A month or so ago, in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual convention, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the following: “Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator. Governments may guard freedom. Governments don’t grant freedom. All people are called to the defense of the Grantor of freedom, and the framework of freedom He created.” And with those words, Ashcroft encapsulated everything that is admirable, and everything that is awful, about the Bush administration’s understanding of religion in the United States.
Conservatives seemed genuinely puzzled by the outcry over Ashcroft’s words. “I think General Ashcroft was quite inclusive,” said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council. “He made reference to Christians, Jews, and Muslims all recognizing the Creator as the origin of freedom.” And in a sense, Connor was right. Not long ago a conservative cabinet member from a conservative administration, speaking before a conservative Christian audience, might not have mentioned Jews and almost certainly wouldn’t have mentioned Muslims. Ashcroft was being ecumenical in a way that, say, Ed Meese probably wouldn’t have been.
One reason is that the United States is more religiously diverse than it was two decades ago—Muslims, for instance, played a role in George W. Bush’s electoral considerations in 2000 in a way they never did for Ronald Reagan. Another reason, of course, is September 11. Respect for American Muslims is now a critical component of American foreign policy.
But I don’t think Ashcroft’s ecumenicism is purely instrumental; I think he genuinely believes it. As TNR’s Gregg Easterbrook and others have noted, conflict between religious denominations has declined in recent years as traditionalists from various faiths have joined in solidarity against what they perceive as a growing secular threat. Conservative Catholics and Southern Baptists have put aside their theological hostility to make common cause against abortion. Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews have come together to push for government support of religious education. And the affinity isn’t only political; it’s cultural as well. Writing in TNR last January, my friend Tevi Troy, an Orthodox Jew and former Ashcroft aide, noted that Ashcroft probably employed more Orthodox Jewish staffers than any other senator. “[A]s a devout person,” Troy wrote, Ashcroft “feels an affinity to other believers.”
The same goes for Ashcroft’s boss, President Bush. After September 11, any American president would have insisted that most American Muslims do not support terrorism. But Bush, as TNR’s Franklin Foer has noted, made a particular point of absolving Islam itself. Influenced by conservative intellectuals who argue that nothing truly religious can be evil, Bush quoted the Koran and declared that “Islam is peace.” Last November, Bush hosted the first-ever White House dinner marking the start of Ramadan. Muslim dignitaries were invited to pray in the East Reception Room before listening to Bush tell the assembled that “America seeks peace with people of all faiths.”
And with that line, Bush exhibited the same moral blindness as his attorney general. Of course the United States seeks peace with people of all faiths. But what about people of no faith at all? In fact, the Bush administration never mentions nonbelievers; it never suggests that they, too, possess a moral sense that leads them to abhor terrorism and defend freedom. To the contrary, Bush has said, “The true strength of America lies in the fact that we are a faithful America by and large.” He has described the job of political leaders as “call[ing] upon the love that exists not because of government, that exists because of a gracious and loving God.” As Vice President Cheney put it last year, “Every great and meaningful achievement in this life requires the active involvement of the One who placed us here for a reason.”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly fine for Bush, Ashcroft, and Cheney to declare their faith. It’s even fine for them to speak about the good they believe religion does in the world. But Tony Blair has done that as well, and yet he’s also said, “This atrocity is an attack on us all, on people of all faiths and on people of none.” As far as I can tell (and the website beliefnet.com chronicles George W.’s statements on religion), President Bush has never uttered a similar thought. And when he and his top advisers, in hundreds and hundreds of statements, never miss an opportunity to exclude nonbelievers, it’s hard to believe the exclusion is purely accidental. Consider, again, Ashcroft’s speech last month: “Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator… All people are called to the defense of the Grantor of freedom....” Are individuals who don’t see “the Creator” as “the source of freedom and human dignity” uncivilized? And how can “all people” be “called to the defense of the Grantor of freedom” if some people do not believe the Grantor exists? In lauding the attorney general’s ecumenicism, conservatives ducked the real issue: that for this administration, celebrating the dignity of all believers has become a way to impugn the dignity of those who believe in no religion at all.
Politically, there are reasons for the Bush administration’s behavior. While as many as 14 percent of Americans profess no faith, they are so unpopular among the population at large that affirming their decency is far more politically perilous than affirming the decency of Jews or Muslims. An April 2001 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion %amp% Public Life revealed that 66 percent of Americans viewed atheists unfavorably—almost twice the percentage that held a negative view of Muslims. And a survey that same year by the Kaiser Foundation, The Washington Post, and Harvard University found that 69 percent of Americans would be bothered by a close family member marrying an atheist.
There are ideological reasons as well. Many cultural conservatives equate secularism with relativism, and they genuinely believe that religion is the only source of morality. I think that’s theoretically simplistic and empirically absurd—I doubt atheists and agnostics lie, cheat, steal, or fly airplanes into skyscrapers any more than anyone else. But if Bush and Ashcroft really think that, then they should have the courage to say it, and open up their arguments to scrutiny and rebuttal. What they are doing instead is worse: implicitly writing atheists and agnostics out of America’s moral community. When they describe the country they love, they describe a place where people of different faiths live in harmony and equality, and where people who follow no faith simply do not exist.
Speaking last month in Beijing, President Bush declared: “Freedom of religion is not something to be feared; it’s to be welcomed, because faith gives us a moral core.” No, freedom of religion is to be welcomed because it allows some people to practice their faith—and, through it, to find a moral core. And it allows others to find a moral core far from churches and synagogues and mosques—secure in the knowledge that their government considers them just as civilized, and just as American, as anyone else.
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.