Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Churchy State

This week's visit to Watching America was an unusually short one, mainly because the featured article was an absolutely perfect match for what I had been thinking about for days. It's from Palestine's Al Quds and deals with the peculiar relationship between government and religion in this country. It's author, Khalil al-Anani, pretty much nails it, even though I disagree with one of his findings.

More than 200 years ago, the United States set a goal to guarantee freedom of belief and religious practice for all faiths, especially for those who had been oppressed in their countries of origin. To ensure that the unhappy European experience with freedom of religion would not be repeated, America’s Founding Fathers made the Constitution a genuine expression of liberalism. They sanctified religious freedom and forbid violations of that freedom in any way, thereby distinguishing the American model of secularism from its European counterparts.

In brief, American secularism is consistently characterized by three traits: First, to borrow the famous phrase of the late Dr. Abd al-Wahhab al-Messiri, it is a partial secularism. That is, even though this model separates religion from state in terms of operations, it does not separate religion from society in terms of practice. This leaves each individual the freedom to embrace (or not embrace) any religion he chooses, tacitly ensuring the protection of and respect for religious belief, practice and symbols.

Second, it is a secularist model, because although it forbids the state from officially adopting or favoring any one religion, it also acknowledges rights for all religious sects and guarantees each the right to worship without restriction through the establishment of places of worship. These rights were enumerated in 1791 in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, alongside the prohibition on Congress from bias toward any one religion.

Third, it is a secularism of faith, meaning that this model takes a negative stance toward atheism even if it does not forbid it. Perhaps this goes back to the genesis of the United States itself, as a place of refuge for the many devout Protestants who sought to escape the religious persecution they faced in Europe at the end of the 17th century.

My first complaint is rather a nitpicking one. Technically speaking, the government does not forbid atheism, but it allows for certain practices which belie that as an acceptable choice. Our currency and our Pledge of Allegiance both make that quite clear. On a less formal level, the US military has long brought pressure to bear on recruits to hew to the Christian format (for example, at the Air Force Academy).

My second complaint is not exactly a complaint because I suspect Khalil al-Anani was being polite. Yes, this nation does protect freedom of religious expression, but the table is tilted towards Christianity, especially conservative Protestant Christianity these days. It took Pagans and Jews a long time and a lot of hard work to get some kind of equality for displays on public property during the Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, each of which has antecedents in both non-Christian religions.

Such a non-level field has tilted even further to the righteous these past few months as members of the Muslim faith have learned. Not only has holy hell been raised by alleged Christians at the thought of an Islamic cultural center which would include a space for prayer near "Ground Zero", one leader of the Religious Reich intends to host a barbecue on 9/11 in which the fuel will be Korans.

People of good will deplore such disrespect, yet they are not the least dismayed by the use of governmental property, property which is owned by all of us, for the promotion of one particular segment of the religious spectrum. Glenn Beck's Extravaganza is one example, but a more recent example came this week in California. What the two events both espoused was that each convocation was non-political in nature, even non-specific religious in nature.

From the Sacramento Bee:

Summoned by conservative Christian leaders from around the country, thousands gathered on the west steps of the Capitol on Saturday for 12 hours of solemn prayer, gospel and Christian rock – and repeated calls to end abortion and gay marriage.

Much of the day was devoted to speeches about God, love and morality, but there was considerable blurring of the line between religion and politics. ...

"Our citizenship is in heaven," said Rachel Wegner, 25, a nurse who attended from Redding. "This is not political or even religious – denominations don't matter, political parties don't matter. It's completely spiritual."

The stage was flanked by giant video screens and banners proclaiming, "Only one hope – Jesus." Attendees were asked to fast for the day, although volunteers passed out bottled water. At times, small groups formed prayer circles or marched to a large cross, fashioned from metal scaffolding, set up across the street from the Capitol.
[Emphasis added]

The only thing that kept me from taking permanently to my bed this morning was this article about a small-town in California which expressed disgust at the vandalism of their town's only mosque. Those people knew people there, knew who would be affected as neighbors, as health care providers for several generations, as fellow citizens. That's some solace, but not enough.

Until each neighbor is willing to give up whatever privilege they have until all share in the American dream, even those who are non-believers, this nation will be churchy. And that is just as unacceptable as Steven Colbert's truthiness.

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