February 24, 2012
By Wesley Pruden
“Over the top” is the preferred destination of all politicians, and nothing inspires candidates to go over the top like a presidential primary season.
Newt Gingrich goes over the top to fly off to the moon. Herman Cain goes over the top to buy a pizza for all the lovely ladies. Mitt Romney goes over the top to destroy his opponents, piece by piece. Ron Paul has gone far over the top to live on a distant star in splendid isolation.
Rick Santorum is breaking out of the trenches for a leap at the top, emboldened by winning semi-important caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a more or less meaningless primary in Missouri. He recognizes how President Obama put the First Amendment in mortal peril with his order to religious institutions to put conscience aside and obey secular gospel under pain of law, like it or not. Then it was “over the top” in pursuit of principle.
“When you marginalize faith in America,” he told a rally in Plano, Texas, just outside Dallas, “when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine.”
You don’t have to be haunted by the shadow of Dr. Guillotine’s deadly blade falling across the back of your neck to recognize Mr. Obama’s unholy scripture as chipping away at religious freedom. But what is needed here is a lesson in American history, not overheated hyperbole about the French Revolution. Some of the president’s minions in the White House no doubt want to erase all influence of faith and belief in American life - the evangelical atheists make no attempt to hide their theological agenda - but the president himself may be acting, as usual, more in ignorance than malice.
Mr. Obama, like the rest of us, is a man formed by the earliest influences in his life. He spent his most formative years in Indonesia, about as far from America as a man can go before he meets himself coming back. He grew to manhood in Hawaii and finally ended up at Harvard for a little book learning and a lot of attitude adjustment. All worthy places in their own way, to be sure, but hardly places to absorb the faith, practice, culture and lore of America. He learned to talk the talk, most of the time, but it’s the walk that betrays the origins of the political man he became.
The president has testified eloquently to his faith in Jesus Christ and his fond Muslim remembrances of growing up in Jakarta. But something is missing. “He doesn’t have a natural feel for the depth of emotion of how some [Americans] hold their religious views,” observes Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. He speculates that the president’s wise men looked at polls and consulted their own prejudices and thought “there might be a bit of a flap, ‘but we’re good here.’ They missed the fact that the Catholic hierarchies had the emotion on their side.”
Rick Santorum and the president’s critics, so far mostly Catholics, miss the fact that the protest of the bishops would have been more effective if they had focused it on cause rather than effect. This enabled the president and his friends to make it a controversy about condoms and IUDs, not about fracturing the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Protestant worthies who might have stepped up to join the controversy held back, wary of joining a theological dispute.
Two who didn’t hold back were prominent officials of the Southern Baptist Convention, who rightly see the Obama health care edict as chipping away the First Amendment’s guarantees. Not one Baptist in a hundred, nay, a thousand, differs with the conventional tolerance (and appreciation) of birth-control devices, but Baptists in America from Roger Williams to the present day have traditionally been alert to intrusions of church and state on each other’s turf. The First Amendment guarantees - for religious faith, for free speech, for a free press, for the right to peaceably assemble - are indivisible. When one goes, all are at risk.
Only the terminally naive expect politicians to act on principle, but enough noise can make a politician, even a president, discover a “principle” he didn’t know he had. It’s up to the religious folk to make the noise, and make it noise about principle, not theology. And avoid a trip over the top doing it.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.