Marvin Olasky: Religion in the public square

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 2nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up, a selection from Marvin Olasky’s book, World View. It’s a book of Marvin’s best columns from the last 25 years. This one originally ran in WORLD Magazine in the year 2000.

MARVIN OLASKY, EDITOR IN CHIEF: Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote a story about a camping trip that his fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson took. They go to sleep and wake up soon after dawn. Holmes asks, “Dr. Watson, what do you see?” Watson replies, “I see the sun rising in the east and mountains off to the west. What a wonderful day to be alive!” Holmes responds, “You fool, while we were sleeping someone stole our tent.”

If you’ve read Conan Doyle’s stories you know that Watson doesn’t get much respect—but in this case Watson had the better of the conversation. Yes, tents are useful for keeping out rain, flies, and other critters. But on some mornings, if they block our view of glorious horizons, we’re better off without them.

Which makes me think of the way reporters acted during the 2000 presidential campaign. Reporters were dismayed that Joseph Lieberman and George W. Bush both talked about belief in God. They acted as though it was the first time in generations of presidential politics that campaigners went tentless, and able to see and talk about God’s glory.  

That shows how short journalistic memories are. Ronald Reagan, for example, talked about God a lot: One study of Reagan speeches in 1983 showed one-tenth of all his prepared remarks to be religious in nature. Most remarkable was not the quantity but the lack of defensiveness.

Reagan had a better sense than most of what rendering unto Caesar means. He put it this way during a speech in 1984: “There is much talk in this country now of religion interfering with politics. Actually, it is the other way around. Politics . . . has moved across the barrier between church and state.”

This is a critical understanding. It makes no sense to those for whom everything is political. For the proponents of bigger government, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s means giving government total sway.

But for Reagan, the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion on demand was an example of national politics invading religion. It took away the ability of people in their local communities to protect unborn children and defend agreed-upon standards of right and wrong.

For Reagan, prohibiting voluntary prayer in public schools was yet another invasion, because what goes on in public schools should represent the consensus of local parents rather than distant judges.

And, loosening restrictions on pornography was still another invasion: Since we are citizens and not subjects, neighbors who can agree on community standards should have the right to keep vile materials out of neighborhood stores.

Is there a point when an emphasis on religion becomes inappropriate? Especially in a diverse society such as ours?

I’d suggest there is: At the point where candidates suggest that a particular denomination or religion should be given special privileges, because that is what the First Amendment was designed to preclude. Short of that, we’re all better off if we can see sunrise in the east and mountains in the west, instead of fearfully pulling down the flaps of our tent.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Marvin Olasky.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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