“I do not yet see the absolute necessity of extirpating
the Christian religion from among us.”

—Jonathan Swift

I am sure it is possible to praise too highly James Reichley’s Religion in American Public Life, but it would take some doing. Reichley, a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, has produced a superb historical and analytical survey of religion’s role in American public life. His book should be added to the list of required readings in the continuing, and growing, debates about religion in the politics of a democratic society. And if that sounds like a blurb for the publisher’s promotion efforts, so be it.

Among the merits of Reichley’s work is that it is an effective answer to those who ask, whether in complaint or in approval, “How come religion is getting so mixed up in politics nowadays?” The answer is that “nowadays” goes back about 300 years in the venture that is America. Reichley is especially strong in his treatment of the intentions of the founders and what should be made of the “no establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Demonstrating a broad and sure grasp of the pertinent literature, Reichley shows that the courts’ treatment of religion, particularly in this century, is a dramatic departure from what the founders had in mind.

One senses that he is not entirely comfortable with all the arguments made by the “strict constructionist” and “noninterpretivist” schools of jurisprudence, but he does follow the solid intuition that court rulings should at least be in respectful conversation with what the Constitution actually says. What the Constitution actually says, as also illuminated by the debates surrounding the adoption of the First Amendment, cannot be squared with an understanding of the “no establishment” clause that confines religion to a purely private sphere, safely segregated from the political arena. He does not put it quite so sharply, but the point is clear: the founding intention was that “no establishment” should be in the service of “free exercise” both private and public.

But the list of merits goes on. He offers a necessary corrective of some fundamentalists today who are engaged in a historical revisionism that would turn the founders into a band of born-again Bible-believing evangelical Christians. But he offers an even more necessary corrective of academically conventional wisdoms which portray the founders as thoroughly secular and “enlightened” men who viewed religion as a residual superstition of temporary usefulness in courting the sentiments of a benighted populace. Washington, Madison, Adams, and even Jefferson (maybe especially Jefferson), he believes, should be taken seriously in what they say about the connection between religion and republican virtue. The burden of proof, says Reichley, rests upon those who dismiss the founders’ religious affirmations as politically cynical puffery. In addition, he suggests, it is only the prejudices of secularism that can explain the cavalier dismissal of religion in the thinking of John Locke, upon whom some of the founders drew so heavily. Reichley acknowledges that not all the founders would pass recognized tests of Christian orthodoxy, but some of them would, and almost all of them were quite explicit in their commitment to transcendent beliefs which are unmistakably biblical in source and form.

The book begins and ends with a very typical affirmation, in this case by Washington: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” After a historical survey of the ways in which this insight has worked and has been frustrated in American life, Reichley concludes with a chapter titled “Religion and Democracy.” He writes, “The question therefore must be faced: can democracy flourish without support from religious values?” In answering that question he notes that there are indeed secular alternatives to religion. The alternative secular values, he believes, must be based on either self-interest or some kind of social interest, and of these value systems he suggests there are basically three kinds: egoism (based entirely on self-interest), authoritarianism (based entirely on social authority), and civil humanism (based on a mix of concern for self-interest and for the public good).

Since authoritarianism is by definition nondemocratic, it can be speedily dispatched. Egoism on both the left (Herbert Marcuse) and the right (Milton Friedman) is very much alive and kicking in American culture. Egoism includes both left and right versions of libertarianism, plus the utopianisms of sundry “human potential” and “liberation” movements. (Reichley notes that, come to the crunch, even Milton Friedman abandons the dogmas of egoism and acknowledges the need for altruistic behavior in society). As strong as the egoistic impulses are, however, civil humanism is the most respectable and common secular alternative to religion.

Civil humanism takes several theoretical shapes, from Aristotle to John Rawls, but none of them “meet the test of intellectual credibility.” Students of the classical tradition will likely object that Reichley does not do justice to Aristotle, but then neither do most of the secularists who claim his mantle today. When Reichley says these secular theories do not meet the test of intellectual credibility, he means that those who claim that all values come from the self (Hobbes) or from the social whole (Marx) are simply flying in the face of psychological and historical evidence. If one did not learn it from Jeremiah or Saint Paul, Freud has instructed us on the darker sides of the self. And, as to theories about the social whole, after the Holocaust, the Gulag Archipelago, and their myriad imitations, only the purblind entertain illusions about the righteousness of the collective.

Reichley concludes that the constitutive ideas of democratic governance, having to do with rights and duties, can only be supported by appeal to transcendent truth. He believes that “the founding fathers after all were right: republican government depends for its health on values that over the not-so-long run must come from religion.” Not just any religion will do, however. Aware that some forms of religion make democracy impossible and life itself intolerable, Reichley rejects the “idealistic” religion that leads to collective crusades which trample upon individual rights and “personalist” religion which exalts the individual above the bonds of civility and positive law. The terms “idealistic” and “personalist” are not the happiest choice, since these terms have been so variously employed in the history of ideas, but Reichley’s point is clear. The theory that he embraces he calls “theist-humanism,” which is perhaps a bit clumsy, but indicates a commitment to the ordering of human life in accountability to transcendent truth.

There is a certain messiness in Reichley’s idea of democratic society, but it is a necessary messiness. The messiness has everything to do with the First Amendment. Those who want a more coherent social theory and system, those who want to “get it all together,” find it intolerable that religion, which is essential to the democratic order, should be permitted to go its own way beyond the reach of governmental control. “Democratic government, therefore, finds itself bound by the uncomfortable but necessary condition that, while depending on religion for much of its moral sustenance, it must leave the churches and other religious institutions almost entirely free to develop and promote whatever values or beliefs their spiritual insights may inspire.”

Rousseau and a host of others who recognized the social need for religion proposed that religion is too important to be left to believers and should be brought under state control. Rousseau was only more consistent than some others in setting forth an elaborate “civil religion” which should replace inconvenient particularisms such as Christianity. The American idea that there should be no established religion was truly revolutionary. It must also be admitted, however, that that idea was grievously compromised in the middle of the I9th century when, in the face of “the immigrant hordes,” the common school movement produced a governmentally established religion in the guise of education. But that is a subject that Reichley does not address.

And now I may have given the impression that Religion in American Public Life is chiefly a book of social theory. That would be a mistake, for it is chiefly a book of history, telling the story of how in fact religion has impinged and continues to impinge upon the public arena. Abolition, Prohibition, the Social Gospel, the rise of the Religious Right, the twists and turns of Catholic and Jewish leaderships—the story is told authoritatively and in brief compass. In a nonpolemical manner, Reichley puts his sharpest challenges to the leaders of main-line liberal Protestantism. He argues that in recent decades they have manifestly failed to understand both the imperatives and limits of religion’s role in democratic society. Correctives have been attempted, but they have gone largely unheeded by main-line leadership. He notes that the 1975 Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation was “the first major attempt to act against destructive aspects of modernity without rejecting pluralism or social responsibility,” but the liberal main line, for the most part, chose to interpret Hartford as an assault upon the interests of institutionalized liberalism. Similarly, he notes that efforts such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which seek to nurture the connections between faith and free society, have been uncritically assailed by an increasingly defensive and indeed beleaguered main-line Protestantism.

Religion in American Public Life is not an optimistic book. It is clearheaded and sobering. It might have been, it should have been, considerably more sobering. It would have been an even stronger book had Reichley taken into account Nietzsche’s more relentless critique. That critique suggests that it is not only democratic society but civilization itself that becomes impossible when the elites of a culture agree on the abandonment of transcendent truth. And Reichley might have developed more fully the irony that religion that is primarily concerned about civilization or democracy is of little use to either. As one of its authors, I believe that was the deeper argument in the Hartford Appeal. And, of course, Reichley might have and maybe should have done a lot of other things. But what he has done in this book is so very good that I will not dwell on its omissions. Nor will I—although, as mentioned at the outset, it is undoubtedly possible—praise the book too highly. To say that it is a superb treatment of an increasingly important subject is, it seems to me, to say it just right.


[Religion in American Public Life, by A. James Reichley; Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution]