Our State Board of Education recently passed new curriculum guidelines which, among other eye-poppers, removed references to the separation of church and state from the list of concepts being taught in schools. This fits the new fundamentalist vision of American history so popular with a wing of the Republican Party. The Texas Republican Party Platform now states unambiguously that America is a “Judeo-Christian Nation” and specifically attacks the notion of a separation of church and state.
The question of whether America is a “Christian Nation” has never had a simple answer. The trouble is that the claim is both true and false at the same time depending on what it is meant to imply. What America was at its founding was a nation of people who were overwhelmingly Christian under what was for that era a radically secular federal government.
A major motive of early immigration to America was the desire to practice innovative new religious interpretations more freely. Americans became an uncommonly religious people who were deeply divided over religion. With the exception of a modest Jewish community and the much more tangled issue of imported slaves, these diverse religious institutions were overwhelmingly Christian in their orientation.
The founders rightly understood that America was a religiously diverse place. The fact that there could be dozens if not hundreds of different versions of Christian faith existing peacefully side by side was completely unheard of in their European experience. The picture of religion in America was a kaleidoscope, though a decidedly Christian one.
It would never have been practical for the Constitution to point to a single Christian denomination and make it an official state religion. What could easily have been done was to officially sanction Christianity in general as an organizing principle of the state. The framers wisely chose not to do this.
In fact, the young government affirmed its deliberately secular committment in an early treaty, stating unequivocally, “the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” That treaty was unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by President Adams. The notion of a strictly secular federal government was not particularly controversial in the founders’ era.
The founders were generally, though not universally, religious. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson was accused of being an atheist and though it appears he wasn’t he cared little to dispute the claim. Thomas Paine was an agnostic, deeply hostile to religion. But founders on the whole we were Christians of various varieties.
Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists in which he describes the “wall of separation between church and state” provides the best explanation of why they declined. The letter drives modern Christian fundamentalists batty; a succinct and persuasive summary of the Republic’s commitment to secularism coming straight from one of their otherwise favorite founders.
So why are we even having this debate in an age in which religious observance is in steady, long-term decline? It is precisely that decline that feeds this type of movement. Fundamentalism is not a symptom of a healthy religious culture. With organized religion losing influence and change accelerating at a pace that challenges people’s capacity to adapt, we shouldn’t be surprised that many want to turn back the clock to an imagined past.
The wave of fundamentalism that is tearing at the fabric of our society is not a local phenomenon. In different forms and under different faiths it is rocking our world, inspiring violence and undermining liberty in places as unconnected as Turkey, Israel, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and Russia, along with the usual suspects in the Arab countries. It is a fearful reaction to the forces of freedom that are opening up new, and often upsetting avenues of personal liberty from Afghanistan to Alabama.
How fundamentalism became a core element of Republican politics is a sad accident of history, as the Party of free-markets and liberty is not well suited for it. But we cannot continue to grow as a Party so long as we embrace it.
I personally would like to see a greater acknowledgement of religion in our public life. I think also think it would be great if I could cruise the roads without a drivers license and insurance, or practice my aim in my back yard. Unfortunately, those screaming most loudly to tear down the “wall of separation” are the best example of why we it serves us so well.
Forget the neurotic liberals who cringe when someone uses the word “God.” They aren’t the problem. The trouble is that efforts to embrace real openness to public religious expression, like when an Imam was invited to give a prayer at the Legislature, always seem to inspire some bigoted jerk to make a scene. These incidents display the real motives of the “Christian Nation” crowd – to shield themselves from ideas they don’t like at the expense of religious freedom.
The fundamentalists don’t want more religious expression, they want a government that endorses their favorite religion. The Republican Party should not help them succeed.
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