President Bush's second inaugural address was a resounding and well-crafted call for unity among the American people. Maybe inaugural addresses have to call for unity and healing and rhetorical restraint.
But how likely are we to begin a movement toward political compromise?
It depends. On matters such as Social Security, taxes and tort reform, compromise is quite possible -- perhaps inevitable. We may even achieve a degree of unity on the anguishing question of Iraq, since, absent the development of a serious get-out-of-Iraq-now campaign, nobody seems to have a particularly attractive alternative to the administration's approach.
What, in my view, threatens to test the American tradition of working things out are issues closely tied to religious faith: abortion, homosexual marriage, the teaching of evolution.
And not just in my view. Public Agenda has just published the results of a survey that serves to make the point. Support for compromise on issues that involve religious principles is diminishing among all Americans. It is diminishing most rapidly among the most religious of us -- self-described evangelicals, for instance, and people who attend religious services every week.
Take this item: Even elected officials who are deeply religious sometimes have to make compromises and set their convictions aside to get results while in government.
The percentage of Americans agreeing with that statement fell 10 points -- to 74 percent -- from 2000 to the time of the Public Agenda survey, just before the 2004 elections. Those who never go to religious services favored compromise by 82 percent (down slightly from 85 percent four years ago). But for evangelicals and weekly service-goers, the support for compromise was down to 63 percent. This represents a decline in just four years of 16 points for evangelicals and 19 points for regular worshipers.
On specific issues: The willingness to support compromise among weekly service-goers (numbers for the general public are in parentheses) was down 19 points since 2000 (-six) on abortion, minus 18 points (-six) on gay rights and down 10 points (-five) on the death penalty. The pattern for Catholics was close to that of all respondents who regularly attend church.
Ruth A. Wooden, president of Public Agenda, found the changes "really quite dramatic."
For most Americans across the board, she said, "compromise is essential in a diverse society. But others see compromise as a retreat from core values and beliefs."
Or, to put it another way, we may all agree that "working things out" is the right thing to do when it comes to secular disagreements. But as many deeply religious Americans see it, compromise between righteousness and sin is: sin.
That's fine when it comes to personal behavior. But it could spell serious discord when extended to legislation or government policy.
Public officials who think it's a sin to have an abortion, support gay marriage or work on the Sabbath should try to avoid those things. But they shouldn't, on the basis of their religious belief, deny your right to any of them.
Ah, but aren't murder and theft forbidden by the Ten Commandments? Wouldn't the distinction I'm urging make it impossible to outlaw killing and stealing?
Well, no. There are ample secular grounds for legislating the protection of life and property. Religion needn't enter into it. You might throw me in jail on a perjury count if I bore false witness in court, but surely your only secular concern for my making graven images is if I were into counterfeiting.
But no matter how clear and reasonable these distinctions seem to me, not everyone sees them that way. There are people who sincerely believe that they are called upon by their faith to promote the Kingdom of God by every means at their disposal: If they are teachers, by teaching the Word; if legislators or government administrators, by promoting virtue and by punishing not just crime but also sin.
Many who believe that also believe that the reelection of George W. Bush gives them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hasten the Kingdom.
And that is why -- the president's fine speech notwithstanding -- I find it hard to be optimistic about the return of restraint, civility and compromise to the public discourse.