Monday, September 5, 2011

Two Kinds of Religion

Jon Meacham, in his book, American Gospel, defines two kinds of religion, civic religion (which he prefers to call public religion) and personal religion. His contention is that the Founding Fathers deliberately spoke in the language of public religion when referring to Deity in the Declaration of Independence, and avoided any reference to Deity in the Constitution. The only references to religion in the Constitution were prohibitions against the government’s intrusion upon the free exercise of private religion.

Public religion, as Meacham sees it promoted by the Founders, and by several later presidents, recognizes the existence of Deity but refuses to identify the Deity with any particular Christian or non-Christian religion. The Declaration of Independence employs the terms, “Nature’s God” “Creator” “Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence”, none of which requires one to affirm any particular world religion. References to Jesus are totally absent.

Those founders believed it beneficial, perhaps even essential to the success and survival of the nation, that its people be “religious”. Most of the founders were themselves Christians of one kind or another and their writings contain enough religious declarations to allow those who wish to claim them for advocates of their particular brand of Christian faith to do so. But Meacham argues that they consciously and deliberately shaped a nation, “not Christian,” though religious. Only Thomas Paine, among the founders, could arguably be said to wish the demise of religion altogether, and even he is ambiguous, often using allusions to Biblical themes in his arguments.

From my childhood and well into adult life I’ve been aware of evangelical Christians’ disdain for civic (public) religion. The bland, oblique references to “the Divine” or “Providence” coming from the lips of Franklin Roosevelt, or Dwight Eisenhower never failed to illicit some measure of skepticism about the sincerity of their faith. Some may have recognized the attempt by these men to acknowledge our human dependence upon a “higher power” without offending the sensibilities of particular religious sects. Most, however, seemed to take their remarks as evidence that they were unbelievers trying to appear religious for political or other reasons.

In recent years, many evangelicals have renewed a call, heard at other times throughout our history, for a clear association of our nation with the Christian faith – as they understand it. Histories have been rewritten, cherry-picking quotations from the Founders, to show them to be Christians, recognizable by their lives and the doctrines they held to be true. Such “histories’ purport to show their intent to establish the United States as a Christian nation. The dishonesty, and selectivity, of such revisionism seems to fly under the radar of their stated commitment to truth.

If the only result of this renewed effort to “take back America for God” was a few monographs on the shelves of bookstores that present a fairytale version of events, it might be tolerable. Revisionist histories have long been written, and have served many causes over the years. But the goal of zealous evangelical revisionists is broader. They wish to revise the textbooks that all students of all faiths are required to read, arrogantly asserting that the scholarship, based on documents studied for hundreds of years, is so flawed that it must be replaced with their hurried and biased versions. Further, they would amend the constitution to say what they wish the Founders had said, making our government an avowedly Christian institution. And then they would change the laws of the land to enforce the morality that they believe expresses the will of God. It is as if they have concluded that the promulgation of their religion is insufficient to keep men from sinning; they must, therefore, compel them not to sin by legislating against it.

In other words, the religious zealots of our day would make their private religion the public religion of the land, thus restraining all others who do not subscribe to their particular understanding of God and his purposes on earth. The warning cannot be issued too often or too strongly that such a path will ultimately lead to religious repression and that those who are the “enforcers” today may well be the victims – or their children may well be the victims – of someone else’s “enforcement” another day.

The American experiment in religious tolerance and freedom of conscience has produced an environment never seen before in human history in which people of vastly different faiths have been able, for the most part, to co-exist and thrive. The genius of the Founders was to recognize that such a society required a respect of religion in general (civic or public religion) AND the protection of particular religious conviction (private religion). Only ignorance of the past and arrogance concerning the future would cause us to abandon such an experiment.

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