Friday, August 19, 2005

Jon Meacham: Believers, Save the Republic!

Washington Post, Sunday, July 3, 2005; Page B01

On July 4, 1827, a leading clergyman of the day, the Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely, preached a controversial sermon in Philadelphia that was published around the country. Its title could not have been clearer: "The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers." Calling for the formation of a Christian party in politics, Ely, a supporter of Andrew Jackson's in the 1828 presidential race, said: "Every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity. He should know and believe the doctrines of our holy religion, and act in conformity to its precepts."

Reading the sermon, Jackson sensed danger in Ely's words. There was a time for politics and a time for religion -- but both at once, inextricably entwined, meant trouble. Like the early years of the 21st century, the 1820s was an age of great evangelical fervor, but Jackson had no interest in fueling the fire Ely wanted to ignite. "All true Christians love each other, and while here below ought to harmonize; for all must unite in the realms above," Jackson later wrote Ely. Having given faith its due, he also reminded Ely of the centrality of individual freedom in religious matters. "Amongst the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution," Jackson told Ely, "is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience dictates."

Now, 178 July Fourths later, the commingling of religion and politics in America would seem a prime exhibit of the Old Testament's adage that "there is no thing new under the sun." Though we have been here before, there is something different and disturbing about the skirmishes of our own time. Always important, the religious factor in politics has become pervasive, converting public life into a battle of uncompromising extremes. Whether the subject is terrorism, Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the judiciary or stem-cell research, virtually every issue is being viewed through the prism of faith. Our public background music has moved from "Stars and Stripes Forever" to "Onward, Christian Soldiers" -- and we have too many Elys and not enough Jacksons....