When we were kids they told us that the longest word in the dictionary was antidisestablishmentarianism. Though I could spell it, I never really knew what it meant.
Until recently, when it occurred to me that if the Founders had actually been Christian, as many neo-evangelicals claim, and not the Deists they actually were, then it is unlikely that the United States as we know it would ever have existed.
Because the founding documents were not Christian, but the product of secular deistic philosophy, they expressly forbade the establishment of a national religion in general, not just in specific, as many of today’s religious conservative suggest. It is not only that they made sure that no denomination – Anglican, Congregationalist or Roman Catholic – would hold sway over other denominations but that Christianity itself would not be privileged. Which makes sense when we remember that Deists are generally distrustful of organized religion, particularly of Christianity, which many of the most influential founders had personally rejected.
Without the constitutional disestablishment of religion, in an America governed by explicitly specific Christian values, I seriously doubt we would today enjoy any of the rights that we take for granted. Because a Christian (near) theocracy would find itself at odds with true democracy. True democratic principles – individualism, free thought, self-reliance, the right to protest authority – are not exactly compatible with those Christian doctrines about the sovereignty of God and the power he has granted authority (as some Christians will admit).
There are many Christians who believe that Satan is real, and that he influences those who do not accept Christian doctrine. These people are not on the fringe, but make up the bulk of Christian Right, who have tremendous influence within the Republican party. It is not too difficult to imagine a Christian government that would accuse those who oppose their God-given authority as being in the clutches of Satan. After all, this is a frequent complaint coming from the pulpits (and radio pulpits) of American neo-evangelicals, many with strong political ties and a few having sought political office. Is there any reason to think that they would leave their religious doctrines on the Capitol steps or outside the doors to the White House, as John Kennedy promised to do? On the contrary, they’ve made it plain that they would be intentionally deliberate in applying (their conservative) religious principles to the execution of political office.
When the media criticized General William Boykin for dressing in combat fatigues, touring churches and telling them that God was on America’s side while the idol worshiping Muslim’s are destined for defeat, Christian conservatives rallied to his defense. President George Bush favorably compared American military intervention with God’s will and Sarah Palin recently has said much the same thing.
It is easy to think this way, especially if your enemies happen to be non-Christians. The prevailing neo-evangelical wisdom is that Islam is a false religion, that Mohamed was a false prophet and that Muslims are misguided pawns of Satan. The Tea Party movement is outspoken about their love of Christianity and their fear and hatred of Islam.
Many Bush appointees were influence by conservative Christian ideals and now conservative Christians have a loud, if not controlling, voice in the House. There is a very good chance that in 2012 they may find themselves in control of the Senate and the White House as well.
Do we want a government that takes Genesis into account while considering environmental action? Or makes judicial decisions based upon scriptural precepts? (Which is OK as long as that scripture is from the Bible and not the Quran). Or crafts economic policy according to a narrow reading of the Old Testament (which, btw, conveniently ignores the teachings of Jesus in the process?) Should our civil rights legislation be pre-determined by men who wrote over 2000 years ago?
Some people asked similar questions back in John F. Kennedy’s day. To be elected Kennedy had to promise that he would be led by the Constitution and not Roman Catholic orthodoxy. If an irreconcilable difference presented itself, he would resign his office. He did not try to square the Constitution to his religion, claiming that our government is founded on his religion, as so many conservative Christians are saying today. But he understood that a complete separation of church and state, that which kept the Protestant majority in check, was the only reason a Catholic would ever be allowed to run for office.
It has become popular to insist that politicians reveal their religious beliefs. Let’s be honest; this demand is almost always made to satisfy the doubts of Christians (who question the wisdom of having non-Christians in office). Apparently, Americans of other religions, in minority positions, need not be concerned about who governs them. Or their own political aspirations. Fortunately, the Constitution protects politicians from having to comply, although some go to great lengths to prove their Christian bona fides.
Looking at it from a different perspective, I believe that any outwardly religious person, anyone who is willingly outspoken about his or her faith or uses it as a political tool towards election, should take an oath similar to Kennedy’s.
Though not on a Bible.