Much as we extol the wisdom and foresight of America’s founding fathers, we as a nation have spent over two centuries trying to understand some of their intentions and mightily resisting others.
Among the clauses still being debated are “cruel and unusual punishment” and the Second Amendment’s right to “keep and bear arms.” Among the concepts that have met with resistance is the notion that all “men” should enjoy equal rights and full citizenship. It took over well over a hundred years for the poor, blacks, and women to be recognized as “men” and treated accordingly—and the struggle for equality still goes on.
But of all the good intentions of the authors of America’s first documents, perhaps the one that’s been most trampled and ignored is the vital concept of the separation of church and state.
On January 1, 1802, shortly after taking office as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson responded to a letter from a religious group in Connecticut called the Danbury Baptists. In his response, Jefferson declared his “sovereign reverence” for what he called a “wall of separation between church and state.”
That “wall” is clearly established in the first words of the First Amendment of the Constitution, even before the much more widely known language regarding freedom of speech: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Please note that the Amendment forbids laws both “establishing” and “prohibiting the free exercise of” religion.
Christianity is a religion. In all its various incarnations, it happens to be, at present, the religion of the majority of people of faith in the United States. But that does't make America a “Christian” nation.
According to the First Amendment, America as a nation can no more be “Christian” than it can be Buddhist, Muslim, or Shamanic. Furthermore, if America were considered a “Christian” nation (in the broad, populist meaning of the word), that would still not make it a “fundamentalist” one. Being a Christian does not mean that one necessarily believes in creationism, speaking in tongues, or a literal interpretation of the Bible.
As an American, I don’t want “born again” Christian cult leaders—people like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Buchanan—caucusing with Congress, proposing legislation, advising presidents on public policy, or meddling in politics in more devious, secretive ways (like the terrifyingly powerful advisers to the “Family” on C Street).
Likewise, I’m opposed to the government’s having an office of “faith-based” initiatives, posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, or displaying crosses on public land. And just for the record, if it were up to me, I’d take the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. (The Pledge worked just fine as a gesture of American unity before those words were added in 1954.)
Anyone who doubts that Jefferson’s all-important “wall” has been breached, especially in recent years, ought to read Max Blumenthal’s courageous, meticulously researched, and highly depressing book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party. Although the historical focus of the book is the influence of religion during the George W. Bush administration, there are implications than should worry any American, regardless of political affiliation.
Every American should be concerned and vigilant about “religion creep” in the workings of the American government. The briefest glimpse at the state of affairs in many other countries today should be enough to illuminate the critical importance of maintaining the distinction between democracy and theocracy.