The United States will celebrate its 231st birthday on Wednesday. I feel confident in predicting that there will be at least a few celebrations taking place on that day during the course of which at least one person will say something to the effect that "America is a Christian nation" or else that it should get back to being one, or that what we need in this country is a dose of that good ol' time religion.
What is almost always meant by those kinds of dog-whistle phrases is that America should start (or continue) to exclude from membership--whether in the corridors of power or even more fundamentally, within the body politic itself--"those" people. People who don't believe in God at all. The Jews (this one's so popular I have to number them: 1 2 3). The Muslims. Essentially, anybody who does not think, believe, and/or worship exactly as they do.
In order to peddle such errant nonsense, those who espouse it must keep their listeners (readers, whatever) in ignorance about many of the basic tenets underlying the structure of our government and the bedrock principles on which it is based. And really, to refute them, all that is necessary is to quote a few snippets from the Constitution and one very early treaty:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land... (Article VI, clause 2)
...no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (Article VI, clause 3)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... (First Amendment)
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (U.S. Treaty with Tripoli, 1796-1797, Article 11)
I really don't know how it could be stated any simpler than that. The government of the United States is constitutionally barred from enforcing any kind of religious preference for holding an office of public trust or honor. It is likewise barred from establishing any one particular state religion (and, under the applicable Supreme Court precedent, even from favoring religion generally over non-religion--see Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 ) and from interfering in any citizen's free exercise of his or her religious beliefs.
The Constitution further establishes itself, the laws made pursuant to its terms, and treaties entered into by the United States as "...the supreme Law of the Land..." One such treaty, ratified less than a decade after the adoption of the Constitution, and by and with the consent of many of the men who wrote the former document, clearly states that our government was not founded in any sense on Christian religious principles. I should think that the foregoing constituted ironclad proof that this country is not now, was never at any time in the past, nor can ever be made at some future date to become, a "Christian" nation.
There do seem to be an awful lot of people, however, who disagree with me on that. Which is one reason I'm participating in the Blog Against Theocracy event. Follow me below the fold for a few more reasons, and for information on how you can participate.
Personally, I am a communicating member of the Roman Catholic Church. I made a conscious choice to become a member of that faith tradition a quarter of a century ago and while I have some differences with the current leadership of my church, I have at the moment absolutely no intention of leaving it. I do not agree 100% with everything the current leadership stands for, and I think several of its interpretations of sacred Scripture and the Church's Tradition are seriously in error--but those are internal matters and of no particular consequence.
The Catholic Church is now, by and large, non-controversial in America and even in American politics. That was not always the case, however. Each of the three Roman Catholic men to run for the presidency (Al Smith in 1928, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and John Kerry in 2004) has had to spend at least a little time explaining the relationship of his personal beliefs to his political philosophy. I am dismayed at how little progress has been made in imparting a basic understanding of Catholic beliefs as they relate to politics in the nearly 80 years since the Brown Derby was vilified by the Republicans as being a tool of both foreign interests (by which they meant the pope) and the bootleggers. All the more reason, it seems to me, to keep religion out of politics.
I am reasonably sure that at least three of my distant cousins fought during the Revolutionary War to bring this nation into being: and one of them died in that struggle, during that horrible winter at Valley Forge. To the best of my knowledge and belief, none of them was religiously eclectic. However, even despite the presence of a number of preachers on the earlier branches of my family tree, I'd like to think that those young men who volunteered to go off and fight for their freedom and the freedom of others wanted to extend that freedom to everyone who came to these shores--whatever their religious preferences might be. And lest anyone should forget, the reason that most of the earliest settlers came to these shores was to escape religious persecution in their home countries. So why on earth would we want to import to this country the very kind of prejudice that so many of its founders came here to get away from?
It is none of my government's business what I believe or how I worship--or whether I worship or believe at all. Nor is it any of my church's business how I vote or what laws my country passes. At most, my church and its members can offer advice and criticism--but no more. And since the fundamental laws of this country prohibit favoring any one religion over any other, or even the general state "religion" over the general state "non-religion," my religion has no basis trying to get any laws passed unless they can provide rigorously secular reasons.
That is why, to use the most obvious example, the Catholic Church's perennial campaigns to outlaw abortion are doomed to fail. Until and unless the Catholic Church can come up with compelling reasons that have nothing to do with religious dogma for why human life must be regarded as beginning at the moment of conception, they simply haven't got a legal leg to stand on. And failing that level of certainty, the only reasonable stance for the U.S. government to take is to allow the procedure if the party or parties concerned choose to go ahead with it. We may not like the fact that abortion is legal, but at the present moment we have no legal way of changing that. And frankly, I'm not sure that we should even if we could. I insist on being allowed to make moral choices for myself, based on my best understanding of my faith and its teachings at the time. On what grounds, then, can I refuse that moral autonomy to anyone else? If it's sauce for the goose, it should be sauce for the gander as well.
And when the government gets involved in religious matters, it's always a mess. That was amply demonstrated in the last major case before the Supreme Court involving prayer in schools, 1992's Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577. The case involved a Rhode Island high school that had attempted to invite a member of the local clergy to offer a benediction at the school's annual graduation ceremony. Some years before when their older child graduated, the Weismans (who are Jews) protested, saying that their daughter should not have to sit through a Christian prayer as the price of attending her high school graduation. The school district brushed them off--but later, when another daughter was set to graduate from the same school, district officials thought to defuse the situation with the Weismans by inviting a rabbi to give the blessing instead. But along with the invitation, the district sent the rabbi a set of guidelines he was supposed to use to ensure that his prayer was appropriately non-sectarian.
Fortunately, the Weismans weren't having any of that rot, and they filed suit. The Supreme Court, citing the Establishment clause, agreed with the Weismans that their children--and everyone else's children--should not have to sit through a prayer as part of their high school graduation ceremonies. Those students and their families who wished to have some form of religious commemoration of the event were free to do so--on their own time and outside of the actual graduation ceremony itself. Moreover, the Court also found, citing the Free Exercise clause, that the non-sectarian prayer guidelines were also constitutionally impermissible, given that they obviously represented a restriction on the rabbi's ability to practice his faith as he understood it. Far better, it seems to me, for the state and for its agents to stay out of the religious arena altogether, and leave it to that portion of its citizens that wishes to participate.
Otherwise, we run the risk of completely losing sight of the ideals and principles on which this nation was founded: just as Abraham Lincoln warned his friend Joshua Speed one summer's day a century and a half ago (24 August, 1855):
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty, --to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
This post is part of an organized effort to raise awareness of the importance of the separation of church and state. The campaign starts today and continues through July 4. Instructions on how to participate can be found here. If you're looking to do something to advance the cause (either as opposed to or in addition to writing about it), sign the petition at First Freedom First.