Ever since Native Americans were outnumbered by the white man, the United States has had a population whose citizens were, and continue to be, overwhelmingly Christian. Yet our country’s Founders, also mostly Christian, created a secular federal government; differentiating “We the People” from “a more perfect Union.”
With the economy in the tank, and millions of Americans out of work for the foreseeable future, why, you may ask, is this question being raised now?
Because the very first Republican Party Presidential primary contest is imminent, and because of the out-sized influence of fundamentalist Christianity in this particular state, the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd compel the nation’s attention and highlight this red-button issue.
Fundamentalist religion is divisive (i.e. Mormonism as a cult, the Ground Zero mosque, and the burning of the Koran), yet all the Republican candidates campaigning in Iowa continue to proclaim that we are indeed a Christian nation. “How did we get here?” you may ask.
Once the Puritans landed on our shores the first battle of what was to become our culture wars was engaged. To be sure, we are one of the most religious countries in the developed world. And the legitimacy of the Christian culture that flourishes around us is not, and should not be questioned. But rather, any controversy resides in the nature of the relationship between our personal religion and our collective government.
During the 1950’s when the “religious” West was fighting “godless” communism the United States made certain religious/political gestures stressing this difference between the two systems: “under god” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance; a National Day of Prayer was instituted; and “In God We Trust” replaced “E Pluribus Unum” as our national motto.
However, in the 1960’s the Supreme Court handed down several decisions limiting religion in governmental affairs: organized prayer was banned from public schools (Schempp); only evolution was to be taught as science in public schools (Epperson); and tests that define church & state separation were established (Lemon). Resistance to this judicial secularism increasingly manifested itself in the Moral Majority movement, in which the organized Christian Right began a push-back movement that continues to this day.
Fundamentalist Christians assert that the divine character of our government is derived by the fact that: “God,” “Creator,” and “Providence” are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Separatists, however counter that after Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, it was not the Declaration of Independence that the Founders used as the basis from which to govern. Rather they reconvened and established a new government, crafting a different document as the source of our laws; at first it was the Articles of Confederation; and then it was, and still is, the Constitution.
While those who extol religion as the sole formative factor cite the numerous letters the Founders wrote referencing the virtues of religion and morality, the secularist can respond, “Yes, the Founders praised religion & morality, but the government that they ultimately established was entirely and deliberately non-theistic, and the Constitution neither endorses, nor opposes any religion.”
Fundamentalists, also maintain that the reference to religious symbols in some official buildings establish that our government was indeed founded on “Judeo-Christian principles”, a) the depiction of Moses in the frieze of the Supreme Court, b) “Praise God” engraved at the top of the Washington Monument, and c) an emblem of the 10 Commandments embedded in the floor of the National Archives, support their view. To which the irreligious retort, a) “Does the shape of the Supreme Court building based on the Parthenon in Athens make us pagans?” b) “Does the statue of the Roman god Mars in the Capitol rotunda suggest we are polytheists?” and c) “Do the ‘eye’ and ‘pyramid’ icons on the back of the dollar bill confirm us all as unwitting freemasons?
There are tens of millions of American Christians, to whom their religious beliefs are paramount to their identity. Their sincerity is unquestioned. But ironically, their sincerity has been misappropriated and hijacked by those who insist that any defense of a secular constitution is fundamentally Un-American.
Such shameful demagoguery and pandering can be seen, and heard from an increasing number of journalists, politicians, and clergy, all in the cause of higher ratings, more votes, or larger congregations.
In their campaign to Christianize the essential non-definitive religious nature of our American government they purposely confuse, blur, and misuse concepts such as: religion, belief, and morality, with the effect of conflating a Christian population with a secular government.
Only our public schools, that have a duty to educate and produce knowledgeable and well-informed citizens, can remedy this confusion. Sadly, courses in basic civics remain inadequate, if taught at all.
While our Founders were masterful in their creation of a democratically elected republic, they were apprehensive of the “tyranny of the majority.” So should we, in a Christian majority society, remember the secular values define our pluralistic and democratic society, and remember that what makes us truly exceptional is our respect for all individual citizens, Christian or not.
Vic Losick is a documentary filmmaker whose most recent film, “In God We Teach” will be shown at the Irvine (CA) Int’l Film Festival in January.