On one level, events of late have had a certain air of déjà vu for me. As a young man I followed the events leading up to the decision to impeach President Nixon. The story line was a bit like a John Le Carré spy novel, involving as it did money payoffs by courier, a “coincidental” plane crash, the “mad” wife of one of the principals, and the incredible stretching routine that erased vital evidence from tapes we only belatedly realized existed and held a record of everything—no need for redactions or summaries from that point on!!
And then the man I had so looked up to: President Nixon—he of the shady McCarthy past, redeemed by rapprochement with China, weeping about his mother and waving with crooked smile as he flew away from the presidency and a sure conviction! But pardoned by his successor in a deal that may have been charitable but ran against the spirit of the Constitution, which forbids a president from using his pardon powers against impeachment.
And not so long ago another president ran the gauntlet of impeachment, if not for the high crime of personal immorality, then for lying and perjury after the fact. Amazingly, it had only a positive effect on his popularity.
Which makes me think that these events have finally become more political theater than serious legal proceedings for the good of the republic.
But the sobering reality is that massive changes and abrogations of national norms are at play.
Going into the whole impeachment event, we were expected either to close ranks along party lines, or if not, then to be reduced to slack-jawed fascination at the kabuki theater of the absurd. It didn’t help that a mad or careless lawyer provided comic relief to a serious question. It didn’t help that much of the argument was deflected to “But he did this; why am I in trouble?”
Only about midpoint in the tawdry tale did we get to the real issue at play. It is one that has massive implications for the survival of a free republic as we know it—and, to focus my general horror on something this magazine cares deeply about, there are clear implications for how religion and religious liberty might fare under the emerging paradigm.
That moment was on display when Professor Alan Dershowitz gave his legal two cents’ worth on the central story. Even if a president used his power for personal ends, opined the legal gadabout, as long as he believed there was a state interest involved, it is OK. Convenient! And surely so wrong that the framers of the Constitution, the Fathers of the republic, the men who rejected the relative autocracy of the British Crown, the men who wrote so much about balance of powers and the limits to power entrusted by the people—so wrong that the howl of derision at such a statement should have shaken the nation. But very little pushback, even as the professor tried to redefine his statement on later TV programs.
The reality is that this was merely an MTV version of a whole philosophy of power, known as the unitary theory of presidential power. It is hard to pin down, but it describes what amounts to kingly power. Years ago, during the confirmation of Attorney General Gonzales, he was asked if the president was bound by the laws of Congress, and he said no. A senator asked him if a president was bound by the laws passed by the people’s representatives and signed into law by himself or a predecessor. Again: “No, sir.” In a hyperbolic moment a presidential candidate “joked” that he could shoot someone in the street and get away with it. Amazingly, presidential lawyers actually took the same stance recently in front of a New York state judge. My point is not so much that our good president or any successor might actually do such a mischievous thing, but to illustrate how far we have drifted from a constitutional norm. The partisanship we all decry is actually making this precipitous shift and of course then making it more dangerous.
This president has gone out of his way to speak well of religious liberty—and I pray that he continues to do so. Liberty has reprinted some of his statements and some actions by his administration. We are thankful. Thankful that he is adhering to a founding principle so succinctly expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution—one of the amendments required by the states as a condition of ratification.
But true religious liberty is on less than solid, unshifting ground if it depends on the smile of a president described by the Unitary principle of power.
Christianity in a 2,000-year history went from a growing group of persecuted followers of Jesus Christ to an often-persecuting state-allied power and, following a Reformation that came at a time of a flowering of personal freedom, arriving at its present dynamic state of openness and charity.
A big part of that success story—especially in this new world—was a removal of state control and an assumption that religion is a private matter of conscience.
It was the power of a Roman emperor and assorted European kings that channeled religion into the ditch of persecution.
Unfortunately, much of our present dynamic seems to be repeating that model of history.
Constantine championed Christianity without knowing much about it. He required doctrinal unity, and the church obliged by regulating itself into conformity.
Who cannot see that today, with the unprecedented alliance between a certain politically active Christian faction and a very secular president determined to help them, we have the beginnings of the Constantine model if the presidency continues its for-some-time-now drift toward absolutism?
That First Amendment mandates that the state is to make no law “establishing religion.” Creative lawyers and even people of faith anxious to advance their cause might dance around this requirement, but separation of church and state was the Protestant ideal and was the aim of the Founders. By way of the Puritans, who railed against a state church and the king’s use and misuse of it, the framers put this in the amendment, along with instructions that the “free exercise” of religion is to be protected.
I know that increasing numbers of Bible-believing patriots have begun to imagine a certain parallel between a godly nation and the way faith was protected in the Old Testament days when the glory hovered over the Temple and God spoke good laws through His prophets.
It is an honorable image, but cannot work absent real glory and real prophets. And it is worth remembering that the whole thing went wrong when the people wished for a king like the other nations. That first King, Saul, was a man of much stature and promise. But as the prophet Samuel warned, he usurped justice and built up his own power. And even in a theocracy he was not to assume religious prerogatives. When Saul did that, and acted as a priest, the prophet pronounced that his kingdom was taken from him. I fear that if we, in this secular republic, lose sight of our founding principles, forget the constitutional guidelines, and advance religion by fiat power, we might experience not virtue but decline.
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."