Thy Neighbor's Faith


"We need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose," Joe Lieberman told an audience at a Detroit church last week. To support his appeal for a spiritual revival, the vice presidential candidate cited George Washington, who, he said, "warned us never to indulge the supposition 'that morality can be maintained without religion.' "

Washington's actual words were not quite that strong. "Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion," he said in his 1796 Farewell Address. "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

Washington thus allowed that the intellectual elite–those with well-educated "minds of peculiar structure"–could be moral without being religious, but he believed it was unwise to expect such a feat from the general population. In this respect, his attitude was similar to that of contemporary conservatives who rarely go to church or synagogue themselves but praise the virtues of religion for the masses.

The nature of Washington's own faith is a matter of dispute. Affiliated with the Anglican (later the Episcopalian) church, he was also a member of the Freemasons, who believed in God but were attacked as irreligious because they discarded Christian traditions. Washington himself rarely referred to Christ and tended to speak of "Providence" rather than God.

As Richard Brookhiser observes in Founding Father, Washington's praise of religion had a "cool, utilitarian" sound to it. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," he said in his Farewell Address, "Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious Man, ought to respect and cherish them."

For Washington, the reason was clear: " 'Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government."

In other words, religion should be valued not because it is true but because it is useful. It helps keep people moral, which in turn helps keep them free.

Although Joe Lieberman is an observant Jew, he took a similar tack when The New York Times asked him about the Anti-Defamation League's criticism of his remarks in Detroit. In a society where the government does not closely regulate individual conduct, he said, "it's helpful to have other sources of good behavior," and "religion is one of those."

Lieberman emphasized that religion is not a sufficient or a necessary condition for morality. "I know religious people who I consider not to be moral," he said, "and I also know people who are not religious who I consider to be extremely moral. So, you know, I'm talking about probabilities."

Fair enough. There's an element of truth to the thought experiment that asks you to imagine a group of young men walking toward you on a dark, otherwise deserted street. Most people would feel reassured to know that the group had just come from a session of Bible study. The sense that religion is a mark of good character also shows up in polls indicating that Americans are reluctant to elect an atheist president.

But the true believer does not practice his religion because he thinks it fosters morality. He practices his religion because he believes he is following God's will. Indeed, it is fear and love of God that make religion such a powerful motivator.

Plainly, though, every religion cannot be right about what God wants–a matter of crucial concern to "the pious Man" but of little interest to "the mere Politician." If the Christians are right that Jesus was the Messiah, for instance, the Jews cannot be right that he wasn't.

So what does it mean when a Jewish politician tells Christian voters that "we" need to reaffirm "our" faith? The message, apparently, is that any faith will do, provided it keeps people out of trouble.

But anyone who values religion because it promotes morality must value morality on nonreligious grounds. Hence this argument does not tell us why we should be religious. It tells us why other people should.