“Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is.” Thus spoke the noted theologian Dwight Eisenhower on Flag Day in 1954. And though Ike’s words may seem fatuous, they are in fact so pregnant with meaning that they deserve to be carefully parsed.
§ “Our government makes no sense…”: Quite right. A system based on gridlock, a complicated array of checks and balances prone to breakdown and an unchangeable eighteenth-century Constitution to hold it all in place is indeed an affront to good sense, as even our Golfer in Chief was beginning to realize.
§ “…unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith…”: Right again. The fact that America would not only make do but prosper with such a ramshackle form of government is a puzzle, one that Eisenhower could solve only by positing the existence of some sort of higher authority. To believe in America, in his view, it was necessary to believe in a divine power able to see the United States through all difficulties, to save it from itself, in a sense.
§ “…and I don’t care what it is”: As a good pluralist, Eisenhower was unconcerned with the exact nature of the guiding force in question. His only concern was that Americans continue to believe in something so as to make sense of a senseless system. Just as ancient Rome tolerated all cults as long as they sacrificed to the emperor, the postwar United States, he believed, should welcome all forms of religious expression as long as they bolstered the national cause. Faith in God and faith in America were mutually reinforcing.
Until recently, that pretty much summed up the US attitude toward religion, an attitude that was flexible, ecumenical and utterly self-confident in its conviction that there was no faith that America could not successfully absorb and put to its own use. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Tibetan Buddhism–it didn’t matter. As long as they believed in some–any–form of higher authority, there was no reason that they could not be mobilized in behalf of anti-Communism and the Free World. But now, more than a dozen years into the post-Soviet era, the United States finds itself confronting a major branch of monotheism that not only refuses to believe that God is on America’s side but, according to some of its leading spokespeople, sees Him as positively hostile.
The result is not only a crisis in US political theology but of liberal ideology generally. Formerly, it was an article of faith among liberal ecumenicists that all religions were equal and that all were essentially benign. Whether or not certain holy texts called for the wholesale massacre of nonbelievers was irrelevant. They were all written a long, long time ago and, anyway, such texts had to be understood metaphorically rather than literally. But given all that has happened since 9/11, the old faith has been shaken. How can we be sure that Islam is an ideology of peace–because George W. Bush tells us so? Are Muslim liberals correct in arguing that the Koran can be interpreted so that it accords with the needs of modern society? Or is the rise of militant Islam a sign that there are limits to interpretation and that the text is now reasserting itself in increasingly dangerous ways?