The Moral Grounding of Hope

During presidential campaigns, when one candidate is perceived as devoutly religious, his opponents warn that a wall of separation must be kept between church and state.

When the ACLU sues the military for sponsoring Boy Scout troops, it argues that expressions of religious beliefs have no place in the public square.

In the recent Supreme Court case involving displays of the Ten Commandments, critics contended that the public presence of religious images and symbols can only cause social division and conflict. But as the life of Pope John Paul II has shown, these arguments are not only unfounded, they are flat-out wrong.

The most important political and historical event of the past half-century was the fall of communism. And as revealed by all the documentaries aired in the wake of the Pope’s death, John Paul II played a major role in the demise of communistic totalitarianism. He had no army, no nation, no economic clout. He only had the strength of his religious faith, but it was a faith that gave him the courage and perseverance to stand up to communist dictators.

In a way, it was faith that defeated communism. The faiths of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan came together to topple the most entrenched and pervasively repressive regime the world had ever known. So, if the life of Pope John Paul II teaches anything, it is that religious faith can exert a tremendously positive and powerful influence on political society.

The skeptics of religious faith are always quick to stoke the fires of fear and suspicion. Because George W. Bush is a man of faith, he is said to be pushing America toward “theocracy.” Because religious conservatives oppose gay “marriage” and abortion, they are said to be waging a “jihad” against secular America.

Because the FCC is finally taking some action against Hollywood filth, it is portrayed as conducting a “modern-day Inquisition.” But what these skeptics do not appreciate about religious faith is that it is capable of producing, as demonstrated by John Paul II, the kind of hope that can lead to an almost miraculous future.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s remember the air-raid drills at school, in which children were shown how to hide under their desks when the sirens sounded, announcing the incoming missiles. We remember the fall-out shelters that were built in every community; we remember the statistics about the death zones of nuclear bombs and the survival rates of radiation sickness.

Communism was so threatening that America went to war in Vietnam to stop its spread. It watched helplessly as the Soviet Union crushed revolts in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and invaded Afghanistan in 1980. When Pope John Paul first traveled behind the Iron Curtain and spoke about the pursuit of freedom, he was called a naive fool by many.

In all fairness, few people during the early years of John Paul II’s reign would have predicted that Soviet communism would fall without a single shot fired nor a single military battle waged. In the 1970s, my mother used to pray every night for a miracle — for the world to be freed from communist tyranny. But while the rest of us may have thought of it only as a far-off miracle, people like John Paul II and Ronald Reagan saw it as an attainable reality.

The most vocal opponents of the Pope’s moral stands were on the left, but then the leftist mindset has become one of pervasive pessimism. Democracy in Iraq is a pipe dream. Oil prices keep rising. The proposals to fix Social Security will never work.

Compared to the 1970s, however, the present is a near-paradise. Back then, the world was engulfed in a Cold War, living under the constant threat of nuclear holocaust. Gas was not just expensive, it was unavailable. Inflation was rampant. Totalitarianism had leapt across the Atlantic and was spreading throughout Central America. Urban crime was at its peak. How could anyone have had hope at a time like that?

As Pope John Paul II demonstrated, hope comes from moral conviction, and moral conviction comes from faith. He viewed life through a moral lens; he saw people as moral individuals. It was a view starkly different from that of his critics, who often view people in material terms, through income statistics, wage rates and housing occupancies.

Life by itself is irrelevant, it is the “quality of life” that matters — and quality is measured in material terms. Physical health is worshiped, but moral health is ignored. The only sins are those actions that jeopardize physical well-being — smoking, fast food consumption, unaffordable health care. Sex is seen only as a means of self-gratification, not as a reflection of moral values.

The Pope preached about the culture of life. Days before his death, he spoke out about the treatment being given to Terri Schiavo. His opponents, on the other hand, talked only about the right to die. Their conduct in the Schiavo case showed that they never really grasped the Pope’s message. They never saw that the Pope’s warnings about a “culture of death” extended beyond feeding tubes.

Whenever a certain set discussed Terri Schiavo, they talked about universal health care or judicial process, but they could never actually talk about what was at the center of the whole controversy — a human life.

It’s the same with abortion.

Its proponents talk about choice and access and rights, but they never mention what is always at the center of the issue — a human being. Throughout history, that has always been the first tragedy of any culture of death: a gagging of the moral voice.

As the life and work of John Paul II reveals, hope leads to reality. The grimmer the reality, the greater the hope must be. And the greatest of hope springs from moral strength.

So when politicians talk about the dangers of religious faith and moral values, perhaps what they are really saying is that they do not have the strength and hope to achieve what we most need them to achieve.

Patrick Garry is a professor at the

University of South Dakota School of Law.

His books include Wrestling With God: The Courts’ Tortuous Treatment of Religion.