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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A "Christian Nation" ??

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, and its not an issue getting much space in the news right now, but I've had to sort out my thoughts, even more than usual. 

Every so often, usually in some dispute concerning a Board of Education's attempts to change what is acceptable in its approved textbooks, some public official or media figure contends that the United States is and has always been "a Christian Nation".  More "liberal" types object to this characterization, and both sides then attempt to justify their positions by cherry-picking particular quotes from the founders of our Country.

This particular subject is one of my own hot buttons - attempts to label this country as a "Christian Nation" really disturb me, and get my "oppositional" juices flowing [clears the sinuses, among other things.]  However, upon reflection, my strong reaction itself began to puzzle me.

After all, when I grew up, I knew I was growing up in a Christian country.  While many of my teachers and fellow students were, like me, Jewish, we said (usually but not always Old Testament) prayers in school and celebrated and studied Christian holidays. The entire society outside of school was filled with Christian images and culture.  It was just not a big deal.  I knew I was Jewish, and I knew that was OK with most of my fellow citizens.  I knew they - and my country - were generally "Christian" (at least in some vague sense), but that the Constitution guaranteed me both freedom of religion and the lack of a government-established Church.  I also knew that the founders of the country were certainly Christian (at least in background), and that almost all of my country's leaders had been and still were Christian.  I had no problems with those facts.  My parents, as far as I know, had  no problem with them; nor did anyone else I knew.  As I said before, it was just not a big deal, at least not then.

So what has changed?  Why do I now react so negatively to those want the US to be a "Christian Nation"?  Certainly, whatever the founders were or were not has not changed.  The country may be more diverse and less generally religious, but most of us are either Christians or from Christian backgrounds.  Our society is still loaded with Christian images, traditions and ideals.

I think my primary problem arises out of a strong distrust of the proponents of a "Christian Nation", and of their motives Just what is meant by a "Christian Nation"?  What its proponents seem to have in mind is not really the "live and let live" religious existence I grew up with.  Rather, certain people seem to believe it is important to "officially" acknowledge the "importance" of Christianity in our country.   For me, at least, the slope between "publicly acknowledged or official importance" on the one hand and "primacy" or even "supremacy" on the other is a slippery one.

Those who seek a more "official" position for Christianity - or endorsement of some of its ideas - seem to be very upset about four things:  1)the lack of formal acknowledgment of religion in our public schools and other public life; 2)how science is taught in those schools,  3)how history is taught, and how "tolerance" is taught.

My "problem" on religion in public schools and public life really comes from the fact that I did not care as a child.  Emotionally, I wonder why and become suspicious that the other side does care.  After all, I think the secularists are basically right on this one;  public schools and governments should not "promote" religion ("values" are a different matter).  Although I think the pendulum has maybe swung a bit far (singing Christmas Carols never bothered me much), people are free to practice their religions in their homes, Churches and other gatherings.  Why this concern about the public schools, unless what you are seeking is a form of indoctrination?  Or is it linked to some symbolic formal acknowledgment of the society as Christian?  Are the "Christians" so insecure that they need prayer in school, or Christmas Carols in school, or Christmas displays on Government property to affirm, well, something?  Apparently so.  But what are they seeking to affirm?  That  question makes me nervous.  Those Christians who seem to be leading the fight in at least the first three areas described above seem to be very concerned that we formally or officially somehow affirm or proclaim that we are a "Christian Nation. " I don't like that, at all, because that gives "Christian Nation" an entirely different meaning than the "most of us are, in fact, Christian" feeling I was comfortable with when growing up.

The Christians concerned with the issue seem to focus a lot on the founders and American history, and the fact that the phrase "separation of Church and State" is not used in the Constitution as justification for some kind of "official" endorsement of Christianity.  Well, it's not that simple.  The founders were a group of people.  Each of them had different ideas.  They may well have each changed their own minds on these issues over time.  Everyone can "cherry pick" quotes or phrases on this issue to supposedly "prove" what they want.  However, some of the facts seem to be: 1)all of the founders were at least nominal Christians, although some of them had strongly Deist tendencies. 2)As a group, they did not want any established State religion.  3)They almost certainly expected the US to remain "Christian" as a culture 4)Some of them, particularly Jefferson, very strongly believed in the total separation of Church and State; others did not.  5)References to God or Providence were a part of regular official life, and religious symbols were displayed all over public life. 6)In at least one very early and formal action (look up the Treaty of Tripoli), the Government openly declared that the US was not a Christian Nation (whatever that meant - I think it meant in an "official" or "formal" sense, as it obviously was not in a "most of us are Christians" sense). 7)  They would never have imagined separation of Church and State as being used to ban prayer in public schools.

The proponents of "more" religion seem to have confused "atheism" with "secularism", or at least become confused about what "secularism" is and is not.  To me, "secularism" is not a rejection or denial of religion.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that there are some areas of our communal lives that should be kept free of  "formal" religious involvement. I believe the basic concept that religion should be kept out of certain areas is something that all but the most extreme "Christians" would accept. (At least I hope so). For example, I think most of us would agree that the law should be applied to our citizens in a fair an equal manner, whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof.  Also, as the Constitution itself mandates, there should be no religious test for political office. Why should this "religious-free" zone not apply to our public schools as well?

Perhaps the problem of those I view as the other side is similar to my own.  After all, my own negative reaction is based on the fact that I feel that "they" are "pushing" for change - for a more official adoption of Christianity.  Yet their push may have been initiated by the push of my fellow secularists for our own changes. Prayer has been banned in schools.  There are no more creches on Public land.  "Multiculturalism" was not a word used in my history books.  Maybe "we" started the fight.  Maybe some of my opponents are worried about their own "slippery slope" - one which leads to the increasing marginalization of (their) religion as a force in American life.

How science is taught is an easy one for me.  Science should be taught in accordance with what are the generally accepted principles and beliefs of those who are scientists.  (The limits of "science" as a system of knowledge and belief are discuss ad nauseum in one of my earlier Posts).  Science is not about religion, and religious theories about the history or nature of the natural world should not be discussed in any detail in science class.  If an ethics class or a religion class, fine.  Science is a very important subject for our children to learn, and that is what should be taught in science class.

How history is taught is slightly less easy, although the recent attempts by the Texas School Board to rewrite it (and minimize Thomas Jefferson for political-religious reasons) are highly offensive, as well as the promotion of really dubious history.  The truth is that what we teach our children about history is always going to be at least somewhat "political" in nature, and is legitimately within the purview of the political process and of the voters.  I really don't think that there has been too much stress by "elitist liberal educators" on things like multiculturalism or Islam, and I would be surprised if there were any real "anti-Christian" textbooks in this country, but the importance or meaning of various people or ideas in history does include, as a matter of necessity, the effect of religions and religious ideas.

The teaching of "tolerance" is even trickier.  On the one hand, children should never be bullied or ostracized because they (or their families) are "different".   Yet what about a difference that involves the perceived choice of the student to engage in immoral conduct?  Why should  a teen who practices homosexual behavior be "protected" or "tolerated" where a girl who sleeps with all the boys is not?  Or a teen who shoplifts or uses hard drugs or is a bully him or herself?  All of these teens may be perceived as acting "immorally" by a substantial number of their classmates.  Do those classmates not have the right to disapprove of what they believe to be highly immoral conduct?  Does this conflict with the idea of teaching tolerance of different lifestyles , at least in some cases?  Sure it does. I think this is an area in which there are no broad, easy answers.  I have my own [and since this is my Blog, you get to hear them]  No one should be condemned because of choices made by their parents.  No one should be condemned because of matters (like race or ethnic background) they cannot control.  We should be very leery of condemning children for having beliefs which they have acquired from their parents.  Some actions - bullying or harrassment - are never to be condoned, while others, disapproval or even ostracism may have to be allowed.

By the way - note to enemy - characterizing this as an attempt to promote "Judeo-Christian" ideas does not work.  I believe the phrase did not come into common usage until World War II.  There has been way too much Christian anti-semitism (including in the US) for us to be real comfortable about that one.  We (or at least I) aren't buying it.

Still, the bottom line is that this push for acknowledgment of America's Christian roots or nature is one of my hot buttons, and that if people push to identify our Nation as "officially" Christian, I will push back.  As hard as I can.  Enough.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the read Jeff. Lots to cover here and would enjoy doing so some time. We agree on most things it would seem. For this cramped forum, I would just mention that I like to point out to people that the opposite of "secular" is "theocratic". ...also, I find the most accurate description of the U.S. to be "a secular nation with a strong Christian tradition".