For the past three decades, I’ve been blessed to travel to almost every continent. But particularly, I have always felt a pull to visit Egypt and to see—with my own eyes—its ancient history and impressive ruins, and to visit the people who continue this 3,500-year-old civilization. My longing became a reality recently when I made the journey to Egypt and saw all the monuments of a once- great civilization.
Without the tools of modern man, this highly advanced people designed structures with incredible mathematical precision and remarkably accurate astronomical alignments. One would think that after so many movies about the pharaohs, after reading so many books and studying so much archaeology, the experience might be a disappointment. It was not. I was consistently overwhelmed visiting the tombs in the Valley of the Kings; the temples of Hatshepsut, Karnak, and Abu Simbel; and I was speechless standing before the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Such greatness could only be reached by a civilization that believed in something greater than itself. And indeed, this great culture was built upon faith. The ancient Egyptians were devout in their religion and dedicated to their gods. Everything I witnessed on my trip—the hieroglyphics, the tombs of kings and queens, the mummies, the secret chambers for burial sites, all the things we associate with Egyptian mystery and power—is related to what was fundamentally the ancient Egyptian religion. Needless to say, I was not surprised when the tour guide clued me in as to the purpose of the Great Pyramid of Giza: It was constructed as a tomb for the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu of the fourth dynasty. Indeed, only faith can inspire a people to achieve such excellence.
Religion plays a role in sustaining all great civilizations because it attempts to answer the ultimate questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? What happens when we die? No government policy, no academic paper, no lab experiment can answer these fundamental questions; every person must answer them for himself in order to live a purposeful life. Ultimately, most people will find these answers in religion.
But religion is only one of the essential ingredients needed for a civilization to prosper. The religion of the ancient Egyptians could not save their advanced civilization from extinction. As I studied the remnants of this once-great society, it became clear that religion enabled this civilization to reach unthinkable heights. Unfortunately, their belief system was ultimately exploited by men who sought to fulfill their own vain and selfish desires. You see, Egypt made no attempt to separate religion and state. Its political leaders—pharaohs and kings—also served as religious leaders. Such dual roles gave these men absolute power to mold their religious beliefs in such a way as to keep their followers loyal. Political dissent, which is necessary for a society’s survival, became synonymous with religious heresy.
History has shown us that putting religion in the hands of state leaders is a dangerous thing. Today, we can point to a number of modern nation-states that continue to experience social unrest because the religion that helped sustain and inspire the nation has become a tool for the powerful. This theme, common for centuries in Europe, is prevalent throughout the Islamic world today.
Most Western European nations have made attempts to separate church and state. Some efforts have perhaps not gone far enough, while others have veered off into excess. In France, for example, the revolution of 1789 established laïcité, the separation of church and state. But few would excuse the anti-religious violence of the French Revolution and its embrace of pure secularism. Recent tensions between Muslims (who want to wear their distinctive garb while attending public schools) and the state education system have demonstrated the French government’s continued unwillingness to allow individuals of diverse religious backgrounds to practice their faith freely.
While radical secularism is a threat to any civilization, so too is the opposite extreme. Witness the many wars fought in the name of religion, even though most religions advocate peace and understanding of one’s neighbor. Religious faith is an easy thing for leaders to abuse.
Europe understands this phenomenon all too well. For centuries, European kings used Christianity to legitimize actions that—seen through clear eyes—actually contradicted the teachings of Christ. Bitter over having their faith exploited for generations, many Europeans fled to secularism, abandoning religion altogether. When religion is used as a tool for the government, the backlash is terrible.
That’s where we are today. When religion fades, civilization does as well. We only need look to the birth rates in Europe to see this. Many commentators have noted that a number of European countries are quite literally disappearing. In order for a nation to maintain a steady population, each couple must have, on average, 2.1 children. The birthrate in Italy and Spain is 1.28; France, 1.84; Germany, 1.39. Today the European Union has 160 million more people than the United States; yet our birthrate is 2.09, and, with substantial immigration, the U.S. population will equal the European Union’s by 2050.
What does this declining birthrate have to do with religion? All of these European nations once had a strong national religious life. There is little of that left. When people no longer seek answers to the vital questions of life, when they no longer have a reason to live other than to satisfy their own desires, there’s much less reason for them to endure the sacrifice, pain, and hard work of raising a large family.
Of course, religion isn’t the only factor that affects birthrates. Most analysts attribute lower birthrates to the higher incomes in European countries. It is worth noting, however, that the increase in income of these European countries has occurred alongside the decrease in their religiosity. It is not unreasonable to see a connection.
The same is true of the Muslim world. Muslims in Islamic nations are generally committed to their faith, and their birth numbers reflect their religious zeal—most Muslim nations boast rates nearly triple those in Europe. This part of the globe, however, is no stranger to unholy unions between religion and the state. The dark history of autocratic regimes distorting the religion of Islam in order to subjugate pious Muslims has caused deep-rooted problems that, as recent events have shown, affect every nation in the world. It’s not inconceivable that the actions carried out by governments and terrorist organizations in the name of Islam could eventually turn Muslims away from their faith. Just as European Christians have become apathetic toward religion, so too might the Muslims of the East, if corrupt states are allowed to continue to hijack the religion of Islam.
While religion plays an important role in the success of a civilization, it cannot sustain a civilization alone. Nor should it be married entirely to the state. At the most basic level, civilization requires a creative tension at its core. Religion can bring clarity and purpose, yet in order to do so, religion must be freely chosen. In America, we have a system that provides the necessary tension between church and state. If our religious structures were too tied to the state, our religious life would have died long ago. Yet without the vibrant communities of belief that exist in America, we would have lost a significant source of our energy, creativity, and optimism.
America is always beset by tension concerning the role of religion in public life. From questions about school prayer, to marriage, to faith-based and community initiatives, we are always debating the role that religion should play in our shared public and political lives. Many of my friends in the religious community believe that religion should play a greater role in the life of the nation. They favor school prayer, the posting of the Ten Commandments, and do not object to groups that proselytize using government dollars. On the other hand, we have those who want the very words “under God” to be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. None of these issues is likely to be resolved in the near future. They will all—in one form or another— remain as points of difference in the culture. But this should be seen as positive evidence that America maintains a healthy debate about the role of religion in public life and the relationship of religion to the state.
If the state embraced religion too fully, religion would suffocate. If religion were banished from the public square, the public square would become arid. What is the proper role, then, of religion in public life?
I argue that religion should be welcomed—but no religion specifically favored—in the public square. Religious points of view should be allowed in all our public debates, just as we already welcome arguments and propositions made on secular grounds. Yet the moment that we decide to favor one religious point of view over another, we’ll have lost the vibrancy and energy that healthy religious dialogue brings to the public arena.
Make no mistake: The United States needs religion in the public square. We often associate poverty with crime in our country, yet the relationship is often one of correlation rather than causation. Communities that are rife with poverty are often also beleaguered by spiritual despair and hopelessness. We fool ourselves if we think we can solve these problems by secular means alone. We can do everything possible along secular lines to end drug addiction, combat homelessness, and drive down crime. Yet for all our well-meaning programs, too much of this effort is like pouring water on concrete if we have not nurtured the spiritual soil in which we invest our energy. Often, the people most in need require spiritual bread—the bread of friendship, community, and love—something often most effectively delivered by those inspired by faith.
At the same time, we see in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran modern examples of the way in which a religious state can actually suppress the very spiritual energy and vibrancy that is so important to a free and prosperous society. When, in these nations, religion grows too close to the government, it is used as a force to suppress the people rather than to uplift them—a force that diminishes freedom, rather than setting people free. If America were ever to tilt toward either extreme, we would place ourselves in danger.
Consider the way that America is viewed in the world. Among Muslims, we are considered godless, hedonistic, and amoral. In Europe we’re often dismissed as a religious, Bible- toting, fundamentalist, headstrong nation. The two views of America are diametrically opposed, yet both reflect the fundamental reality that America has, at its core, a healthy and vibrant place for religion.
The beauty of our system is that it provides a productive and creative outlet for religious division and tension. In this country, religious people might debate gay marriage and abortion, or they might advocate for better stewardship of the environment, for greater access to health care, or for more social services; but these conflicts are manageable. America does not suffer from religious wars in the way that so many other societies have. One need only look to Iraq to see how a lack of safe discourse on religion and politics can degenerate into a division that spawns hatred and murder.
America’s system of separation between church and state is unique. Our nation inhabits today the same position that the great Egyptian civilization once enjoyed. It bestrides the world as the sole remaining superpower. Our culture permeates the entire planet; we live in a vibrant democracy with a rising population, a growing economy, and a flourishing cultural life. What keeps America vital is that we’ve built a society in which everyone is guaranteed the freedom of religion.
Many would be surprised to learn that American Muslims who work on Capitol Hill are allowed to hold Friday prayer services in the Capitol. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others have all been free to build religious institutions in America. Because we are home to so many active religious cultures, America may yet avoid the fate of our Egyptian and European forbearers. Because of the separation of church and state in America, we don’t have a single religious culture, yet we have a vibrant national religious life. From the emancipation of slaves to the civil-rights movement, religious groups have played a vital role in sustaining America’s culture and identity. Faith sustained them through their difficulties and inspired them to build a better nation.
As I stood before the Great Pyramid of Giza, I was inspired by the skill and ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians. But as I reflected upon this massive structure, I realized that it is more than just a monument—it’s a warning sign for future civilizations.
America has inherited a unique system of government that may enable us to avoid the pitfalls of Egypt, but that inheritance will not sustain itself. We must do the hard work of supporting that system today and leaving it intact for our children and their children. Democracy is difficult, and a system of creative tension and debate can often be frustrating. It is easy and tempting to advocate extreme solutions—banishing religion from public life or building it into every aspect of national policy. Yet neither of these options will do. We must continue to maintain the system in which we respect and welcome all of our neighbors into the public square. If we do our work right, centuries from now the future generations will not marvel at the monuments of our extinct civilization, but at the longevity of our democracy.