Bennett Praises Religion, But Raps Sectarianism

By James Crawford — September 24, 1986 3 min read

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week called for a reaffirmation of “religious values ... in public life,” while simultaneously attacking the “invidious sectarianism” of fundamentalists “who claim that their religious faith gives them a monopoly on political truth.”

Without naming names, he aimed the criticism at Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, the television evangelist who is expected to seek the 1988 Republican Presidential nomination.

Mr. Bennett made his comments at the University of Missouri in a speech entitled “Religious Belief and the Constitutional Order,” which an aide described as a major statement of the Secretary’s views.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution, Mr. Bennett said, “knew that fur the sake of liberty, government should acknowledge the religious beliefs on which democracy depends-not one single belief, but belief in general.”

Quoting from George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others, he argued that the nation’s first leaders advocated religious tolerance, but also “intended religion to provide a moral anchor for our liberty in democracy.”

“In their minds, complete neutrality between particular religious beliefs can and should coexist with public acknowledgment of general religious values,” the Secretary said.

“This is not merely a question of constitutional principle,” he continued. “It is also a question of civic health. My point is not simply that children who go to church are less likely to take drugs, or that empirical studies show an inverse relation between religious belief and teenage pregnancy, although both are true.

“My point is that we are coming to recognize the extent to which many of our social problems require for their solution the nurture and improvement of character,” he said. “And for many of us, for most of us, religion is an important part of the development of character.”

Reopening Controversy

In August 1985, Secretary Bennett ignited a controversy when, in a speech to the Knights of Columbus, he cited the centrality of the “Judeo Christian tradition” in American culture.

Also, he faulted the U.S. Supreme Court for failing to recognize the religious underpinnings of American democracy, criticizing its decision in <>Aguilar v. Felton, which banned the use of public-school teachers to provide Chapter 1 compensatory services in religious schools.

Last week, Mr. Bennett renewed his attack on “the secularist orthodoxy, which seeks to eradicate all signs of religion from public life.”

“With a reckless disregard for both American history and the American people,” he charged, “some secularists are not content to pursue government neutrality among beliefs, or even government protection of non-belief. Instead, they seek to vanquish religion altogether.”

At the same time, Mr. Bennett had harsh words tor “the sectarians” of the religious right: “If the secularists assert, wrongly, that the founders meant to exclude all public support of religion, then the sectarians assert, wrongly, that the Constitution was designed, first and foremost, ‘to perpetuate a Christian order.’ ”

Robertson’s ‘Intolerance’

The Secretary singled out Mr. Robertson for criticism by paraphrasing the evangelist’ recent statement that “Christians feel more strongly about love of country ,love of God, and support for the traditional family than do non-Christians.”

“This sort of invidious sectarianism must be renounced in the strongest terms,” Mr. Bennett said. “The vibrant families and warm patriotism of millions upon millions of non-Christians and non-religious Americans give it the lie .... And its intolerance clashes with the best traditions of our democracy.”

He added, however,’ quoting former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, that “we are a religious people.” Mr. Bennett cited a recent survey in which 95 percent of Americans expressed a belief in God, compared with 79 percent of the Japanese, 76 percent of the British, and 62 percent of the French.

“It is noteworthy,” he said, “that in each case, a similar percentage said they were willing to die for their countries. For the virtues that inspire patriotism- hard work, self-discipline, perseverance, industry, respect for family, for learning, and for country- are intimately linked with and strengthened by religious values.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as Bennett Praises Religion, But Raps Sectarianism