Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On government and religion

The fiction that America is a Christian nation and was founded as such has always left me nonplussed.  I suppose it comes from a shoddy understanding of history--thinking that the Pilgrims were the first settlers or some such, rather than the folks in Jamestown (at the behest of a corporation--don't tell the OWS crowd!) (And yes, I am talking solely about British settlement here; after all, we didn't gain our independence from Spain.)

This entry is prompted by my husband's post a couple of days ago about the role of the First Amendment, and a comment claiming that it was aimed only at preventing any one sect of Christianity from becoming the state religion, rather than ensuring a truly free exercise of any religion or none at all.

I have known for years now that people believed this sort of thing, but I don't think I'd ever seen it so close up before.

Listen, it's not true.  There's no reason to believe that this nation is a purposely Christian one.  Given that Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most influential man when it comes to our earliest government documents, vociferously rejected Christ's divinity--and therefore, by definition, was not Christian--it is beyond me how anyone could believe that.  Then again, there are people out there who seem to think that Jefferson, Franklin, et al were devout Christians, in spite of stuff like:

"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."


As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.

Yet, even with all this evidence to the contrary--and these are primary sources, folks, some people persist in believing that a respect for Christ's teachings equates with worship of Him, and that Christianity should be what America does.

It should not.

Look, if you get a group of Christians in a room together, if they are not of the same denomination, you will run into disagreements.  Sometimes vehement ones.  Catholics don't think priests should marry, Baptists don't think women should be ordained, Quakers ascribe to complete pacifism, and we Episcopalians quarrel amongst ourselves even on the parish level.

If America is a Christian nation, pray tell which sect of Christianity is it?

I think if the people who think we should be/are officially Christian took a good look at the predominant denominations in Revolutionary America and their modern incarnations, they'd be much slower to say we should go ahead and establish Christianity.

Let me walk you through a thought exercise:

Say that we had adopted, as a state religion, the American version of our parent country's state religion.  (And really, that's what would have happened.)  We would have the Church of America, and it would be the ECUSA.

Can we take a look at the ECUSA?  Right now, we have:
  • A female presiding bishop (head of the church in America)--who is, by the way, a scientist
  • A gay bishop
  • A lesbian bishop
  • Female bishops and priests aplenty
  • Full communion for homosexuals
Does anyone really think the far right would be happy with the state religion right now?

Moreover, as I have said time and again, the thought of religion in government should scare the shit out of the devout just as much as it does the atheist.  Because you cannot have religion in government without having the government in religion

Think about that.  Right now, churches and other places of worship are exempted from anti-discrimination laws.  This is because they discriminate left and right.  Were we to accept religious intrusion into government, it would intrude right back, and all of a sudden those exemptions would disappear.  Know the whining the far Right always does about marriage equality?  Yeah, intertwine religion and government and the false belief that churches would be forced to marry queers would gain footing in reality.

A sectarian split across the country--with each state able to declare its own sect the dominate one--would be no more palatable.  Think Robert Jeffress would be too happy with an officially LDS Utah?  God knows I wouldn't be too happy if Texas suddenly became officially Catholic, and the Assemblies of God folks would most likely be shit outta luck everywhere. 

I really, really think "America is a Christian nation and we should recognize that" is a statement of supreme ignorance and no little purposeful self-delusion.  The pipe dream is always that a given person's particular sect would be the dominant one...which is a little silly, given that it's almost always Republicans saying this, and our sect already isn't the dominant one.  Hey, we could tie the official sect to the President!  Just imagine Jeremiah Wright calling for America's damnation on PBS every Sunday morning.  Wouldn't that be fun?

Or we could just, you know, STFU about it and focus on loving God and each other like Jesus told us to do.


Albatross said...

God knows I wouldn't be too happy if Texas suddenly became officially Catholic ...

I wouldn't either, but Catholics can be quite nice. I've got a whole family of 'em.

Catholics don't think priests should marry ...

Not really the case. The Church tends to frown on the practice, but Catholics I know aren't really concerned with the issue. In fact, the Church itself may be at the beginning of a great big change in tune, because it is now allowing some priests to be married in certain cases.

Sabra said...

I wouldn't either, but Catholics can be quite nice.

True dat. I was considering the Church when I said that. I am fundamentally quite Protestant; there are Church dictates (such as closed Communion) which are therefore completely alien to me.

The Church tends to frown on the practice, but Catholics I know aren't really concerned with the issue.

I was admittedly oversimplifying there. I know that many Baptists advocate in favor of female clergy, as well; in each example I was going with the official church position on the issue. I think it is safe to say that any church put into a position of power would conduct itself according to its official dogma.

Suz said...

Well said. However, your "primary sources" are a problem to many Christians. Their primary source is their preachers' interpretation of the Bible, as taught in Seminary. Historic facts are seen as rumors that muddy the waters. They trust their politiChristian leaders to sort it all out for them, though.

Dave said...

Sabra, once again you make a great case that I happen to agree with.

Mad Jack said...

From Sabra: Given that Thomas Jefferson... vociferously rejected Christ's divinity...

Not so. Following the link that you helpfully provided, I discovered that:

Records of Thomas Jefferson's church-going habits are far from complete. However, evidence does exist of his involvement with and attendance at local churches throughout his life. His accounts record donations to a number of different churches in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and in Charlottesville.

Henry S. Randall, who interviewed Jefferson's family members for his three-volume Life of Thomas Jefferson, claimed that Jefferson "attended church with as much regularity as most of the members of the congregation - sometimes going alone on horseback, when his family remained at home."

Feel free to read for yourself at The Jefferson Monticello: Jefferson's Religious Beliefs

From Sabra: Because you cannot have religion in government without having the government in religion.

This is a non sequitur. It sounds good and it seems true right up until you begin thinking about it seriously. In short - sure, we the people could have religion in government without the reverse. In fact we do this already - the U.S. Government prays together and has for years.

I'm firmly convinced that formally incorporating Christianity into the US Government would not make much difference. It would only give Congress another reason to argue among themselves and attain the enlightened state of gridlock sooner rather than later.

Sabra said...

Mad Jack, you err in presuming church attendance equals Christianity. It is not necessarily so. I have known a few people over the years who attended church services for the fellowship of similarly charity-minded individuals. Then as now, churches were the best private resource for that. If you go to the right church, it can also be a source for stimulating intellectual conversation. And, of course, there is the simple fact that church attendance was expected. Jefferson's church attendance cannot be taken as evidence of his Christianity, just as the statements of a younger man cannot be considered proof he never converted.

As to your other point, there is already vague interference. Government moneys given to faith-based initiatives have strings attached. There is a church here which rejects any outside funding for its food bank/clothes distribution program because taking Food Bank donations would prevent them from making a service first mandatory, & the Food Bank is only partially government-funded.