Playing Hardball about God's Role in America: Liberals vs. Conservatives

Steven Waldman of and John C. Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have identified what they call the "twelve tribes" of American politics, a configuration based on moral values, spiritual affinities, and religious affiliations. Their research yields intriguing insights into how and why people vote in particular ways on "moral values" issues and in relation to the religious convictions of political candidates. However, in the general clamor of the God-in-America debate, the noisiest voices seem to coalesce (predictably) around two opposing viewpoints, conservative and liberal.

Roughly speaking, the conservative view could be summarized as the traditional God-and-country position: "We've been taking God out of this country, and we need to put Him back in—where He's always been before we headed down this godless road." At the other end of the spectrum is the liberal view, which we could basically summarize in this way: "Separation of church and state means that God shouldn't have anything to do with American politics and public life, so we need to take God out of this country—and keep it that way."

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, condemns any belief that is not subject to rational, evidence-based reasoning. Thus our religious traditions are "intellectually defunct and politically ruinous," he maintains, and religion is "nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance." It is not enough for Harris simply to denounce religious faith as irrational, however. Citing religious war as the inevitable consequence when opposing belief systems clash, he calls for an end not just to religious extremism, but to "the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God" as "one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss."

Harris would argue for more than simply taking God out of public debate in America; he calls for the literal marginalization of those who stubbornly persist in believing in God: It is time we realized that to presume knowledge where one has only pious hope is a species of evil….Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power."

Do you think Sam Harris is a lone voice crying in the wilderness of liberal extremism? His book has become a best seller, garnering accolades and winning awards such as the prestigious 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction. In the New York Times, reviewer Natalie Angier commended Harris's depiction of "major religious systems like Judaism, Christianity and Islam as socially sanctioned forms of lunacy." Further, she hailed his willingness to write "what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America."

What's God got to do with America? The voices in today's heated arguments provide wildly opposing answers. From the standpoint of the past, the answer to this question is unequivocally, "Quite a lot." Any study of American history necessarily involves understanding what Americans thought God had to do with them. From the perspective of the present, the answer also would seem to be, "God has a lot to do with America," because that is the majority opinion according to numerous polls. Seven of every ten Americans say they want the influence of religion in our society to grow. It's well documented that a majority of these individuals are referring to a religion centered on "God" as traditionally understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

If trends hold, America's future will continue to involve "God" prominently and publicly because more people are becoming more religious or "spiritual."

But these realities don't address the question of what God really does have to do with America—why, how, and in what forms and ways? And how can we answer such a question when Americans differ so widely on their views of God (or no god), how their views influence their private and public lives, and how they feel others' views about God ought to impinge on personal and public areas of their lives?

We can't afford to get sidetracked in yet another screeching-to-the-choir wrangle that will only leave opponents more embittered and hostile to each other, with increasing numbers in the middle deciding, "This whole God thing is just a personal matter, and anyway, nobody really knows for sure."

If we allow confusion or frustration to deflect our best efforts, we will miss what the underlying crisis truly is—a titanic clash of the worldviews masquerading as a political correctness debate about whether I have the right to impose my religious views on you, or whether you have the right to tell me what I can and can't say or do when I step into the public square. Underneath this debate are critical assumptions that will radically shape the future of this country for good or for ill, and it is high time we learn how to respond to them in ways that will cut through our cultural impasse and lead us to a better future for all Americans.

This article is excerpted from Richard Land's book The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007), available at local bookstores and at