Last weekend, America’s most hallowed tradition began with what America’s highest court has ruled illegal to take place in America’s public schools – a prayer. At the Inauguration of George W. Bush, two ministers, both before and after Bush’s address, invoked the name of Jesus Christ, and asked God’s help in establishing good government ruled by Providence, not partisans. Bush used Luke’s Gospel to emphasize America’s commitment to the poor – “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side” – minutes after taking the oath of office on the same Bible used by both his father and George Washington.

This effusion of religious sentiment undoubtedly disturbs the minds of those who believe that America’s political tradition is essentially non-religious. When Bush named Christ as his favorite political philosopher during the recent campaign, critics questioned both the legitimacy and the validity of his choice. But if Bush had said de Tocqueville or Burke, there would have been a universal chorus of groans and complaints that Bush’s response was rehearsed. Christ is an apt choice because he is an accessible figure who evokes a clear image of commitment to certain moral standards that can be applied to the political realm.

Many Americans favor the philosophical stylings of Hobbes, Locke and Madison without ever having read their work. That is because Americans are cradled in the liberal democratic tradition that these thinkers created. The moderns proclaim that the purpose of government is to check and channel the passions of man that would, in government’s absence, create chaos. By allowing the passions to flourish to the greatest extent possible without causing others harm, government accomplishes its loftiest goal.

Against this backdrop, Americans have derived a “right” to freedom from government restraint in certain areas which, like religion and morality, involve the passions. But, while the protection of rights is a political good, it is not the only political good. The modern analysis of the purpose and potential of government institutions is facile and one-dimensional. It ignores broad categories of human experience that were of great concern to ancient and Christian political thinkers, such as self-discipline, altruism and compassion. Without denying that human nature has strong selfish and passionate tendencies, government can, and should, as Jefferson believed, make some provision for the moral character of the nation. It should nurture the angels of man’s nature before it placates the demons.

Unfortunately, the idea of legislating morality often calls to mind negative connotations of government infringing on liberty. The media’s hypersensitivity to Bush’s recent review of American policy regarding abortion reveals its bias that no restrictions may be placed on personal moral choice, because it is personal and therefore, private. But, legislation and judicial decision almost invariably contain a normative component. Roe vs. Wade, whatever else it may be, is certainly not an impartial or laissez-faire attitude toward the issue of abortion. It is a positive statement by the government that the right of a woman to abort deserves protection, and that that right outweighs any right an unborn fetus may have to realize his or her life.

When Bush recently decided to suspend aid to programs that support abortions in foreign countries and to review the legality and safety of the abortion pill RU-486, pro-choice lobbyists were, not surprisingly, aghast. Their incomprehension results from their mistaken impression that the government permits the free exercise of abortion because it refuses to intrude into the sphere of morality. But Bush’s actions reflect his opinion that such intrusion is inevitable, and need not inevitably support the liberal agenda.

When presidents take strong positions on moral issues, it will always offend some people’s sensibilities. But that reality is not reason to avoid such positions. The supposed “right” not to be offended is closely related to the “right” of privacy and the “right” to have an abortion. They are offshoots of the central principle of modern political thought, that man is defined by his passions, and has an inalienable right to express them.

It is said of Carlyle that he filled 40 volumes preaching the virtue of silence. The government need not, and should not, exhaust so much energy in areas that require little or would be better handled by private organizations and individuals. But to the extent that it can, and to the extent that it must, the government is charged with promoting the moral fiber of its citizens. What constitutes “moral” is the subject of endless debate, but what is not debatable is the intrinsic connection between politics and morality.

The Washington Post article about the Pope’s recent appointment of 37 cardinals exudes concern over the impact this will have on the liberal democratic program. The appointees are qualified as individuals who support the Church’s conservative moral teaching. They will ensure that “John Paul’s successor will continue the path that has sometimes put the Vatican at odds with Roman Catholics in the United States.” It is pointed out that “many American Catholics disagree with the Pope’s teaching on such issues as contraception and female priests.” Which, presumably, is reason enough for the Pope to change the way he thinks. If a political or spiritual leader’s success is determined by the ability to alter one’s convictions to suit popular opinion, thank God for the lives of utter failures.

Tom Johnson is a junior in the College.

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