Our nation may be theoretically secular, but in reality the truth is far different. What we have is based on the self righteous assurance that our old religious ethics are the correct way of looking at the world. There is no doubt that our founding fathers were brilliant in their creation of our democratic republic right down to separation of powers and the constitutional separation of church and state. But no matter how noble their intention and high minded their thinking the stain of the Christian faith is still the imprimatur of our nation. Any statement to the contrary is like the howling of the wind.
Here is the problem – regardless of the secular nature of our government the mores of Judeo-Christianity are still the foundation of our ethical standards and the impetus behind many of the laws we create. Despite the protestations of my fellow atheists, for all intents and purposes, the United States is a Christian nation. Secular Christianity is the “official” unofficial religion of this country. Right down to the recognition of Christmas and Easter as holidays. Try to find a government office open on Christmas if it falls on a weekday. No other religion gets the same level of recognition for their most important holidays. You will still get your mail on Rosh Hashanah. We may be secular, but we have a strong bias towards Christianity in its many forms. This can not be denied.
Part of the problem is the flawed thinking that religion’s place in the development of our moral standards and legal systems is somehow proof that they are both divinely inspired and therefore ordained on high. Another problem is simply that by accident of history Christianity was the professed faith of the earliest Western European settlers that made it to these shores. The spiritual practices of Native Americans and even the ancient Viking explorers are simply irrelevant. As far as the Christians in this country go the attitude is we where here before the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists and all other “isms” that have arrived since.
This may not have been the intent of our nation’s founders as any one who has an accurate understanding of U.S. history will note, but nonetheless the morals and standards of Christianity inform the majority of people, even the most lukewarm or indifferent of religious people who make up our electorate. The saddest irony is that so many of these grand architects of our country were deists, which can hardly be called a Christianity (one might call it atheism light) and Freemasons. The philosophical underpinning behind the construction of our government is founded upon the enlightenment of the 18th century. The enlightenment called into question everything regarding the authority and veracity of the church in all its forms. But, the puritanical worldview that informed the earliest of settlers is imbedded deep.
This unfortunate Puritanism is a strange bedfellow with the libertarian enlightenment mindset of our nation’s principal founders. While the Constitution itself is a completely secular document with no mention of God anywhere (read it sometime if you disagree) and the 1st Amendment is only place where religion is treated and, then only, to separate it from the government, the religious minded get hung up on the flowery language of the Declaration of Independence. They are unable to make the distinction between the God of their bible and nature’s god, the god of deism, of the Declaration. These folks often believe that the line “one nation under god” was always a part of the pledge of allegiance.
It certainly doesn’t help our case for secularism that in their personal writings many, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison often invoked god. Most people today do not posses the sophistication required to understand the nuances of their discussions. Thomas Jefferson referred to his cut and paste job of scriptures, known as the Jefferson Bible, to culling diamonds from a dung heap. He took out the stories of the virgin birth, the miracles and the resurrection leaving only the more ethical nature of the Gospel teachings. Jefferson believed Jesus to be a good man and a teacher of ethical standards, but did not believe him to be the miraculous son of God. This is one of the reasons why the Texas state board of education, completely overrun by conservative religious fanatics, has removed Thomas Jefferson from their text books. Perhaps, they do possess some level of sophistication after all.
History may indeed by written by the winners, but those who have lost or fear they are losing will always try to rewrite it when their worldview is threatened. That the facts at hand are indisputable makes absolutely no difference. Religion requires no rational basis to succeed. In fact, its success can be partly attributed to its ability to make the irrational seem like truth. Authority needs no rational justification for their power. If the people fear it and respect it, the power it wields will endure.
Religion has real power. It matters not whether it’s based on irrational beliefs in the supernatural. That people are always willing to bind themselves to a particular creed or faith is not in dispute. While our founding fathers attempted to create a secular republic they did so only with the mindset to create religious pluralism and tolerance. They chose to prohibit the setting up of a state sponsored religion, but only so that everyone may be free to believe or not according to their temperament and custom. They did not intend to eliminate religious thinking from our political process.
For all the high minded intellectualism of our nation’s founders they could not protect us from the anti-intellectualism of the Christian religion. As long as there is at least one religious individual in our electorate or candidate for office that professes faith religion will play a role in our countries political process. As long as we are permitted the privilege of voting our conscience religion will always be a part of the process. The challenge for us secularists is to prevent them from dominating the conversation. But, that is all we can do. To do seek to eliminate religion all together as some would prefer (myself included) simply makes us as intolerant as those we are fighting on the Christian right.