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.
By contrast the founding documents of the United States — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — are brief and bold. Nonetheless, within their few pages, is found a powerful, moral — dare I say religious — basis for their legitimacy. The secular Thomas Jefferson penned the famous words of the Declaration of Independence, unique to this country, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Jefferson then went on to say that "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed." The consequent Constitution, builds directly on the Declaration's framework by deriving its authority from the people and limiting government's power. Together, the Declaration and the Constitution created a state radically different from those in Europe because they claim that the people, equal in the sight of their Creator, get their rights from God and then loan those powers and rights to government. It recognizes the divine origins of the freedom, equality and dignity of all individuals and puts them ahead of any king. The resulting charter for our ordered liberty is succinct, specific, concrete, unifying and compelling.
Former Italian Senate President Marcello Pera, observed "European societies and nations are not merging, and the European Union, let alone the United States of Europe, is not growing because it cannot. It lacks, because it rejects, that sort of cement — a creed, a faith, a trust, a religion — thanks to which groups of inhabitants become a single people and a single nation." He goes on to describe what I have observed about the European Constitution. It is "based on moral relativism" that "weakens the state and corrodes society." And he makes a statement that "a return to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to be lived by believers as a new mission and by nonbelievers as a civil custom, could be a good antidote to the crisis in Europe."
I worry, that when religious arguments that inform public policy decisions about issues like marriage and family are declared "out of bounds," that we are forgetting just how important moral and religious foundations are for the vitality of our democracy. A secular state like America works because it allows the contest of religiously-formed views and then remains neutral. It does not to disqualify the debate because it has been informed by the views of different faiths. Ultimately, it then goes to the people and allows them to vote.
The American liberties that allow us to freely govern ourselves presume a commitment to standards of personal responsibility that are as old as Genesis. Less personal responsibility inevitably leads to a demand for more individual right, leading further to a diminishment of freedom. If America follows Europe and banishes religion from the public square, it will do so at the expense of its liberty in spite of its founding premise.