WASHINGTON – As the political season heats up in the United States, we are treated to yet another round of debates on the proper role of religion in politics. The candidates feel an obligation to make their faith known. Pundits, religious people and other experts debate the fine points of this religiosity. While this may not be a universally shared tenet, it is clear that for many voters a good candidate has to be a good Christian.
Hence an almost bizarre degree of scrutiny in which all aspects of the person’s history and behavior, not just his public policy positions, are fair game. According to this religious vantage point, good leaders have to be not only moral, but immaculate, in each and every sense. At least for some segments of the population, along with a president we are choosing an individual who has to embody our Christian spiritual essence. This explains for instance the bizarre debate as to whether Rudy Giuliani, because of his divorces and his positions on abortion, could have been considered a viable candidate by Christian voters.
Of course, religion influences politics elsewhere. For instance, in Europe there are many political parties that call themselves Christian. But this tends to indicate that these political forces subscribe to Christian social values. They do not indicate an obligation for all the party leaders and notables to subject themselves to an in depth personal scrutiny of their character in order to prove their suitability as Christian leaders.
But in America it is different. Especially at the highest level, the candidate has to convince at least some voters as to his/hers Christian ethical integrity. And for many this equals to subscribing to and adhering to in all aspects of life to a Christian morality.
But what explains this religious obsession in America?
My thesis is that this represents an attempt on the part of many to establish some kind of spiritual identity in this country of immigrants. There is no “ethnic America”. There is no historic “American Nation”, in the same sense as there is a historic “German Nation”, with its celebrated past, its myths and traditions with ancient roots, whatever the meaning attributed to them.
For many immigrants it may have felt uncomfortable to belong to a large and powerful country that does not have meaningful spiritual roots that can be shared as a common denominator for the majority of the citizens. This lack of national identity might have looked as an indication of lack of proper foundations. And so, at least for many, God, the Christian God, became the common denominator. “We may not be a Nation in the conventional sense of the word. But all of us who came here are all united in Christ. And this modern Republic is the expression of the intent of Believers to establish a polity that will affirm true Christian principles in all its manifestations. Hence the need for this Republic to be led by true Christians”.
Concerned as all humans are in claiming a lineage at least as old as the Nation, those who wish to make Christianity the essential spiritual core of America, can point at the Declaration of Independence, (among other milestones), and at its clear references to a Creator and faith in Divine Providence, as evidence that the United States of America are the expression of strongly felt Christian beliefs. Having thus established that America is the institutional expression of the Christian Faith, it follows that its leaders must adhere to Christian principles and that these principles must be reflected in everything: laws, practices and all policies. As for all the other non Christians (or Christians with dubious backgrounds, such as the Catholics) who came along at different times, they can stay, as long as they understand that this is a Protestant Christian country and Christianity thus rightfully dominates.
From this vantage point, the very notion of a non-religious republic, a secular state, in which all religions, to the extent that they do not breach any laws, are treated equally, with no special reference to anyone of them, is sacrilege.
America –the Believers claim—unmistakably was created as a Christian Country. Therefore there can be no real America without the open and constant re-affirmation of its religious nature. People belonging to other religions have to take a step back, not as a matter of discrimination, but as a matter of logic. “We, the Christians, came here first and shaped the institutions of the country. You came later and thus it is up to you to adapt to this reality. You can go about your business and worship what you want. But you cannot interfere or protest when we demand the reaffirmation of basic Christian principles as a matter of course. And that includes prayers in public schools and the display of the Ten Commandments in public places….”
There is some logic in all this, of course. Except that the historic legitimacy of this argument is more tenuous than it may appear. There is no doubt that all those who participated in the creation of America had a Christian background. Certainly it was not Muslim or Buddhist. But, more than anything else, the Founders were the spiritual children of the Enlightenment, the “Age of Light”. They subscribed to a political philosophy grounded on reason and confidence in science. While in many ways religious, as they believed in a Creator, their beliefs were not properly Christian. Many of the Founders were Deists, while others were Masons.
Deism, the belief in a benign Creator of the Universe and on the obligation for human beings to behave morally, while sharing basic principles with Christianity, cannot be considered a Christian denomination. The whole business of the Scriptures, of miracles, resurrections etc., was looked upon by the Deists as interesting history, not as dogma to be followed.
So we can say that the Founders were religious, to the extent that, just like most of their educated contemporaries, they shared the belief that Nature must have needed a Creator who had good intentions; and that human beings should strive to be good and do good. But they were not preoccupied with matters of dogma and certainly not interested in choosing the “right” Christian denomination as the spiritual custodian of America. Aware of a variety of Christian denomination in the former colonies, they affirmed freedom of religion, along with the prohibition to establish one as preferred. Likewise, the Masons subscribe to a peculiar form of belief that includes worshipping a Higher Being, the “Great Architect of the Universe”, along with the duty of the Mason to behave ethically. But Masonry cannot be called a Christian denomination.
While all this is still very controversial, many of the Founders, while believers in a broad sense in a Creator, were not really Christians as in strict adherents to a specific set of Christian beliefs.
But the modern day Christians of America, of course, will have none of this. The references in the Declaration of Independence and other documents and writings are deemed to be clear evidence as to the Christian essence of the principles that inspired the birth of this Nation. To deny the Christian spiritual underpinnings of America thus amounts to denying the very essence of America –for many of them a New Jerusalem– ands its moral purpose in the world.
For them, without the clear affirmation of its Christian essence, there is no real America; but just an assembly of secular moral relativists without a real moral compass, a modern day Gomorrah. Given all this, the true Christians have appointed themselves as the Guardians of the true essence of America against the onslaughts of secularists and/or the encroachments of other religions that would like to be treated equally. In its most acute manifestations, this attitude can easily become an “us against them’ contest. “We are the rightful heirs and defenders. They are the interlopers who want to change the principles of our Homeland and the way we live.”
But if this is so, there is a real problem in trying to get beyond this hurdle. Convincing people that this whole idea of the Christian spiritual origins of America is at least an exaggeration may be impossible; as those who find comfort in this belief, should this be de-legitimized, would feel all of sudden rootless, as there are no other meaningful spiritual roots in a past that, for most, is lost in the broken memories of immigrants –in many cases only too happy to have forgotten national origins associated with poverty or persecution.
It is one thing to say that we are here because, by coming to America, we affirmed and chose a High Moral Ground. We are here because we are believers in and supporters of the superior moral rectitude of this Nation. It is quite another to try and be the best we can be, inspired by secular moral principles of fairness and rectitude expressed in the political philosophy of the XVIII Century; principles that find their legitimacy and foundation on the assumption that people are mostly wise and reasonable.
And yet, this non dogmatic confidence in a reasonable human being is precisely what is good and what is great about the Birth of America, as the first modern republic. It was an attempt to create instruments of government whereby reasonably educated people, coming from different backgrounds, aware of the complexities of self-government, decided nonetheless to give it a try. In truth, they hoped to be protected by the Creator. But the Constitution not by accident gave life to limited and divided Government, as men –with or without Divine Guidance– can make mistakes.
In the intent of the Founders, America was to be a society in which basic principles of fairness and tolerance can prevail, not because they are mandated by a specific dogma, but as expressions of the natural human empathy and sociability shared by all men who pursue knowledge and wisdom. A society in which pragmatic, reason inspired, common sense would prevail on prejudice and bigotry.
It would be nice if recognition of all this and of the underlying humanitarian universalism that inspired it would provide enough moral ballast to all, without resorting to a theological, and, for some at least, a fundamentalist view of America. But, to the extent that Faith, and not intellectual constructs, provides the strongest comfort, it is going to take a while for this evolution to take place. Those who must have an unshakable identity understandably will continue to believe in the transcendental roots of the Nation.
However, all this is not without consequences. This assumption of being the Moral Nation oftentimes leads to single-mindedness and to the self-appointment of “Crusader in Chief”, for this or that cause. And self-righteousness, as we have seen, can lead to a detachment from reality, while creating a fantasy world of neatly divided Good and Evil.
America’s religious righteousness quite often surprises and baffles other more secular democracies. And all these rituals that include blessings and benedictions and constant references to God on the part of the political leaders of the most vibrant industrial democracy appear odd and make others uncomfortable. Is this a democracy or a theocracy? Is this a political society or a Church?
In many instances, the proclamation of moral principle as guidance for policy may be heroic. In other instances it may very well be misguided. Yet, every time a US President proclaims America’s “duty” or “mission” to do this or that, there is reason for concern. Indeed, those who are responding to higher authority quite often do not take into account the cost associated with fulfilling what they see not as a political objective but as manifestation of their spiritual essence.
All in all, it would be best to have policies inspired by reason rather than religious righteousness. But In America this is not going to happen any time soon.