President Harry S. Truman was a very different kind of politician. First, he could not be bought by special interests and thus spoke his mind pretty openly. He wasn’t called "Give ’em hell Harry" for nothing. Second, he did what was necessary to bring an end to World War II and by his actions allowed history to judge him. I think, as awful was the atom bomb was and still is, he made the right choice given what the resistance of Japan still meant to the world, and to our troops, at the time. Third, he was a committed believer in the essential philosophy that stood behind the American experiment, namely democracy. Truman believed that freedom of the people, by the people and for the people was at the heart of who we were as a people. I find few who understand or believe this very deeply in our time.

President Truman once said:

    Democracy is, first and foremost, a spiritual force; it is built upon     a spiritual basis—and on a belief in God and an observance of         moral principles. And in the long run only the Church can provide     that basis. Our founders knew this truth—and we will neglect it     at our peril.

I doubt many in our time, especially in the political party of Truman, actually would say anything close to these words in defending our American experiment in freedom.

Notice that President Truman did not say the Church and state were the same. What he said was that the state must be built on a spiritual basis and that basis can only be provided for by a strong Church. I do not want to tear down the "wall of separation" that Jefferson wrote about but I do believe, as did Truman, that our freedom cannot be rooted solely in secular principles. We need a strong set of moral principles and without the Church these cannot be established in the West. The danger now is that a combination of secularism and new zealotry by various types of religious fundamentalism is a dangerous mixture. 

By the way, this is one of my concerns with libertarianism. It wants to legalize most human actions, including ones that tear down the social fabric of a society, all in the name of personal freedom. (More to write on this later this week.)

I believe the Enlightenment brought some needed principles to Western society that helped stop the vicious religious wars of a previous era. I do not want to give up those positive contributions but I do not, at the same time, want a complete secularism that knocks the foundation out from under this highly developed culture. The "naked public square" (rooted in secularism) is dangerous, much more dangerous than one in which various religions compete openly for people’s devotion without coercion or governmental interference.

Conservative Christians often argue quite well for correct moral principles but sometimes in the wrong way. What is called for is not a return to the pristine past, as if there ever was one, but a new understanding of what place faith has in public policy and spiritual formation in our culture. There are many excellent voices that are raising these sorts of questions today but too many people on the far left and the far right cannot hear them very well.


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  1. Jim H. March 10, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    You forgot to mention one of the most important things about Truman – that he was easily the best dressed President ever! The man had some serious style.

  2. Fred Carpenter March 11, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Dear John,
    I couldn’t disagree with you more on Truman’s actions to end WW11, but rather than write the reasons now, please read your friend and confidant’s essay titled ‘War, the Bible, and the State’ to get the foundation first.

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