I said initially, we are by all appearances abandoning the Judeo-Christian ethic, and we have failed to replace it with anything. A replacement based on reason would seem to be required. You teach children how to behave by telling them “NO!” and reinforcing the lesson, but you teach adolescents and adults by logic and reason. However, as of late, we aren’t reinforcing the lesson, and increasingly seem to be abandoning saying “NO!” in fear of damaging delicate psyches.

    Some people will always be children, but not most, if they are taught. We are failing to teach.

    A morality based on the concept of “follow the rules or burn in Hell forever” hasn’t seemed to be all that successful, particularly when it’s been used to justify illogical behavior. People who think for themselves recognize logical disconnects in dogmatic behavior.

    And I’ll take exception to the last line: “I would argue that most athiests now aren’t notably moral, they just aren’t notably amoral. Yet.” We don’t have a CHRISTIAN morality. We do, in the main, share a number of beliefs, but not all. Our morality is different from the dogmatic morality of Judeo-Christianity, and thus the (sensed) hostility. But we will not be amoral. Only sociopaths are amoral. We will certainly be immoral in your eyes about certain things in which our morality and yours do not agree.

    And that brings up another problem – like the difference between religious sects, those of us who base our morality on logic will have differences as well. We lose the comfort of a single set of rules, but that does not necessarily mean anarchy.

    Though, as I originally said, unless we do acquire a morality based on reason, our abandonment of the dogmatically religious-based morality will mean anarchy.

  4. Phelps says:

    A morality based on the concept of “follow the rules or burn in Hell forever” hasn’t seemed to be all that successful, particularly when it’s been used to justify illogical behavior. People who think for themselves recognize logical disconnects in dogmatic behavior.

    First, you don’t have to have a hell to have heaven. I think the promise of heaven is a better motivator than the threat of hell. Second, dogmatic does not equal illogical. Dogmatism does exist that is logical at its core.

    You claim that there are a lot of silent athiests, but I don’t think that is true. There are a lot of silent agnostics, but being agnostic is a far cry from athiest. Atheism is a rejection of the existance of God. It is very easy for an agnostic to say, “you know, I don’t know if the chruch is right or wrong about this God thing, but I’ll just go with the flow and see what happens.”

    As a near agnostic deist, I’ve pondered the atheism theory long and hard. At its root, athiesm is not moral, and does not support morality. Morality in atheism is a rationale for maximizing options in a position of weakness, and when one is both in power and atheist there is absolutely no rational reason to maintain a moral philosophy. (See: Communism.)

  5. Kevin Baker says:

    Hmm…

    There is a problem with semantics here. Your definition of agnostic pretty much matches mine for atheist, and that’s pretty much my fault, I guess. Yes, there are those people who out-and-out reject the very concept of a diety, and I’m not one of those. I understand that I cannot know, but I find the probability vanishingly small. I’ll find out when I die, I suppose. But I don’t believe in a diety, and to me that makes me an atheist. Our definitions differ, but I will concur with yours.

    So yes, you are correct – there are a lot of silent agnostics. My error. Mea culpa.

    However, on the question of Hell & Heaven, the stick of Hell has been used for a very long time right alongside the carrot of Heaven. The concept of an option between everlasting life in Heaven vs. a mere end of one’s existence wasn’t, I suppose, sufficiently frightening.

    Finally, no, dogmatic does not necessarily equal illogical, but dogmatism in religion in some cases very much has. Religion is based on faith. When some part of religious dogma appears illogical and contrary, that tends to disturb one’s faith. Why else did the Catholic church find Gallileo’s writings to be heretical? He challenged the official dogma – and showed it to be wrong. That’s damaging.

    There are very good reasons for much religious dogma – reasons that can be explained logically. Dietary prohibitions against swine, for example, can be explained by fears of trichinosis – a fear that is no longer justified. But religion doesn’t usually accomodate change well.

    I think that if I’d started my original post with “it’s possible to be agnostic and still be moral” you would not have responded quite the way you did. My point was that belief in a diety and an afterlife is not a requirement for a workable system of morals that encourages individuals to treat others as they would like to be treated.

  6. Kevin Baker says:

    By a remarkably weird coincidence, there’s a quite interesting discussion on the topic (mostly) here:

    http://kaedrin.com/weblog/archive/000843.html