11 August 2010

America the secular

People who invoke the Founding Fathers as evidence that our nation has slipped from an ideal sadly tend to be themselves more doctrinaire and closed-minded than the Founding Fathers were. It is an unfortunate reality that society allows people who are reactionaries to call themselves patriots, while people who think holistically about social and political problems are pushed from one unsatisfying label to another. “Liberal” went from being a positive identity to a slur and its preferred replacement, “progressive,” now too is more often employed as invective than not. Those who style themselves defenders of liberty, no matter how absurd their factual or ethical claims are shown to be, have been allowed to monopolize Americanness (which is a failure of both the Left and the Center in our politics). To my mind their narrow definitions of patriotism demean our nation because they require us to forget our history.

The abuse of history by people who should know better (Newt Gingrich, for example, has a PhD in history) warrants reflection. Consider the proposition that the United States was founded as “a Christian nation,” an erroneous assumption from which many others flow. Christianity has a privileged place in our society for legitimate historical and cultural reasons but a not insignificant minority of Americans believe our government today should be openly Christian even though the Founding Fathers explicitly rejected that option. If devout Christians feel under threat because of workplace emails explaining Yom Kippur and Ramadan (which incidentally begins today) that is only because we as a nation have forgotten our founding principles: Everyone's faith, whether familiar or unfamiliar to the majority of Americans, is equal.

Rather than setting up an establishment church ("The Church of the United States of America") as in England, the Founders left religion up to the individual. Thus, the Constitution makes exactly two references to religion and both are in the negative. The first is the clause stating that
...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. (Article VI, section 3)
The second is of course the First Amendment, which begins
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
Living in an age still clawing its way out of the pit of suffering dug by religious politics (the Thirty Year's War, the English interregnum, ongoing discrimination against Catholics), the Founders understood that keeping religion a private matter was the only way to ensure social harmony. This is not to say that they thought religious people had no place in government--most, as far as we know, believed in God and most professed themselves to be Christians--but they intended that religion could never again be an excuse to oppress someone. Two hundred years later with a much more diverse population this uncompromising equality is still the way forward.

It is also worth thinking about what kind of Christians the Founders were. They were rationalists in a way that very few people are today. Namely, they believed unproblematically in both faith and science. Thomas Jefferson, for example, produced his own edition of the Bible and cut out all the miracles and supernatural stuff. This strain of rationalist Christianity, commonly called "Deism" by later historians, was common across the English-speaking world in the late eighteenth century (for example, Sir William Jones, a British judge in India whose work I know very well, had much the same views). It accepts that there is a creator deity who set up the universe benevolently but since then has taken minimal interest in his creation. We can trust in his goodness and in our own God-given rationality but not in the literal truth of revealed scriptures like the Bible. Thus when the Declaration of Independence refers to "Nature's God," it presupposes that God exists but he is not the touchy-feely, hands-on God-as-Jesus of modern Evangelical Christianity. In other words, the Founders' Christianity has more in common with mild agnosticism than with biblical literalism.

But don't just take my word for it that the United States was not founded as a Christian country. Let's ask John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who after all were there.

When Adams was President, the United States got involved in its first foreign entanglement as an independent nation. The Barbary pirates were attacking American ships on the African coast in the Mediterranean and the  Atlantic, and the young nation really wanted that to stop (today we would call it "state-sponsored terrorism"). Negotiations began with the Bey of Tripoli, the Ottoman official who governed Tripoli on behalf of the Ottoman Emperor but de facto as an independent ruler. The document that resulted was the Treaty of Tripoli, which Adams sent to the Senate for ratification in May 1797. It was apparently read aloud in the chamber in its entirety and a copy was printed for all Senators. Twenty-three senators (there were 32 in total) were present when it came to a vote and it passed the Senate unanimously. It was the 339th recorded vote the Senate had taken but only the third to be unanimous, according to an article in The Nation.

Article 11 of the treaty states
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 [i.e. Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan [i.e. Islamic] 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.

It's a double-whammy: Not only did the Senate of the day unanimously officially declare our political system not based on Christianity, but they did it in the process of swearing friendship to Muslims. That was in 1797.

Once again demonstrating how uncontroversial the principle of secular government was, Thomas Jefferson's autobiography discusses the debate over Virginia's Act Establishing Religious Freedom (1786):
Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word 'Jesus Christ,' so that it should read 'a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination. (p. 40)
The Virginia law was one of the sources consulted when Congress drafted the Bill of Rights three years later. That Jefferson was thinking of Muslims and Hindus is remarkable considering that Hinduism had only really come to the attention of the West in the decade before. Jefferson meant everybody's religion had to be protected, even that of the "infidel of every denomination," in others words someone whose religious practices are despised. This is important to keep in mind as right-wing commentators today try to make the case that Islam is some kind of death cult and therefore should be an exception to the First Amendment. That is nonsense now just as Jefferson--and the "great majority" who voted with him--recognized it was nonsense two hundred years ago.

But surely George Washington, who was a more mainstream Christian than Jefferson, wanted our nation to be Christian? Not at all. Washington famously wrote in a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island that the United States
gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens … May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

It would therefore be a great disappointment to George Washington that there is an unofficial religious test in America today. Our nation has elected its first non-White president and was close to electing a non-male president, but it is hard to imagine electing a non-Christian president. (The fact that many Americans think that our first African American president, who is definitely a Christian, is a crypto-Muslim is evidence that we have a long way to go.) Beyond the symbolism of the presidency, there are vast swathes of the country where a non-Christian politician will not be elected in our lifetime. Indeed, the two most successful politicians of South Asian descent in America, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, both left their parents' faiths (Hinduism and Sikhism, respectively) for Christianity.

So the moral of the story is that you can declare this to be a Christian nation but unfortunately the Founders of it would have disagreed. In a country which is statistically more diverse than it's ever been--see the Federalist Papers' obsession with the problem of preventing "factions"--the need to go back to first principles couldn't be clearer. Religion (and I include militant atheism in that category) is obviously poisonous when it becomes a tool of discrimination.

So when The New York Times reports that campaigns are underway across America to stop the building of mosques, it should alarm people of all faiths. The American Family Association, straying from its usual remit of dictating what should go on in people's bedrooms, has just proposed that no more mosques ever be built in the United States, and rants that mosques are all "dedicated to the overthrow of the American government." Fomenting religious hatred through real estate zoning laws is especially counterproductive when all the evidence suggests that American mosques are a boon to mainstream Islam around the world rather than, as the ridiculous phrase goes, "a breeding ground for terror." The so-called Ground Zero Mosque (which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) has become an all-too-accurate barometer of whether we are ruled by fear or by a well-crafted Constitution.


Bonus: It is commonly believed that Washington added "so help me God" to the end of his oath of office and that it thus became customary to invoke the deity in a governmental context. But, as it turns out, the earliest  evidence for this form of the oath is a New York Times story describing Chester A. Arthur's inauguration in 1881. That's not to say that Washington didn't say it, but it can't be used as evidence to show that Washington wanted God in politics. Likewise, the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 (many people assume it was written long before) but the words "under God" were not added until 1954. The fact that we now pledge allegiance under God has nothing to do with how this country was founded.

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