Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Establishment Clause, Religious Expression and a "Christian Nation"

I personally do not care for the term “Christian Nation” because it implies a Church-State union that is contrary to the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. History teaches us that whenever religion has become politicized, it has been abused. We see this phenomenon in the history of Christianity and in many Islamic nations today. However, I also believe that the public understands the Establishment Clause to be far broader than what was originally intended by the founding fathers.

Our nation was born out of rebellion against England, where the government established an official state religion (the Anglican “Church of England”) and openly discriminated against any contrary view. They recognized the dangers of such a state and ensured through the Constitution that this would not happen in the United States (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”).

However, this short, 10 word phrase has taken on such an expansive meaning in recent years that I think it behooves people to go back and look at the original text. The Establishment Clause has evolved into the phrase “separation of church and state.” This phrase actually does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. It first appeared in an 1802 letter that Thomas Jefferson (a Deist himself, not an orthodox Christian) wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association. It was first used by the United States Supreme Court in 1878, but did not “pick up steam” with that body until 1947, when it started to appear more regularly in Court opinions.  Most people understand the Establishment Clause by this phrase rather than by the text of the clause itself. As a result, we have created this cultural notion that even the mere utterance of anything sounding of a spiritual bent is off limits for anyone serving in an official capacity.

If history is our guide, we can come up with innumerable examples of public officials expressing their personal spiritual convictions while carrying out their official duties which the founding fathers did not see as being at odds with the Establishment Clause. In 1789, for example, George Washington began his proclamation instituting the first official Thanksgiving holiday with these words: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…”  In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln said, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continues... until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid another drawn with the sword... so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” On D-Day in 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity...”

Turning the clock ahead to 2004, Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court claiming that the Establishment Clause bans even “acknowledgements of God (much less endorsements of God)” by public officials (the case was ultimately dismissed on grounds of mootness). In 2010, the Santa Rosa County School District in Florida faced a lawsuit by teachers, students, parents and volunteers for widespread violations, including barring students from saying “God bless,” prohibiting even bowing silently in personal prayer, keeping any religious organizations from renting school facilities and even trying to dictate how pastors operated private baccalaureate services inside the pastor’s own house of worship.  These are examples of the direction many people see our culture as heading.

Those raising objections to religious expression such as these may very well be a small yet vocal minority. My point is not that it is a majority opinion, only that it is an increasing trend. These issues did not exist when the Establishment Clause was first enacted, but in recent years we have seen a growing number of people (while still likely a minority) wanting to overly interpret the Establishment Clause this way.

The Establishment Clause was meant as a ban against the government establishing an official religion. It was never meant to restrict the free exercise and expression of spiritual beliefs by public officials (which the Free Exercise Clause protected). Yet we have come to believe that there is some absolute separation such that all public officials must behave in a completely secular manner. True, they cannot force their beliefs on others, but the Constitution never said we are protected from even hearing religious views with which we disagree.

It seems that our culture relegates spiritual truth claims to a second class status such that they do not enjoy the same freedom of expression as claims to scientific, economic or historical truth (at least culturally; people may be surprised at how much religious expression the courts allow). This may be understandable if spirituality was merely a matter of personal taste and preference. But religions such as Christianity claim a basis in historical fact. These types of claims should be open to discussion and free expression so that their merits or demerits can be properly and intelligently evaluated.

Many people respond that those seeking to curb religious expression are in the minority, whereas Evangelical Christianity has been attempting to enact legislation pushing its views in our country for many years.  Certainly it is true that many Evangelicals have pressed for laws that go too far into official advocacy for the Christian religion and do seem to be advancing the notion of a “Christian Nation” as I defined it, something I do not support. But in many respects I see this as a matter of “whose ox is gored” so to speak. All humans have a tendency to see the outliers with which they are being associated as a very vocal minority whereas those outliers aligned against them as holding to the majority viewpoint of their opponents. I am an “Evangelical” Christian under the true definition of that term (someone who believes in “evangelizing”; i.e., “relaying information about a particular set of beliefs to others who do not hold those beliefs”; Wikipedia). Everyone is “evangelical” on one issue or another. We all share our beliefs with people with whom we do not agree eventually.

I would proffer that most “Evangelical” Christians likely understand the proper scope of religious expression and are not seeking to establish a Christian State. But we as a culture have redefined the word “evangelical” to refer only to that minority group of Christians who engage in such advocacy. Of course if by definition you so narrow the parameters of a group to include only those who possess certain qualities, the “majority” of people in that group are going to possess the qualities utilized in your definition.

Here is my problem with excluding all religious talk from the public sphere and establishing a totally “secular” state with a firm wall prohibiting any religious expression (aside from the fact that if we were to examine the case law, such expression is not unconstitutional). When Albert Einstein first proposed his theory of General Relativity, the overwhelming consensus of astrophysicists at the time was that the universe was static. It was neither expanding nor contracting. However, the mathematical implications of his calculations were that the universe had to be doing one or the other. But Einstein himself was so wrapped up in the status quo that he could not bring himself to advance that this could be the case, so he introduced a “fudge factor” called the “cosmological constant” into his equations. It wasn’t until several years later when Edwin Hubble discovered the phenomenon known as “red shift” that the scientific community finally began to consider the possibility of an expanding universe. In the meantime, though, scientific advancement was delayed for several years beyond what it would have been if Einstein and the scientific community had just been willing to accept his initial calculations at face value and at least discuss the possibility of expansion.

Christianity makes a claim based upon historical fact. It says Jesus died and rose from the dead. If this is not true, Christianity is false. If it is true, then it has potentially widespread ramifications. Ultimately my point is this: it is a truth claim, just like Einstein’s (had he had the courage to make it). True Christian “evangelism” is not advocating a belief because it “feels good” or trying to force one person’s morality on another as a matter of coercive control (not to say that some people do not take these approaches). It is a historical analysis like any other. Did this event happen in history or not? Is the universe expanding or not? We cannot be afraid to discuss truth claims, and if one is permissible in the governmental arena, the other should as well.

A predisposition toward total secularism is in effect like placing a set of blinders on a horse. The horse can only see straight ahead, and we have prevented it in advance from even considering what is going on to the left or right. It is deciding in advance that certain truth claims may be discussed (i.e., scientific, economic, sociological, etc.) whereas other may not (i.e., spiritual). In the end I believe anyone, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, New Age, Gnostic, Atheist or otherwise, should have the right to express their spiritual truth claims in public without the expectation that they will have to exchange their spiritual “hat” for their secular one the moment they walk through their office door.

That being said, there certainly need to be checks to make sure the government does not begin to create one official state religion to which all must subscribe, but that is precisely what the Establishment Clause was intended to address. Some would argue that by creating a completely secular state, the government is in effect establishing an official state religion: Atheism. After all, if belief in God can play no role in the government, then we are operating our government as if God does not exist. If this secular attitude is in turn required of all public officials, then we are requiring them to behave in their official capacity as if Atheism were true. This is why the Free Exercise Clause was included alongside the Establishment Clause.  If we truly look at the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses together, we can see where our Constitution does not require our public officials to leave their religion on the office doorstep.

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