When, in a recent speech, William Bennett, secretary of education, said, "Our values as a free people and the central values of the Judeo-Christian tradition are flesh of the flesh, blood of the blood," The Washington Post said Bennett was "borrowing words used during the consecration at a Mass." He was denounced by various protectors of "the American way."
Actually, Bennett was borrowing words from a politician given to rhetoric with religious overtones offensive to many of today's definers of "the American way." The politician spoke on July 10 in Chicago. In 1858.
Abraham Lincoln said all Americans, including immigrants who came after the Revolution, accept the proposition that all men are created equal. They know it is "the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration."
Developing a theme to which he would return five years later when dedicating a military cemetery in southern Pennsylvania, Lincoln said the Declaration is the central American document. This is so because ours is a nation dedicated to a proposition, one about equality and the endowment of rights by the Creator. All Americans are equally American, Lincoln believed, by virtue of their sharing the essential moral sentiments of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Bennett said that "the fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined -- 'entangled,' if you will -- with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition." (He was making oblique reference to the Supreme Court's fevered worrying about "entanglement" between religious and civil institutions.) A spokesman for a liberal lobby called "People for the American Way" charged that Bennett "seems to be bent on being the secretary of evangelism" and a similar spokesman for a similar lobby said Bennett's views were "outrageous."
Such extravagant rhetoric is reflexive, almost perfunctory. It issues from persons paid to stand by in Washington and be "outraged" when someone like Bennett -- someone reflective, someone not homogenized by the Washington blandness machine -- says anything offensive. Offensive to whom? To the people whose names are on the mailing lists that raise the money that finance the "outraged" lobbyists.
But what, exactly, is outraging the lobbyists? This newspaper could be completely filled with statements similar to Bennett's, statements from the central actors in America's drama, from Washington and Lincoln through Justice William Douglas, who said Americans "are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
One reason Bennett's critics are so shrill is that he has criticized some recent Supreme Court decisions, describing them as unfaithful to the intentions of the Framers of the First Amendment clause proscribing "establishment of religion." The court says the clause requires government to be neutral not just between sects but between religion and secularism.
Perhaps the court's policy is intrinsically preferable to that of the Framers. Perhaps the evolution of America has made the Framers' intentions anachronistic. What is passing strange is the argument that the court is faithful to the Framers' intentions -- or that faithfulness would be outrageous.
Bennett's critics bring the same manufactured indignation to the subject of the Reagan administration's attempt to get the court to reverse itself regarding abortion. The indignation is designed to stigmatize as dishonorable any attempt to alter the court's course.
Liberalism's path into the wilderness has been paved with such ideological quirkiness, such willful ignorance and disingenuousness, such distortion or disregarding of large facts of American history. Have liberals forgotten that the civil rights movement was a campaign to reverse the court, especially the "separate but equal" doctrine?
America's noblest political career was ignited by, and built around, a determination to undo the court's decision concerning Dred Scott. Supporters of that decision, like supporters of the abortion decision today, thought it would end the controversy. Lincoln thought it should not. The transcript of his July 10, 1858, speech reads:
"Somebody has to reverse that decision, since it is made, and we mean to reverse it, and we mean to do it peaceably. . . . The sacredness that Judge (Stephen) Douglas throws around this decision is a degree of sacredness that has never before been thrown around any other decision. . . . It is an astonisher in legal history. (Laughter.) It is a new wonder of the world. (Laughter and applause.)"
Some of today's misreading of American history is tendentious, intended to have a chilling effect on public discussion by shrinking the agenda of discussable policies. But some of the misreading is honest ignorance. Some people are so busy defending "the American way" that they will not take time to acquaint themselves with even the central themes and great careers of the American story.