As governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton spent many of his Sunday mornings in the choir at Little Rock's Immanuel Baptist Church.
Thus, President Clinton beamed with pride as his choir mates performed the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" after his second inaugural address. The anthem was so familiar that many in this elite congregation may have missed its ironic message.
"He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat," sang the choir, within shouting distance of the U.S. Supreme Court. "He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. ... Our God is marching on."
Inaugurations are the holy days of what historians call "civil religion," which blends references to God and country into a vague, lowest-common-denominator faith. Julia Ward Howe's hymn remains popular at events of this kind, even though it includes explicit references to Christ, God's wrath, the crucifixion and other sensitive subjects. In one verse the men repeatedly sing, without apology: "Truth is marching."
Suffice it to say that people have gotten into trouble for singing much tamer songs at graduation ceremonies and other public rites. Today, the very concept of truth is controversial.
Moments before the choir sang, President Clinton warned against the dangers of religious extremism. The wrong kind of faith leads directly to division and conflict, he said. "The challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future. ... Will we all come together, or come apart?"
While focusing initially on racism, the president clearly had other targets in mind -- all critics of cultural and moral pluralism. It was hard to miss this shot at the Religious Right.
"Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction are no different," he said. "These forces have nearly destroyed our nation in the past. They plague us still. ... We cannot, we will not, succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere. We shall overcome them. And we shall replace them with the generous spirit of a people who feel at home with one another."
Despite that touch of optimism, there is little evidence in the polls that America's conflicts will end any time soon on issues ranging from late-term abortions to physician-assisted suicide, from tax-funded safe-sex programs to legislation attempting to define the meaning of marriage.
The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to provide secular answers to the kinds of sacred questions that for centuries belonged to theologians. People on both sides of the philosophical aisle agree that the court crossed a crucial line in its 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision on abortion rights.
"Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code," said the court. It then defined "liberty" in the broadest possible language and tied this new definition to the 14th Amendment. "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life," said the court.
Many asked if this made it unconstitutional to say that any actions are "right" and others "wrong." What if individuals decide that euthanasia, polygamy, infanticide or cocaine is essential to their concepts of "existence," "meaning" or selfhood? What if government enforcement of an individual's liberty leads to actions that threaten or injure others?
Evangelical activist Charles Colson pointedly asked if the court had shredded the nation's social contract. It is highly likely that Colson, and others, will be asked to march onto Capitol Hill during the next four years and argue their case in public.
"People of different beliefs -br from Christians to atheists to New Agers -br may disagree vehemently over the meaning of life; yet we can all agree to stop when the traffic signal is red," he argued, in Christianity Today. "The distinction between private belief and public philosophy is crucial if we are to maintain public order. But it is precisely this distinction that Casey denied. It simply ... transferred the most fundamental decisions about life and death to the purely private realm."