The Reformation of Political Religion: The Clash of Declarations

In honor of President's Day, this Cornerstone series asks contributors to explore the various approaches that presidents employed in their promotion of religious liberty throughout the centuries. Writers comment on presidential leadership (or lack thereof) on the issue of advancing religious freedom at home and abroad. 

By: Ken Masugi

An examination of twentieth century presidents’ religious freedom policies is nothing short of a reflection on the transformation of America, from the onset of the Progressive Era to the continuing divisions over the constitutional revolution. We see the regard for America’s political religion and its religions change, from Theodore Roosevelt’s making “Onward, Christian Soldiers” his 1912 campaign song to a multicultural America that disparages any such outward signs of religiosity (not to mention demonstrates an outright militancy against such displays). To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson on democracy with slight exaggeration, we have gone from domestic and foreign policies that made the world safe for Christianity to those that often seem to make the world safe from Christianity. The wise constitutional prohibition on religious tests for national office has become a banishment of religion from the public square. 

In this transformation, multiculturalism, secular attitudes among elites, and adverse Court and bureaucratic decisions all play roles, but perhaps the best way of capturing this deterioration is to note the changing place of the Declaration of Independence and its themes of equality, liberty, and self-government throughout various American presidencies. The Declaration is, in Lincoln’s words, not a “merely revolutionary document,” but a natural rights groundwork providing the basis for legitimate government and the institutions needed to perpetuate republicanism. Thus, it is political philosophy adopted for a practical purpose, as well as a theology of God’s place in the world. Can such an American city of man possibly imitate the City of God? Lincoln responded in the theology of his two most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. His progressive successors used this rhetoric about the divine to inspirit their view of government and the destiny of man.

With this inspiration, in their actions and even more in their words, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson initiated the progressive revolution in American politics. Roosevelt sought to appropriate Lincoln to justify a dramatic expansion of central government over ordinary lives—for example, national policies concerning family life. Wilson sought to emancipate the Democratic Party from the Declaration’s natural rights by belittling it as a sentiment of primarily historical interest. In his commentary on the nature of progress, he also insisted that politics be understood on the model of Darwinian evolution—that is, natural science, not natural rights and the Bible—should be the model for understanding human life.

Both of these 1912 election opponents reflect the transformation of Christian teaching in Social Gospel reform, while disavowing its socialism. Both Roosevelt and Wilson embraced the spiritedness of the Social Gospel. Advancing “the living Constitution” (a play on “ever-living God”), progressives expanded the role of government and shrunk the place of voluntary associations and civic groups, including churches. 

Rethinking the Declaration’s fundamental rights, Franklin Roosevelt would elevate this progressive spiritedness in his first inaugural address, blending scripture with assertions of unlimited executive power for expelling “money changers” from the “temple of our civilization.” FDR’s rhetorical gifts were also prominent in his D-Day prayer, as were they in World War II.  Later in the Cold War, Truman and Eisenhower would also appropriate religious language against Communism. However, the expansion of federal powers ultimately became a means of shrinking all liberties, including religious ones.

Nowhere is this tradeoff clearer than in FDR’s significant 1944 State of the Union address, best known for his promulgation of his “Economic” or “Second Bill of Rights.” FDR proposed new economic rights that would afford “a new basis of security and prosperity … for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.” The uncontestable goods, such as work, housing, medical care, and education, become declared rights and include, for example, “recreation,” a “decent” home, and “good” education. “All of these rights spell security.”

This Second Bill of Rights leads to a restriction on the original rights—on economic activity, to be sure, but also on religious liberty. To avoid interfering with government programs, the First Amendment right to free religious exercise became narrowly construed as the right of free worship, thus shrinking the realm of religious liberty to fit within a house of worship. What Roosevelt proposed, Lyndon Johnson began to realize in his Great Society programs, making America more inclusive through civil rights legislation but more class-focused with various redistributive programs. In the process, religion became just another interest group, restricted by a series of Supreme Court opinions adverse to religious liberty.

The first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, accelerated the privatization of religion when he separated his faith and conscience from his public role. His vigorous defense of this distinction before skeptical Protestant ministers was a turning point in his campaign. Recent critics of Kennedy’s failure to defend Catholic teaching overlook the difference Vatican II has made for public officials. In Vatican II, the Catholic Church answered the theological-political question in Dignitatis Humanae in favor of religious freedom.  No American Catholic need be subjected to the questioning Kennedy received. Kennedy’s Democratic Party continued the concerns of its nineteenth century predecessor by acting as a protector of immigrants, including Catholics, though with its earlier emphasis on white privilege transformed into a multicultural privilege.

Though progressive attitudes abide in the Republican Party, it too retains nineteenth century traits—High-Church Protestant, evangelical, nativist, reformist. Calvin Coolidge’s celebration of the Declaration in theological terms comes to mind: “In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions.” Thus, for Coolidge, a free and religious people merited a modest government.

In the same vein, Ronald Reagan noted in his first inaugural address the arrogance that “government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. “But,” he asked, “if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” Ordinary people can be heroic, and for the sake of their liberties, including their religious ones, they deserve government by consent. Reagan again noted the role of elites in promoting monstrous behavior, whether the evil was racism, anti-Semitism, or the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. Quoting C.S. Lewis’s  Screwtape Letters, Reagan warned of the bureaucratization of evil: “The greatest evil is…done now…by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”

Democratic and Republican presidents have reflected the religious views of their respective parties’ evolving coalitions in their clashing interpretations of the Declaration of Independence—both religious and secular—for more government authority or a more active civic life, which includes a stronger public role for religious institutions, both direct and indirect. The religious zeal for government programs that earlier progressive presidents of both parties had proposed has come to justify restrictions on religious institutions in the public square and in particular in government-subsidized programs. In this way, the America Alexis de Tocqueville saw in the 1830s, full of civic associations inspired by churches, has become a nation that increasingly looks first to government solutions for its ills. President Obama’s second inaugural address is a forceful progressive understanding of the Declaration. It lacks a Republican response.

Ken Masugi teaches graduate courses in political science for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Studies in American Government in Washington, DC and online for the John M. Ashbrook Center’s Master in American History and Government program at Ashland University. 

This piece was originally authored on February 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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