BILL MOYERS: When the Pope arrived this week he brought a two-edged message for Americans. He praised us as a country where strong religious belief thrives in a pluralistic society, but he also warned against "the subtle influence of secularism." This had some people scratching their heads, because a secular democracy, in which no religion is favored and all are tolerated, may be America's greatest contribution to political science. Furthermore, religion and politics are now paraded so prominently in what's called "the public square" that it can sometimes seem our long-standing constitutional prohibition against a religious test for office is threatened with de-facto nullification. Consider one of the highest rated news shows on cable television this week:
BROWN: Tonight, we bring you something different in this already extraordinary campaign year. We are calling it the Compassion Forum.
BILL MOYERS: The compassion forum on CNN was touted as an opportunity for the candidates to "discuss how their faith and moral convictions" might guide them as president of the United States.
BROWN: You said in an interview last year that you have actually felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions. Share some of those occasions with us.
MEACHAM: Do you believe God wants you to be president?
BROWN: If one of your daughters asked you, "Daddy, did God really create the world in six days?" What would you say?
MEACHAM: Senator, do you believe that God rewards or punishes people or nations in real time?
BILL MOYERS: If you don't think those questions at least imply a religious test for office, try to imagine what would have happened if one of those candidates had answered, "Well, I find the concept of the supernatural rather shaky and the evidence for it insubstantial. To be honest, I'm agnostic. So let's talk instead about how we're going to find the money to rebuild our infrastructure."
That candidate would be burned at the metaphorical equivalent of the heretic's stake. So I have a suggestion for the next compassion forum. Turn the tables, and insist that the candidates get to quiz the moderators on how well they have read Martha Nussbaum's new book: Liberty Of Conscience: In Defense Of America's Tradition Of Religious Equality.
When Martha Nussbaum thinks out loud, people listen. This professor at the University of Chicago is one of our leading philosophers. In her latest book, she argues from history and the Constitution, that we shouldn't try to define our country by one set of religious beliefs any more than we should try to curtail the influence of religion in public life in a way that is unbalanced and unfair. She joins me now.
Welcome to the Journal.
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Thank you very much Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Your book is written in defense of America's tradition of religious equality. What's the most important thing we can do now to defend that tradition?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: I think that what we should do is to be very, very delicate, as George Washington said, regarding the consciences of other people and recognize that people who don't want a lot of religious observance in public life are not our enemies, are not mocking us or denigrating us. But, they are worried about something that's a real issue. Namely, how can we be a nation of equals?
BILL MOYERS: Paradoxically, religious conviction is often the best defense of religious equality, right?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: I think so. I mean, I think, you know, if you look into the religions, they have this deep idea of human dignity and the source of dignity being conscience. This capacity for searching for the meaning of life. And that leads us directly to the idea of respect. Because if conscience is this deep and valuable source of searching for meaning, then we all have it, whether we're agreeing or disagreeing. And we all ought to respect it and respect it equally in one another.
BILL MOYERS: Your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, right?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: That's right. Well, my mother's ancestors. And, you know, they spent a lot of their time putting together all the evidence that they belonged in this prestigious Mayflower Society. And, of course, other people didn't. And so, years later, the Pilgrims' search for religious freedom and equality had become elite American search fortunate social superiority.
The first thing they did was to take the land of the Native Americans, and they did it on religious grounds. They said Christian people have a right to these lands.
And so, the hero of my book, Roger Williams, thought that was what he called a solemn public lie. And he then set out to get to know the Native Americans and befriend them, stick up for their property claims. And this, I think, was I think at the core of his idea of religious equality. Because he learned that you can find decency, friendship and, in some ways, much better behavior than he saw in the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, where people really had a religion that he didn't think was true. He never thought that religion was true. He actually didn't like it at all. But he thought they were morally good.
And so, then he reasoned, well, we can live together on the basis of a moral understanding with people whose religion we think to be false. We don't need to like it. But we respect their liberty of conscience, and we respect their freedom with which they go their own way.
BILL MOYERS: Roger Williams is one of my heroes. Because he believed in what my faith calls soul freedom, or the liberty of conscience, as you would put it.
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Yeah. And what I love are his metaphors for the way that freedom is taken away. I mean, there are two metaphors. One is the imprisonment of the soul. And the other, even deeper, is the rape of the soul. And he keeps saying it's soul rape when people try to get people to believe something that they don't really believe. So the only way we can avoid doing that kind of violence to conscience is to give it lots of space to unfold itself. Not just persecuting people, but really bending over backwards to be sensitive to their religious needs.
BILL MOYERS: A lot of persecution and suffering in this country on the part of Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Assembly of God. How do you square those?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Actually, in the 18th century, we were making pretty good progress in understanding that people have to live on conditions of equality. And Madison was a very creative thinker about how any kind of religious establishment, no matter how benign, was a statement that said some people are more equal than others. So he didn't want that.
But then, you know, in the 19th century, all of these new immigrants came, all the Roman Catholics from southern Europe, and then, these new, indigenous groups like the Mormons, who seemed quite scary. People get scared. They get scared economically. And then they take it out on—
BILL MOYERS: They fear the competition for work, for jobs, for—
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: They fear the competition for jobs. And then, they just think, oh, well, these people are to blame. And this happens all the time, of course, in some of our panic today about immigration. But I think what happened in the 19th century was they identified the threat with religious difference. And then they said Catholics are incompatible with democracy. They're herd-like, they're submissive, they can't really live with us as democratic citizens.
And so, you know, that went on a long time.
BILL MOYERS: So why this book right now?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Well, because, you know, what I saw was that there were, on one hand, people who were—who want more and more to insert their faith, and in particular, Christian faith, into public life, and have more displays of the ten commandments and so on, in public places, more and more statements of faith in public life. On the other side are people who simply say we should keep to the separation of church and state. And I thought that language of separation is not all that helpful.
And so, what I want to say to those people is that if we use the language of fair play and equality, rather than just the language of separation of church and state, we can understand why we don't want certain kinds of manifestations of Christianity in public life.
It's not because we don't think your religion is important or deep. It's because we want to be fair to other people who have different religions. So we keep religion out of the public square to the extent that we do for reasons of fairness, not because we hate religion or think it unimportant.
BILL MOYERS: You seem to be saying let's retire that metaphor of the wall of separation between church and state.
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: You know, it wasn't really part of our constitutional framing. None of the framers actually used that phrase at all. They used the language of liberty and equal rights with conscience. And separation, I think, doesn't guide our thought that well. Because actually, if you think about it, no one believes in absolute separation of church from state.
For example, The University of Virginia said that student activity fees could be used to fund every student group, the Young Democrats, the Lesbian and Gay Students Group, the gardening club, the choir. But the one thing they couldn't use the money to fund was the Young Christians. Now, there really is an issue of fairness. I mean, why should it be just because you're a religious group, that you don't get what everyone else gets to pursue their own conscientious commitment?
So, the court, I think, rightly said, well, that's just not correct. That's a constitutional violation. So there's a case where fairness requires that the religion should get what everyone else gets. Otherwise, we're preferring non-religion over religion.
BILL MOYERS: But doesn't it seem to you that the Christian right does want to see its conservative religious values be the defining ones of this country?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Oh, I think they clearly do. But my hope is that there's a large number of them who really haven't thought through the issue of fairness. And they also may just be afraid that we can't live together at peace if there's not some central defining religious ideology.
And so, I think looking at this history is actually quite helpful. Because the Puritans in Massachusetts had that same thought. They really thought there couldn't be peace if we didn't have a religious orthodoxy. And, you know, what our whole history has shown is that that's not true, that people can get along together and respect one another, even though they have differences about religion, because they can recognize a common moral ground to stand on. They can recognize values like honesty, social justice, and so on.
BILL MOYERS: But you'll find many conservative Christians especially, saying that, you know, without a belief in a supreme being, a person, an atheist, can't be a moral agent. They just believe that it's impossible unless you have an absolute source of morality, that you can't reason your way to a moral society.
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: I know they think that. But I think they really should look more closely at the ethical reasoning of people who are agnostics and atheists. And I think it's obvious that lots and lots of people in this country are deeply ethical, do have a sense of the ethically obligatory—and of the depth and real requirement of ethical norms, while not connecting that to a divine source. And of course, that's true of some religious people, too, like Buddhists and Taoists, and in many cases, Reform Jews, who may be rather agnostic, or may not have a particular kind of theological conception.
BILL MOYERS: When you were growing up Episcopalian, right—
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Right.
BILL MOYERS: The Christian notion of a God—singing those hymns, reading the Bible—you clearly had some imprint in your mind of what was behind the word God. Now, you have become Jewish. And in the Jewish scriptures, of course, God has no name. God—you're not supposed to fashion an image—either linguistic or physical—of God. So, when you say the word God now, and it's all through your book. What's in your head?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Well, I am kind of agnostic about what that really means. And I guess what I do think is that there's some moral basis to life that makes us dignified beings, not mere bundles of matter. And that's why we deserve respect for one another. We are not just bundles of atoms being pushed around. But, there's something spiritual about us whether we give that a religious interpretation or not. And so, it's that sense of there being dignity to life that I associate with the word God. I mean, that's probably a pretty radical and agnostic way of interpreting it. But, that's what I think.
BILL MOYERS: So, what do you think when you hear politicians, and everyone of them does it today, end a speech with, "God bless America."
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: I wish they didn't feel they had to do that. I mean, we know that Madison wrestled with this and he made Thanksgiving proclamations. But, then, later in life, he said he'd wished he hadn't done that. Because he understood that his own equality-based principle was in trouble there.
So, when somebody says, "God bless America" we all feel we have to stand up and cheer. But, when we ask ourselves, you know, what statement is really being made here? It's the same thing as the Pledge of Allegiance. It's a statement that God is protecting one nation in a favored way. And that marginalizes not only the atheists, agnostics, polytheists, non-theists. But, also people who just don't think of God in that way.
BILL MOYERS: How do you think we've dealt with the experiment in religious freedom over the 400 years since your mother's ancestors arrived on the Mayflower?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Well, you know, very unevenly. But, I guess I think on the whole not so badly. I think Americans did learn that you just are not going to be able to live well if you subordinate people on the grounds of their religion. And so, that lesson was learned pretty early partly because we were a nation of weirdoes and immigrants who did strange things or looked—
BILL MOYERS: Such as—?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Quakers with these hats they wouldn't take off in court. And Mennonites and Quakers who wouldn't fight in the military. There are—all these weird practices were understood to be consciously motivated. To be coming from some deep source in a person. So, people just didn't want to say, "You can't do that." And George Washington wrote a letter to the Quakers saying, "I assure you that the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness." And what he meant is you're not going to have to serve in the military. And I respect that. And unless there's a public emergency, we're just not going to do that kind of violence to your conscience. So, I think we have understood that lesson. We've certainly violated it lots of times. And I think there's a big danger of violating it again now.
BILL MOYERS: What's the biggest threat to it?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: I think these insistent public statements that define the country as a Christian country. I do think the faith-based initiatives is one part of that. I'm very upset that the Supreme Court ruled that citizens don't have standing to challenge the faith-based initiatives on constitutional grounds. I think my own colleague Richard Posner who wrote the opinion for the Seventh Circuit did a great job of legally reasoning there, showing that there was a way of extending the doctrine of standing to give citizens standing to challenge that law. And it's very—I think—very upsetting and alarming that the Supreme Court overruled that. So, I do think there's some real big dangers now that we're going to increasingly see these manifestations of sectarian religiosity in American public life.
BILL MOYERS: Help me to understand why you are as concerned as you are about faith-based initiatives because Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—as far as I can find out, certainly George Bush, John McCain—every prominent American politician has embraced faith-based initiatives as now an untouchable in American life. We're not going to turn it around. What's your concern?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Well, you know, there are a lot of unfair things that are untouchable in public life unfortunately. But I think, what the trouble is is that preference is given to religious groups over secular groups. And the criteria for getting benefits from these groups are often religious in nature. You either have to join up. Or you have to submit to proselytization.
And, unfortunately, what the court has said is because the President is using his discretionary funds and not money for which we're taxed directly for that purpose—
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, Congress didn't approve faith based initiatives—
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: No, no—
BILL MOYERS: He went ahead by executive order
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: He went ahead by executive order. And, of course, the money comes from us at some level. But, because it's in a discretionary fund, no city has standing to challenge it. Poser pointed out that that means the President, if he uses his discretionary fund, could set up a national church or build a national mosque, whatever he decided to do. And that's the way the law now stands.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that may have been a reason that the framers of the Constitution made no reference to God in the document?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Oh, sure. I think they thought about that very carefully. And of course, when they immediately said, "No religious test shall be required for office of these United States." That was a decision they did not take lightly. They thought about it quite a lot. And so, sure, I think the fact is that although in the Declaration of Independence you do have some kind of vaguely deist language, in the Constitution, you don't have that. And it was a very carefully thought-out decision.
BILL MOYERS: The book is Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality. Martha Nussbaum, thanks for being with me.
MARTHA NUSSBAUM: Thank you very much Bill.
BILL MOYERS: That's our broadcast. We'll be back at this same time next week when my guest will be the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, in his first television interview since the controversy over his sermons as the pastor of Barack Obama's church.
I'm Bill Moyers.