Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Equivocating American secularism


You ever read something and find yourself thinking, “Y’know, I’d agree with this if the blinking author had just found a different way to say it”?

On Monday, historian and author Kenneth C. Davis wrote an interesting think-piece for CNN, “Why U.S. is not a Christian nation”. Davis, most noted for his Don’t Know Much About … series of books, makes hits the expected points very well:

No one can argue … that the Founding Fathers were not Christian, although some notably doubted Christ’s divinity.
More precisely, the founders were, with very few exceptions, mainstream Protestants. Many of them were Episcopalians, the American offshoot of the official Church of England. The status of America's Catholics, both legally and socially, in the colonies and early Republic, was clearly second-class. Other Christian sects, including Baptists, Quakers and Mormons, faced official resistance, discrimination and worse for decades.
But the founders, and more specifically the framers of the Constitution, included men who had fought a war for independence — the very war celebrated on the “Glorious Fourth” — against a country in which church and state were essentially one.

Here’s where it gets hinky:

They understood the long history of sectarian bloodshed in Europe that brought many pilgrims to America. They knew the dangers of merging government, which was designed to protect individual rights, with religion, which as Jefferson argued, was a matter of individual conscience.


I don’t know where Davis sits on any of the great political questions of today. Even knowing that his thoughts are posted on Ted Turner’s site doesn’t make him a liberal or social progressive any more than it makes him a resident of Atlanta. However, it’s precisely that laser-like focus on individual rights, as if governments have no other function, that sets my teeth on edge.

Yes, governments ought to protect individual rights; I’ll concede that point quite merrily. But the government primarily exists to foster the common weal, the good of the community as a whole. Davis’ post treats the community as extrinsic to the discussion; in fact, under no name does the community even get a passing nod.

But more to the point (and I don’t know what his religious sensibilities are), Davis treats the Constitution’s secularism a little too simply. “[Thomas Jefferson’s idea] was this simple — government could not dictate how to pray, or that you cannot pray, or that you must pray.” Davis is arguing against what he calls a “‘Sunday school’ version of our past”, one that he believes presents a threat to religious liberty.

Davis, however, is looking in the wrong direction, most likely as a result of his simplification. The threat isn’t from the GOP or the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Rather, it’s from the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other radical organizations.

I can agree that part of the Founders’ idea was to avoid compelling people to attend or support a church whose teachings they couldn’t agree with. As a Catholic, I thank God there is no established church, because it would most likely not be Catholic; had we remained part of the British Empire, the Episcopalians would most likely be known as the Church of America.

But there’s more than one way to suffer for your beliefs. One of those ways is to have your beliefs used as grounds to cut you out of political participation. The other part of the Founders’ idea, as expressed in the First Amendment, was that all citizens have a voice in the government. This is why the establishment and free exercise clauses are tied together.

Davis quotes Purdue historian Frank Lambert as saying that the First Amendment “introduced the radical notion that the state had no voice concerning matters of conscience.” The equivocation here is “conscience”: Is Lambert (and Davis through him) asserting merely that the state can’t say anything about religious matters? Or is he contending that the law can’t circumscribe the range of allowable moral choices?

As I’ve said before, we tend to associate the word morality with the “Thou shalt not’s” of the Ten Commandments. But all law says to us, “Thou shalt not,” except where it says, “Thou must.” Even the freedoms of the Constitution require the engagement of prohibition, albeit prohibition against the government itself: “Thou shalt not forcibly quarter soldiers in citizens’ homes.” Not a single former executive now sitting in durance vile would have been tried and convicted of embezzlement or larceny had we not agreed in principle, “Thou shalt not steal.” If today we don’t encode all the Decalogue into law, or we include in law things never envisioned in the days of Moses (“Thou shalt not double-park;” “Keep thou holy the income-tax filing deadline”), the law still circumscribes moral choices.

But there’s another equivocation hidden in the body of the argument, in the conclusion that “America is a secular country”. John Adams may not have considered the US “founded on the Christian Religion”; yet he admitted that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Washington may have called “toleration” an “inherent national gift”, yet he also warned in his Farewell Address that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

If Davis’ contention, “America is a secular country,” means only that one church or denomination gets no institutionalized preference over any other, well and good; I’ll cheerfully agree with him. If, however, his contention means that religion is to be shoved into a dark corner with other kinks of human nature, or that citizens can’t take their beliefs into the ballot box nor politicians their moralities into legislative chambers, that would be the exact opposite of what the Founders were trying to accomplish.

In that sense, America was never a secular country, nor was ever meant to be. Christians are citizens too.