Is religious tolerance or is religious fundamentalism a better description of America and what the founding fathers believed we should be? Did you know that 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution and that the founding fathers wanted One Nation Under Jesus (which includes 75% of Republicans and Evangelicals) (USA Today)? It is true that Puritan pilgrims came here seeking religious freedom, and that today we are one of the most religious of industrialized nations. In this blog, I discuss this matter briefly and bring in a dozen or so elucidating quotes that are relevant. Bill Maher and Dennis Miller add a humorous flavor as well.
But the fact that the vast majority of Americans think we are and are supposed to be “a Christian nation” is disconcerting, for two reasons. One, we certainly are not; America has slowly come to accept that religious pluralism and toleration and separation of church and state are ideals worth striving for. Some of the founding fathers were deistic and not particularly religious. But perhaps even more so, how can we be considered a Christian nation when we have this level of political chicanery, poverty, militarism, materialism, and greed? Those counter-ideals are literally antithetical to the message we believe Jesus was trying to convey during his brief time on Earth. We Americans seem to be purposely courting ignorance.
“It is a fact conveniently forgotten by many that ministers from a variety of denominations were from the beginning among the strongest opponents to establishing a national religion of any kind” notes author and Smithsonian curator Peter Manseau. He points out in this article that “The insistence that the United States is explicitly Christian arises from the assumption that a majority of citizens have been members of one church or another since the nation’s founding. Yet historians have estimated the number of American church-goers in 1776 to be only around 350,000 – less than a fifth of the population.”
Yet Newt Gingrich and countless other Republicans feel that America should be a Christian nation. He said:
“A growing culture of radical secularism declares that the nation cannot publicly profess the truths on which it was founded.”
Newt is striking that familiar chord, the one that often sounds like Christians can’t celebrate Christmas openly because of the secularists, Muslims, Jews, and gays!
This is an important topic in this, one of the most religious nations of the world, home to hundreds of thousands of very orthodox individuals and more than a few fundamentalists. When it comes to the threat from religions, I don’t think we can fairly say that radical Islam has a greater impact on this society than do various sects of Christianity – from Mormonism on down. It wasn’t too long ago that we were engaging in witch hunts, or turning away Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis, or fighting passionately about whether the Constitution prohibits a woman from choosing any manner of medical birth control she chooses.
It is true, however, that Islamists blew up the World Trade Center and the U.S.S. Cole, and a number of other high-profile crimes against humanity. But this is a difference of sensationalism, not raw numbers. How many women are held by Christian fundamentalists in polygamy, and who blows up abortion clinics?
I do know that many Islamic countries are autocracies and are pretty nasty places to live.
Is this a “Christian nation” when somewhere upwards of 80% of Americans consider themselves Christian? Have not atheists and Jews and Muslims played integral roles in this history of the nation, and do they not deserve full liberties and respect? Liberal professor of English, historian, media critic, and Nation columnist for decades Eric Alterman shows that:
“While America’s founders lived in deeply religious times, and were, with some important exceptions, Christians themselves, it is almost impossible to find a founder who played a significant role in the creation of the republic who shared conservative Christian views on the role of God and politics; and this includes the evangelical community of the day. America’s founders possessed a panoply of religious beliefs, many of them syncretic, and not given to standard Christian categories.”
Alterman adds: “Thomas Paine would write, in Common Sense, that ‘the Almighty hath implanted in us these inextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes.’ But with respect to organized religion, he once said, ‘of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity.”
In fact, “America wasn’t founded as a theocracy. America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.” (Gregory A. Boyd)
“What is particularly inconvenient for the fundamentalists (and ironic for the rest of us) is the fact that among the strongest voices for keeping God and Christianity out of the Constitution was the eighteenth-century evangelical Christian community,” Alterman adds.
“Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who helped hand the 2000 election over to George W. Bush, argues that the American ‘government derives its moral authority from God’ and that ‘the reaction of people of faith to the tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible.’ Former House majority leader Tom DeLay explained his mission on behalf of the party as the promotion of a ‘biblical worldview’ and even justified his pursuit of the impeachment of Bill Clinton on that basis”, he points out as well.
“Although Americans pride ourselves on not only tolerating but also celebrating diversity, as a Protestant culture we preached tolerance more than we practiced it.” ~ Bill Moyers
“Clearly, most middle-class Americans take their religion seriously. But very few of them take it so seriously that they believe that religion should be the sole, or even the most important, guide for establishing rules about how other people should live” Eric Alterman believes.
Theodore Roosevelt wisely points this out: “In a republic, we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted.”
One scholar who stands out for me is Daniel N. Robinson, of Georgetown University. His sentiment captures for me what I think is fairly based in truth:
[We tend to picture John Wayne, on horseback, in the wilds, with his shotgun over his shoulder], but that’s not the America at the founding. The America at the founding is a communitarian America – colonists who understand their obligations are chiefly to each other. In fact, the idea then that the whole point of revolution, the Constitution, a just form of government is, to quote Justice Brandeis: ‘that somebody is to be left alone’ … would have been regarded as pathological. These were communities that understood themselves largely in Christian terms, very much in the patrimony of the Puritan fathers, understanding that a community of people must live together in such a way as to put private interest and self-interest aside and to operate in behalf of the good of the whole. That communitarianism shows up in the founding documents themselves. There are so many attempts to resist and avoid and deflate faction – to continue to remind people of common cause. The Puritans regarded themselves as so-called ‘Commonwealth men.’ They were part of an extended community and a brotherhood, and indeed, essentially, in Christian terms.
I think Robinson is saying that America was founded by religious individuals, but that no one sect of Christianity became enshrined and official according to law. I think each parish probably wished they had the blessing and protection of the colony (or State, eventually); it is every preacher’s dream (at least, their id’s dream). However, I think every religious congregation of any significant size decided to hedge their bet and play it safe; after all, allowing the United States to sanction one particular religion (like England did with Anglicanism, or Italy with Catholicism) would mean that a) an opposing sect could be elevated to supremacy, or b) the State might even be able to prevent worship capriciously.
Religious toleration was not in place from the very beginning (Roanoke, Plymouth, Dorchester SC, etc), and things can go really badly if it is absent from a society. In his inimitable way, here is Bill Maher reflecting on Islamic fundamentalism:
“Is it not a clash of civilizations? We [the Western world] have two kids; you [the Islamic world] have fifty-five… We like to have our women in the workplace; you keep yours in beekeeper suits – what is up with the beekeeper suits? Can you imagine if some white country kept its black people in beekeeper suits? How does a country get away with keeping half its population in beekeeper suits? I’ll tell you how – they say the magic word: religion. It’s their religion. If you say religion you can get away with anything. I mean, [some] Catholic priests got away with [expletive] kids for crying out loud!”
If that made you laugh, try this:
“It’s perfectly understandable to discover the roots of your religion and want to share it with everyone you meet. By the same token, please understand the basic tenets of my religion, which specifically prescribe that: should you knock on my door, corner me on an elevator, or sit next to me on a flight yammering on and on about how your way is the right way, I am morally obligated by the elders of my church to tell you to shut the fuck up” (Dennis Miller).
Half-intellectual, half-humorist, H. L. Mencken had this to say half a century ago: “We must accept the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense, and to the extent that, we accept his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children, smart.”
Consider what liberal, religious individual Henry A. Wallace, F. D. R.’s progressive vice-president believes: “It may be shocking to some people in this country to realize that, without meaning to do so, they hold views in common with Hitler when they preach discrimination against other religious, racial or economic groups.”
Here is a neat point of view by my friend Joanie, who has also eaten a bit of humble pie herself in life:
“I am religious and don’t necessarily agree with homosexuality; however, it is not my place to force my value on another person. And as a Christian, I am to love them and treat them the way I would want to be treated as well” (Joanie Newkirk).
I personally wish we agreed as a nation more with Professor Sandel and didn’t take pot-shots at each other and surreptitiously try to get our politicians to embrace our particular view of God and religion (yes I am talking to you, Republicans!):
“In recent decades, we’ve come to assume that respecting our fellow citizens’ moral and religious convictions means ignoring them (for political purposes, at least), leaving them undisturbed, and conducting our public life—insofar as possible—without reference to them. But this stance of avoidance can make for a spurious respect. Often, it means suppressing moral disagreement rather than actually avoiding it” (Michael J. Sandel).
Noted author and left-of-center guy Thomas L. Friedman seems to agree: “[Something] insulting is the politically correct, kid-gloves view of how to deal with Muslims that is taking root in the West today. It goes like this: Hushhh! Don’t say anything about Islam! Don’t you understand? If you say anything critical about Muslims, they’ll burn down your house. Hushhh! Just let them be. Don’t rile them. They are not capable of a civil, rational dialogue about problems in their faith community!
I’m a secular humanist. You can see why I love this quote from the book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of America’s Elite: “No religion can be pluralist in the deep and final sense that secular humanism is. No religion can accept the proposition that there are incommensurably different answers to the question of life’s meaning, among which no rank order can be fixed. A religion may be (more or less) tolerant, but every religion must, in the end, answer the question of the meaning of life decisively” (Anthony T. Kronman).
I think we should be fine with each other believing, or not; practicing in this way or that; religious tolerance and freedom are virtues that have long been emphasized in America. Much of the parochial and inane things the Christian Right has done in this country’s long history have led predictably to a counter-reaction on the Left (which the Right then decries as intolerance and hypocrisy). Let’s just all calm down, show each other respect, and abstain from trying to use the ballot box or the power of the state to enforce our chosen beliefs and we will have a more civilized country. We may have been founded on Judeo-Christian values, but we are also built by very careful men to be a pluralistic society and supreme values such as toleration, courtesy, and freedom are supposed to be the American way.
Read the blog “Religion, Faith & Spirituality Examined”