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Gordon H. Smith: Don't banish religion from the public square

By Gordon H. Smith

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: Gordon H. Smith, former U.S. Senator from Oregon, is the president of the National Association of Broadcasters and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.

In public squares all across America today, there is a deepening divide over the appropriateness or legitimacy of religious beliefs to inform political thought and to influence public policy. Conversely, Europe has decided that "the spiritual and the religious cannot bear any influence on the State and must renounce the political dimension" according to the Stasi Commission. But to what consequence and cost to Europe, or to America?

When I served in the United States Senate, I chaired the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that role I had the opportunity to watch closely the development of the European Charter, or constitution. Observing the best legal minds in Europe wrestle without success to frame a workable constitution for the peoples of Europe caused me to reflect on the deep moral and religious foundations of our own Constitution. Indeed, I found myself agreeing all the more with John Adam's assessment that "Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

I believe Adams was saying that America could have a government of limited powers because Americans largely governed themselves through allegiance to higher law.

Adams was not advocating theocracy. He understood that the affairs of state — the regulation of commerce, the financing of government, the coining of money, the prosecution of war — are very much affairs of this world and therefore secular. But he also recognized, in the tradition of the English Enlightenment, that the ordered liberty provided for by our form of government not merely tolerated religion, but actually required religion and morality to inform the sometimes-grubby details of political debate.

This English Enlightenment tradition that allowed for meaningful interplay between the secular and the spiritual stands in sharp contrast to the French Enlightenment tradition, especially following the French Revolution. The French Enlightenment transformed what was worldly, material, and secular into its own doctrine or -ism. The resulting French or European secularism advocated that religion should be actively excluded from consideration in affairs of state.

The differences between the English Enlightenment secular tradition and the French Enlightenment secularist tradition are subtle, but their consequences are profound.

I saw this in discussions of the European Charter when a huge debate broke out about whether to include in its preamble a reference to the Judeo-Christian heritage of the European people. Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, weighed in that such a reference provided the very foundation of the values for human dignity. But in the end, European secularism won the day. The preamble now makes only passing reference to Europe's "spiritual and moral heritage."

Consider the fallout for Europeans from that and other secularist decisions to deprive Europeans of their religious roots. When you separate people from their religious tradition, everything becomes morally relative. This is why Europe is struggling now to find a way to establish a European identity. There is no higher power that draws a German to feeling equal to a Frenchman or a Frenchman feeling equal to an Englishman. There is no moral basis for the brotherhood of man. You are left only with competing national interests. Consequently, the whole process of European unification lacks genuine democratic legitimization and the resulting charter is voluminous (thick as a phone book). The resulting charter is a collection of competing legalistic rights. It is contradictory, confusing and weak.

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