Monday, June 23, 2008

A unique balancing act: religion and politics in America

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
July 16, 2006


Religion has become a polarizing agent in American life. Partisans use it to score political points and gain recruits. Some insist that the United States is a Christian nation and others say that it's completely secular. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In my search for a compelling and thoughtful guide to the relationship of church and state I came across Jon Meacham's “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation” (Random House, 2006). This book is just the tonic we need. As a history of the relationship of church and state, the book takes us on a whirlwind tour of American history, from Jamestown and Plymouth to the Reagan presidency, but the heart of the book is Meacham's reflections on the nation's founding generation.

Whatever their personal beliefs, the founders understood that the new nation would be ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. The nation's long-term future, therefore, required that they create structures and culture that would allow this diversity to exist in peace. Christianity (especially its Protestant forms) might dominate, but the success of the nation required more than mere tolerance of other forms of religion (or no religion). Success required granting people true freedom to practice their faith as they choose. They also recognized the value of giving religion some role in civic life, but to do this they would have to balance the wishes with those of minority views (because of the diversity of Protestant churches in the new nation, no group really could claim majority status).

What ultimately emerged is what Meacham calls a “public religion,” as distinct from “private religion.” Public religion is broad in scope, assumes the existence of God and the value of religion to society, but unlike private religion it doesn't define the nature of God nor does it prescribe how God should be worshiped or served. The personal distinctives of religion - whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist - lie beyond the purview of the state and are issues of the individual conscience.

Now there have been from the beginning of the nation's history those who have wanted to declare the United States a Christian nation. What needs to be remembered here is that every effort to do just this has been rebuffed. Indeed, even though the Declaration of Independence speaks of a “Creator” and of “Nature's God,” the Constitution never mentions God - despite efforts to introduce God into its pages.

Now, American presidents have a penchant for mentioning God, but on most occasions they speak in a manner consistent with America's “public religion.” When God is mentioned, it's assumed that most Americans, whatever their religious preference, can give an affirmation to the statement. The border separating religion from the state has been blurred on many an occasion, but even if there isn't a high wall, there has always been a barrier of sorts.
Debates over the place of prayer and Bible study in public school, the teaching of creation and evolution, abortion, and gay marriage all involve the religious communities. But if we listen closely, we will discover that the responses aren't uniform. Unfortunately, what we hear are the extremes: advocates of a Christian America versus those who would have no religion in the public square. Somewhere in between these extremes we find the founders and most Americans.
We who are religious can be grateful that the founders created a system that allows religion to have a place at the table, but we must remember that it's only one place among others. George Washington offered a welcome to the oppressed of every land, no matter what their religion might be. In doing this, the first president reminded us that we've been blessed with a common sense solution to problems that have plagued the world from time immemorial.

The “American Gospel” or “good news” is that while religion has helped shape American life, it hasn't strangled it. America by design is pluralistic, a fact that allows persons of every faith tradition and those of no faith commitment to live together peacefully and productively. It's fortunate that we have such a lucid and straightforward guide to this story in Meacham's “American Gospel.” So read it as soon as possible.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org).
July 16, 2006

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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