Saturday, May 11, 2013

Our National Religion

May 10, 2013

Monrovia, California

One of the organizations I support is dedicated to upholding the separation of church and state in this country.  It sends me a monthly magazine detailing the trials and tribulations of fighting this good fight, including articles about the constant assaults upon this national principle by the Religious Right (evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants mostly, with a few conservative Roman Catholics thrown in), a principle most of the people who invented the United States considered essential to the ongoing viability of the country.

This watchdog group keeps track of an almost constant onslaught of clearly unconstitutional laws and practices that violate the separation of church and state which are still being enacted by states and municipalities, and occasionally by the federal government.  Sometimes it joins lawsuits through its small legal staff, as an amicus curiae.  It also celebrates some of the historically significant cases that have helped to reduce the incursion of religion into the workings of our public institutions, mostly schools, courts, and other taxpayer-funded programs.  Incorrigible counties still put the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns, ignorant cities still put manger scenes in municipal parks, misguided school districts still allow or encourage the recitation of prayers as part of their daily routines, and crazy states try to allow Christian symbols to be printed on license plates.  When lawsuits make it to federal court these practices are almost invariably struck down, but sometimes the money and the will to take the suits that far are lacking.  The organization I support is currently headed by an ordained Methodist minister who, I presume, has no bias against Christianity, but does believe in the freedom of all persons to express their faith, or not, as they see fit, without  encouragement or interference from the government.

Let’s pause here to look at what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they decided that church and state should be separate, and when they pronounced as much on a number of occasions, both within the Constitution—in the First Amendment, of course, and also by the deliberate omission of references to God and religion in the body of the Constitution itself—and in other of their writings.  The omission of any reference to a deity within the Constitution speaks for itself.  Now look at the opening phrase of the First Amendment —“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .”  Many people take this as simply a guarantee of freedom of religion, which indeed it is.  But the political and cultural milieu from which the first Americans came—British subjects all—suggests that the real purpose behind the First Amendment’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses was not so much to protect religion as to protect the government from religion, and in particular from the power and tyranny of the clergy over everyone, especially non-Christians, dissenters, agnostics, and atheists.  Religion in the most basic sense of the word is simply a belief in and worship of a God or gods.  In the First Amendment the word did not come with any qualifying adjectives such as "organized" or "recognized" or "accepted."

There is an inherent contradiction in the idea of freedom of religion within a society.  It really amounts to a rejection of the primacy of religion itself in favor of the primacy of laws that everyone knows were invented by humans.  This idea was so at variance with the orthodoxy of the 18th century as to be novel and practically heretical.  A civil war had been fought in England a century earlier over religious nuances most of us today would consider piddling—Episcopalianism versus Presbyterianism versus Puritanism.  Naturally it had much to do with temporal power and comparatively little to do with God.  Each faction wanted its own version of Protestantism to be the established religion of the realm, although a few people believed that Englishmen should be free to worship as they pleased, as long as they remained Protestant.

Most western religions, at least, claim to have the definitive truth about the relationship of God to the arrangement of the cosmos.  If a religion possesses the only correct path to enlightenment and a right relationship with God, how can a society be governed by anything but that religion?  Nothing else would make sense, would it?  After all, God is greater than any little country.  This of course is the position taken by many Christians today, and is the reason they fight so hard against the First Amendment.

We all assume that what makes religion truly dangerous is not so much the daily bowing and scraping of its humble adherents as the declaration of the absolute truth of things by the leaders of a religion, whether they go by the title of Bishop, Ayatollah, Guru, or the Reverend Billy Jim Bob.  Any time anyone presumes to pronounce the truth about God or about how God wants you to live, you should grab your wallet and go hide somewhere.  And if that person has a position of power in a government, well, you’re in big trouble.  Imagine if the head of the Mormons or the Pope were on the payroll of the U.S. Congress, with a permanent seat in the Senate and the power to mandate and officially interpret the practice of Mormonism or Roman Catholicism throughout the land and to punish or at least disenfranchise those who didn’t practice those beliefs.  Imagine having the President of the United States as the official leader of the Mormons or the Catholics.  Absurd, you say?  Tell me how that differs fundamentally from having the Archbishop of Canterbury on the British government payroll, with a seat in the House of Lords, no less, and the Monarch as the official head of the Church of England.  And although the power of the Archbishop and the Queen he nominally serves are today all but gone (thanks in large part to the examples set by the United States, France, and the Netherlands), back in the 1770s that power was real, and it meant that religion was always going to stick its nose into the workings of the government, not in the sneaky roundabout ways American churches do now, but in an officially sanctioned manner.

I mentioned the fact that the leader of the watchdog group dedicated to maintaining the separation of church and state is an ordained Methodist minister because it bolsters an assumption under which I have operated for many years, namely, that only a religious “insider” can fully understand the power of religion to overreach itself and try to impose its tenets on all people in a society.  Coming from a strongly religious background myself I think I can appreciate this more than my friends who were brought up with comparatively little understanding of the detailed workings of religion, particularly in the context of Christianity.  (No one, on the other hand, has any problem seeing the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, but few Americans are capable of looking directly into the mirror such excesses hold up to our own theological prejudices.)

Among people who are well-meaning but essentially ignorant of the inherent power and built-in absolutism of much of organized religion are those who are not themselves devout.  They perhaps imagine that Jesus was a Great Teacher and that the religion named for him embodies its more benign ideals.  There are those also who, though not particularly churchy, think of the Bible as a great fount of wisdom, and that reading it from cover to cover might be an exercise that would make them more righteous, or at least more understanding of the thinking of Christians. They do not realize that the Bible, far from being a coherent theological text, is a crazy quilt of myth, legend, history, and pure fiction, which makes it more akin to the kind of badly-written science fiction and fantasy stories that make it onto the silver screen, only with much less continuity and many more absolute contradictions.  These folks think that by studying Christianity in some reasonably organized or scholarly way they can come to understand it. 

To be fully understood, religious belief must be inculcated pretty much from birth, and furthermore, you’re only allotted one serious religion per lifetime.  I will never understand the mindset of a devout Muslim no matter how hard I might endeavor to do so.  Trying to come at a religion and understand it after having been raised outside rarely if ever produces results.  It’s like trying to become blond haired and blue eyed after having been born with brown hair and brown eyes.  You might fool yourself, but you won’t fool anybody else, and you’ll look silly trying.  I therefore assert, somewhat immodestly, that only those of us who were born into the family of True Believers can ever lay claim to understanding the real dark side of such belief.

This latter opinion is supported, I think, by examining the U.S. presidents who have done the most damage to the separation of church and state.  Some of our presidents have been devoutly religious men.  Jimmy Carter comes immediately to mind.  There was also my man John Quincy Adams.  James Garfield had been a minister before he became president.  These men did not mess with the separation of church and state, probably because they respected the full power of religion and knew its potential for tyranny.

Instead, for the most part it was the presidents who had always taken their religion with a grain of salt who thoughtlessly eroded the separation of church and state.  The first one was numero uno, George Washington himself, a nominal but basically unreligious Anglican with strongly Deist and Unitarian leanings (meaning that he didn’t really believe in the divinity of Jesus and the other supernatural claptrap of his birth religion).  This man, doubtless with the best of intentions but completely heedless of the clear proscription within the Constitution he was swearing to uphold (he was no intellectual philosopher or social architect, like some of his contemporaries), took the very first oath of office with his hand on the Bible, and added, gratuitously, the words “So help me God” at the end, though they did not appear in the prescribed oath.  After that, every president has felt the need to follow suit, lest he break from tradition and look like a heathen and lose votes in the next election or weaken his party.

Another erring president was none other than the revered and beloved Abraham Lincoln, raised by a Bible-thumping Baptist mother but never fond of organized religion and profoundly skeptical of Christian orthodoxy from an early age.  It was he who signed the law that ordered the words “In God We Trust” to be added to our coinage.   (One of his successors, Theodore Roosevelt, tried to have the phrase removed on the grounds that it was sacrilegious to put the word “God” on money, which was honest, at least.)  Lincoln, even though he was never a regular church-goer, got more sappy and sloppy in his references to God as he trudged along through his presidency, thus ignoring “the better angels of his nature,” to borrow one of his own phrases.  Maybe it was the terrible ravages of war, maybe it was the loss of his young son, but whatever it was it made him increasingly weak-minded when it came to the separation of God from government.

A rolling stone may not gather moss, but it does gather momentum, and into the 20th century the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” became increasingly more prevalent, making it onto paper money and eventually becoming the official motto of the United States.  It also happens to appear in the rarely-sung fourth verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was approved for use under Woodrow Wilson and became the official national anthem in 1931, under Herbert Hoover.

The third revered president to do significant damage to the separation of church and state was Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian (and more devoutly, an Anglophile) who spent most Sunday mornings at home than at church.  He was the first to employ clergymen to recite prayers at the beginning and end of his presidential inauguration, in 1933.  That has become standard practice ever since, turning what ought to be the greatest national celebration of the rule of secular constitutional law into what amounts to a church service—invocation, liturgy, sermon, benediction.  Though giving lip service to worldwide freedom of religion (probably as a wartime tactic) FDR also declared on a number of occasions that he believed the U.S. to be a Christian, and also essentially Protestant, nation.  True, we were opposing the combined forces of non-Christian enemies in battle at the time, but still, that left little room for much sympathy or hospitality on his part toward the millions of Jews who were being systematically slaughtered under Fascism. 

Under Dwight Eisenhower, another guy who rejected the faith of his mother early on, Congress mandated, and old Ike signed into law, the insertion of the words “under God” into the pledge of allegiance to the flag.  That was done largely at the behest of the Knights of Columbus, but was embraced by the Protestants in the legislature too.  The thinking was that no atheistic Commie could swear an oath of allegiance to the American flag if those words were in there—it would be like asking a vampire to munch on garlic.  Score one for the religious wackos.

And so it went.  In 1973, Richard Nixon, a very severely lapsed Quaker and pretty much irreligious, became the first president to end a major speech to the nation with the words “God bless America,” surely an exercise in cynicism unparalleled in presidential politics, since it was a speech in which he was sidestepping his responsibility in the Watergate scandal.  His successors Ford and Carter (both believers in the Constitution, apparently), declined to use this benediction, but it was picked up again by Ronald Reagan, another guy who gave only lip service to organized religion, and who practically never attended church services.  After that the die was decisively cast, and all his successors have made profligate use of the term “God bless America” after virtually every speech they’ve made.  By the time of our current Chief Executive, Barack Obama (another real dilettante when it comes to organized religion), the phrase had morphed into the more elaborate “God bless the United States of America,” and his inaugurations had become prayer-fests and clerical free-for-alls. 

Small wonder, then, that in spite of the Constitution, the Religious Right is utterly convinced that this has always been a religious country and that there’s no such thing as the separation of church and state, notwithstanding the First Amendment and the crystal clear pronouncements of Madison, Jefferson, and others on the subject.

One conclusion that could be drawn from the sad history of the almost immediate erosion of the separation of church and state in this country is that the leaders we have to fear most are not those whose personal religious beliefs are the strongest and deepest.  Nor should we be that concerned about the shills for the lunatic fringe of the Religious Right—fundamentalist legislators from Southern states and Arch-Catholic members of Opus Dei on the Supreme Court, for instance—those who wear their religion on their sleeves and have an open agenda.  We should instead fear superficially less religious presidents like Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan, and Barack Obama, who think they are doing the nation no harm by invoking the blessings of a nonsectarian deity while completely ignoring the rights of nonbelievers and pandering to the truly religious.  They arrogantly assume that all Americans who really matter believe in God, and not only that, but in a God who watches over and is involved in shaping the future of the country, who blesses us and in whom we should trust.  This is not the separation of church and state at all but a sort of national religion, less formal than Anglicanism, but a religion nonetheless.  Moreover it assumes ideas that are inherent to orthodox Christianity and a number of other religions, even if it does so in a general way, while sweeping aside the rights and beliefs of atheists, humanists, agnostics, and those who profess any number of other “isms” that either do not acknowledge the existence of God or do not think that God actively favors this country or its far-flung ambitions.

In the interest of political expediency, or in selfish moments of personal sentimentality or insecurity, they have weakened one of the pillars on which our government rests.


Billie Bob said...

Pastor Billy Bob here… Just another example of a God hatin’ heathen persecuting us Christians. And you call yourself a Reverend! We in the church are increasingly under attack from far left God haters like you. Why do you despise America so much? And why are you trying to make it one nation under Satan? Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, Reverend…

Peter Teeuwissen said...

"Mawwage." That somehow seems even more apropos now. When I start preaching again, I'm going to become a bishop, maybe even an archbishop. I think I'm due for a promotion. One Nation Under Satan has a nice ring to it. Reminds me of a joke. A guy dies and goes to hell.....