Legend has it that two thousand years ago President Bush’s favorite philosopher dodged the treason bullet by giving a group of Pharisees his honest opinion on the separation of church and state. Appreciating the wisdom in keeping heavenly and earthly concerns separate, Jesus advised them to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
Regrettably, the 2008 presidential frontrunners of both parties are ignoring Jesus’ advice regarding the preferred relationship between church and state by professing—ad nauseam—their undying fidelity to the Christian Right’s version of morality and its vision of our nation as their exclusive fiefdom.
Consider the statements of two Republican candidates. Senator John McCain said he believes the “Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” Mike Huckabee said we should “amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards . . ..” McCain is pandering. Huckabee is deadly earnest. But keep in mind, many a democratic nation has been trampled because politicians were outsmarted by those whose boots they licked.
At least one sitting Supreme Court Justice shares Huckabee’s “deadly earnest” regarding God’s standards. In a 2005 Supreme Court case considering whether a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments sitting near the entrance of the Texas State Capital was unconstitutional and tantamount to government endorsed religion, Justice Scalia lectured the plaintiffs, “It is a symbol that the government derives its authority from God. That’s what it is about. Our laws are derived from God.”
It is of no little consequence when a Supreme Court justice pronounces that our laws are based on ancient biblical commands rather than on the “godless” Constitution. In essence, Scalia is saying that the secular democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers should be a Christian theocracy as envisioned by a determined sect of fundamentalists.
Not only do the folks who share Huckabee and Scalia’s “deadly earnest” want to change our nation’s Constitution, they want to change its history as well.
Rep. James Forbes (R-VA), backed by thirty-one other Representatives, has proposed House Resolution 888 designating the first week in May as “American Religious History Week.” The purpose of the bill is to affirm “the rich spiritual and religious history of our Nation’s founding and subsequent history . . . and for the appreciation of and education on America’s history of religious faith.
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If passed, this Resolution will be as divisive and detrimental to the study of American history in public schools and public squares as intelligent design creationism has been to the study of evolution. It will—as it is meant to—bolster the Christian Right’s claim to both our nation’s past and its present.
Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and former White House counsel during the Reagan administration, said that “House Resolution 888 is perhaps the most disgraceful, shocking and tragic example yet of the pernicious and pervasive pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape of our bedrock American citizens’ religious freedom by the fundamentalist Christian right.” Mikey is not known to mince words.
That a good number of the Framers of the Constitution were Christians is undeniable. But it is this fact that speaks strongly in defense of their decision to build the “wall of separation” between church and state that keeps government out of the business of religion. Their concern was not necessarily for the rights of the nonbeliever, but for the believer’s freedom to choose which creed he or she will embrace.
The particular genius of the Founding Fathers was their understanding that a Christian nation can be a dangerous place for both believers and nonbelievers. They knew that government prescribed religion—usually that of the most politically connected sect—invariably leads to intolerance and tyranny.
James Madison, writing in defense of this notion, asked the question, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”
If there is any doubt as to the salience of Madison’s question for a secular democracy, one need only consider a promise made by Pat Robertson, the fundamentalist voice of the Christian Right and 1988 presidential candidate. In a stump speech Robertson assured his audience that “after the Christian majority takes over this country, pluralism (non-fundamentalist beliefs) will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anyone to practice it.” If Robertson or Huckabee or Scalia or Forbes have their way, our national motto will be modified accordingly, E Pluribus Fides Unum—Out of Many Beliefs, Only One.
It is a small thing for people of faith to allow religion to creep onto the public square. What harm is there in something as seemingly innocuous as a reference to God in the national pledge or motto, a moment of prayerful silence in the classroom or in a nondenominational prayer at a high school graduation? Why not give equal time to creationism in public schools or support faith-based organizations with tax dollars?
And what person of the “true” faith will object to their child’s daily recitation of the Christian pledge of allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands, One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe.” And for those of us who do not believe or who believe a little differently?
In 1817 John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “Do you recollect, or have you ever attended to the ecclesiastical strife in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and every part of New England? What a mercy these people cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the U.S.! If they could, they would.”
Both believer and nonbeliever have a vested interest in the secular nation envisioned by the Founding Fathers; a nation whose “godless” Constitution and social pluralism ensures the kind of democracy in which the practice of any religion, or none, is an inalienable right.