In the grand tradition of homework as blog post, I offer you this. It’s the 1st draft of a speech I’m planning on giving to my “Effective Public Speaking” Class. Enjoy! (or not)
Every year it seems that some pundit is making headlines by coming out against the “War on Christmas” that’s being waged by the liberals in the government, the ACLU and the most hated of groups, the atheists. We hear them tell stories of the Ten Commandments being forcibly removed from public spaces by god hating liberals and anti-religious zealots. We hear that Christians are under assault from the mainstream liberal agenda and that the “separation of church and state” was never intended to be used this way by our God-fearing founding fathers. The “separation of church and state” was never included in the Constitution, Bill of Rights, declaration of independence or any of the founding documents of our nation. In fact, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase in a personal letter to the Baptists of Danbury CT, it was never written into any law.
We’re in a crisis, a battle for the very soul of our nation, and the anti-Christian forces are winning the war. If the cable news anchors are to be believed, the horrors of hearing “Happy Holidays” are only the first step down the slippery slope of secularism.
The vast majority of Americans are religious, that can’t be denied. We’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu. There aren’t many agreements between those groups to be sure, indeed, there are radical differences that cannot be reconciled, so we clearly can’t create a set of laws that will address all religions, and we don’t have to; since we’re a democracy, shouldn’t it be fair that the majority of voters get to set the standard of belief in the country? The vast majority of us are Christian, so we should be a Christian nation, letting our Christian beliefs inform our policies and practices!
Before I finish that thought, there is one small detail we need to go over. What kind of Christian legislation should we push? We’re Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Lutheran, Adventist, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Presbyterian, Christian Scientist, Mennonite and Nazarene. All of these denominations have differences in doctrine and practice that at best caused their adherents to sever ties with their parent churches, and at worst have led to death, torture and atrocities on a scale almost unimaginable today.
Religious differences are unlike any other type of belief. There is no arguing with a faith-based position. If you don’t think I can juggle, there’s and easy way for me to prove it. If you think that a single-payer health care system is the best use of our resources, we can use logic, economic studies and small-scale experiments to test the validity and wisdom of that course of action. If I think gravity is the result of a curvature of space-time, there are experiments we can run to test that theory.
On the other hand, If you think that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry because your holy texts say so, there is no argument I can make to persuade you out of it, no experiment result that you’ll accept. For many, the old adage of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” still rings true. For all of its benefits, religion is a conversation ender, a consensus killer.
So where does that leave our Christian nation? Cursed by our rock-solid faith to divisive discourse? No, the founding fathers discovered a new way, a noble experiment, tried for the first time in history. In our constitution, they created a list of rights that were granted to all citizens of this country, rights that are inviolate, sacrosanct and central to the core of our civilization. Recognizing both the importance of religion, and its potential to undermine and open society, the very first sentence of the very first Amendment of the Constitution, the first right mentioned in the bill of rights, reads as follows: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
They understood something we have forgotten. The bloody revolutions and usurpations of Catholic Kings vs. Protestant Princes were fresh in their memories. They came from a culture that was shaped by the violence, enmity and oppression born of religious zealotry tied to political power. At worst, if I came out to you right now and said I was an Atheist, I could expect some of you to distrust me, and according the University of Minnesota’s recent research, I could give up any hope of a political career. As unfair as this is, it is a testament to the success of our grand experiment. In the days before our secular society, and even today in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, I would be put to death simply for being an Apostate and leaving the faith of my fathers for another faith, being an Atheist would simply be unthinkable.
So they created a system where the government would have no powers to make any religious law, and more importantly, would not prohibit anyone from practicing any religion. This is the part of the 1st amendment that so many people gloss over. The “establishment clause” is the ultimate live and let live statement. It is not an indictment of religion, or a ban. It is a protection, a guarantee that no matter who is in charge, no matter what religious group has the majority, NO ONE has the right to prevent you from believing what you want and worshipping how you will. For those few of us with no religious beliefs, or whose beliefs are in the minority, it gives us safe harbor and refuge from the potential storms of religious intolerance. For the rest, it gives the right to practice as they see fit, with no fear of other religious groups crying “heretic” or worse, bringing up charges of blasphemy.
The protection offered by the first amendment goes both ways. You do not have to submit to the religious beliefs of others, but in turn, you have no right to impose your doctrines on them. The fairest way to insure this is the establishment of a “Wall of separation between church and state”. At this point you’re saying, wait, Scott, didn’t you just say that Jefferson wrote that in a letter? That it was never made into law? Wasn’t the country founded by Christians anyways? Don’t we have a history and a culture of being Christian regardless of the specific language of the Constitution? All of that is true, but before I end let me share three more thoughts with you:
One: Jefferson was never able to get the “separation” language into law, but he fully intended the Danbury letter to be public and more importantly, what we would now call a “position paper”. Here’s the full text of the “separation” paragraph: “Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State
Two: To those who are still insistent that our founders intended this to be a Christian nation, I’ll offer this piece of evidence: One of the first acts of congress was a trade treaty, the “Treaty of Tripoli”. We don’t have time for details, but Article 11 is germane to the discussion: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Three: Search the entire constitution, as long as you want and you will not find the words Christian, God, and/or Jesus. They are simply not part of our most important document.
Taking all of that into account, I think one of the greatest tragedies of our modern political world is that those who should be the most arduous defenders of the protections offered by the 1st amendment are those who argue most vociferously against it.
The first amendment and the secular society that it spawned are not the enemy of religion, they are the strongest protection and defense we have for our right to practice our faith or to live without it.
Separation is not negation.