In a Jan. 13 address in Denver, Attorney General John Ashcroft rolled out the usual arguments on behalf of the Bush administration's "faith-based" initiative.
Churches and other religious groups, he said, have offered medical care, education and other social services to Americans for many years. They do a great job, he insisted, and they should be eligible for federal funding.
"For the first time in a long time," said Ashcroft, "our leaders in Washington understand what Americans of all religious backgrounds have long held to be true: Through faith, all things are possible."
To bolster his case, Ashcroft relied on a comment from that much-quoted 19th- century observer of American life, Alexis de Toqueville. De Toqueville, said the attorney general, was struck by the American spirit of service, noting that this regard for others "prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property for the welfare of others."
What Ashcroft did not tell his audience is de Toqueville's view on the role of church-state separation and its importance in our national life.
In his book Democracy in America, de Toqueville said he was struck by the positive role of religion in American society.
"In France," he said, "I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and they reigned in common over the same country."During his tour of the young nation, he asked clergy of many different denominations why things were different in America.
"[T]hey all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state," reported de Toqueville. "I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion."
He concluded, "In Europe, Christianity has been intimately united to the powers of the earth. Those powers are now in decay, and it is, as it were, buried under their ruins."
Thus, de Toqueville came to the same conclusion as that of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others among our nation's founders: Both religion and freedom flourish when the institutions of faith and government are kept separate. Religion, he determined, is influential in America because it is not tied to partisan politics and state power.
The current goal of the Bush administration a "faith-based" regime where religion and government are merged flies in the face of American tradition and jeopardizes that delicate balance between faith and freedom that has stood the test of time.
Ashcroft and others in the administration openly seek to harness religion and use it to achieve a political agenda. This is a tragic and dangerous mistake, and Americans who love freedom must resist this initiative with all our might.