Americans are funny people about religion. In spite of 50+ years of secularization in the public square, we are still deeply interested in spirituality. Among Western nations the percentage of people participating in religious communities is quite high. We want to hear "God Bless America" sung in public and we do not mind politicians saying "God bless you" and "God bless America". Too much detail about the religious beliefs of candidates, however, makes us uncomfortable, especially if those beliefs are anything close to historic Christianity or Judaism.
Some of our ambivalence serves the public interest well. The first sixteen words of the First Amendment are still a beacon of light to the world. We enjoy complete freedom of conscience and religion without government interference.
Keeping government out of the religion business is good - good for freedom and, paradoxically, good for the religious communities themselves. Without subsidies and taxes, the faith communities must rely on the volunteer spirit of their members, which only enhances loyalty and effectiveness.
"Separation of church and state" is an interpretation of Jefferson's "wall of separation" rhetoric referring to the Virginia's constituional relationship with the Episcopal (Anglican before 1776) Church. Neither Jefferson or any of the Founders envisioned today's ACLU-inspired political correctness that removes Judeo-Christian symbols from the public square.
All the Founders recognized that religious values were critical to the moral and social fabric of a free society. They wanted complete freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, including religious speech. If public officials want to express personal religious opinions, they should not be vilified. If the electorate does not appreciate them, it has the power to elect someone else.
I am old enough to remember the controversy regarding JFK, our first Roman Catholic President. Even in 2000, some were worried about Senator Joseph Lieberman's Judaism and its effects on his policies. in both cases, all fears were (and are) unfounded. Agree or diagree with their policies, both men are Americans serving as well as they know how.
Our current President has a deep religious faith that has sustained him through life's turmoils and provided solace in the midst of political battles. I see no evidence of religious coercion. Having strong moral and religious convictions is an American birthright. Respecting the differing views of others is the other side of the same coin. I do not like many of our President's current policies, for a variety of reasons. But I respect his right to have and express his deepest ideals.
It is interesting that so many who seek a separation of religion and the public square seem to tap dance around the issue of Islamic ideology and its social implications. Politicians fall all over each other assuring the world that Al Queda, Hezbollah and The Islamic Jihad are a tiny fraction of the Muslim world.
It is true that most Muslims are not terrorists. So what? The statement is a non-starter, utterly irrelevant to the current debate on public religion. It is like saying that a particular TV evangelist speaks for all Christians. Are we going to tell American Muslims to abandon their conviction that America would be a better land under Islamic Law? Why do we insist that American school children spend weeks each year studying Islam while the Jewish and Christian roots of the West are ignored or even put down?
Our problem stems from the Baby Boomer's (those now 45-65) generational rejection of its image of America's past, religion and all. The Boomers forgot Martin Luther King's deep spirituality. They conveniently ignore The Greatest Generation's (those who survived the Depression and fought in WWII) deep piety. The Boomer's ideology is a pseudo-Marxist, New Age ethos that is best captured by John Lennon's 1970 anthem, "Imagine". Lennon's nasal vision of a world without borders, possessions or religion sounds wonderful until you realize its subversion of our deepest national values.
Where do we go from here? How about back to the future again? Let's stop muzzling religious expression and allow citizens freedom, in public, to express their deepest passions with civility and mutual respect.
Next time: Worlds Collide