Is a secular America a good thing?

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Some leaders in Congress and States and some Churches claim that America must not be secular, but rather must be a Christian America. That is a tragic misunderstanding of our nation's unique heritage: they do not know our Founders.

"Secular" has two different meanings: anti-religious and non-religious. Our Founders developed non-religious governments starting with Roger Williams's Rhode Island, who said government is "merely human and civil and possesses no religious authority" — as also our Constitution. These are not anti-religious but human and civil. Bruce Ledewitz calls it “hallowed secularism.”

"…The Founding Fathers, it is important to recognize, were not exactly ‘religiously correct’ from the viewpoint of today's orthodox believers. Most of them — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison — were Deists in their basic beliefs. They rejected the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and believed that separation of church and state was indispensable to a nation containing so many different kinds of churches and creeds," wrote Paul F. Boller, Jr., Professor of history at Texas Christian University.

"Washington believed in a Grand Architect of the Universe and regarded religion as an important foundation for morality, but nowhere in his public or private papers did he ever refer to Jesus.

"When he retired as president in 1797, some orthodox Protestant clergymen cornered him in Philadelphia and tried to smoke him out on his religious opinions, but he politely evaded their questions. As one of the ministers said ruefully afterward, ‘The old fox was too cunning for us.’…"

"Jefferson literally cut-and-pasted a Bible of parts of the Gospels that were the Jesus he believed in — a good man and a very wise teacher but not a miracle worker. The Jesus Jefferson believed in was not the Jesus of orthodoxy." See a sample page.

We are morally healthier now
Some claim that our morality has declined, has become decadent. List ways Americans are better off morally now than ever.

  • Americans who cared were moved to work for the rights and opportunities for racial and ethnic groups, women, disabled, elderly, gays.
  • Concerned folk started services in recent decades, such as rape crisis and domestic violence centers that helped millions of women, teens, children, men to be survivors and find life.
  • How many children fornerly labeled retarded and hidden now learn in school to become self-supporting citizens, and compete in Special Olympics?
  • Millions of girls have enjoyed the coordination and health gains, maturity and confidence from team sports denied them until concerned politicians passed Title IX.
  • Caring physicians developed the pill to let couples have only as many children as they felt they could love and support and to enjoy sex communion.
  • Palliative care, hospice, and similar services enhance the lives of many terminally ill with end-of-life care and choices.
  • Hundreds of thousands worked in the Peace Corps and other services.
  • Baby changing stations in men's rest rooms. A Fathers Day 2015 editorial reflected on finding in a mens' room fathers with babies waiting for the changing table!

Think of other ways that we are morally healthier now. Many of these moral improvements were motivated by religious women and men. Some of these moral improvements government did, while others receive government help, so governments and our taxes are a positive moral force.

A lawyer friend pointed out that the Bill of Rights and much of our common law uses the word people rather than citizen — these apply to people because of our common humanity.

Many weddings are performed by judges and other secular government officials; are the resulting marriages different in quality from those performed by clergy? As a retired clergy, I wish I could say yes, but I see little difference. Ponder my views about marriage.

I managed Texas government working with many organizations to deliver social services. We worked with many agencies, including faith organizations, using tax money to add to local contributions. Those faith organizations had to be accountable to the same rigorous program, personnel, and financial qualities as all other contractors. Is this the way of justice and equity?

Most Americans through these centuries have been religious. The heart of our religious freedom is each person is equally free to practice any religion, so long as it does not interfere with other people's religions. Americans act on their concerns and respect other's faiths. "Narrow, fundamentalist, and dogmatic practices always alienate people, especially those who are suffering," wrote a wise person of faith.

Two sets of values
American values such as respect for persons and minorities and fair play give-and-take are fundamental. They are rooted in the best of religions. But religious values can divide and hurt and alienate. The values of our differing faiths are secondary to American respect. Bipartisan negotiating and working together is core democracy for issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Nothing must ever limit American fair play give-and-take. Religious beliefs of some must never interfere with the rights and freedoms of any one else. A pharmacist who refuses to fill a prescription for a woman is an Inquisitorforcing one's religion on another and denying the religious faith of the woman.

“Whether my neighbor believes in 20 gods or no god, what matters to me is whether my neighbor has faith in democracy," says Bill Moyers. "Creeds have made a slaughterhouse of faith, while democracy spares us from the orthodoxy of the sword. Trust in God, sure. But count on democracy to save us from those who would ‘save’ us against our will. The only antidote to bad theology, you see, is good democracy.”

Democracy is the opposite of theocracy — rule by religion or church. An honest study of nations with religion intimately involved in national politics is portrayed vividly in the movies Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) and A Man for All Seasons (Paul Scofield). Those films should convince you that our Founders wisely ended theocratic "establishments of religion" by separating organized religion from the state, as Thomas Jefferson said, "Building a wall of separation between church and state" in a letter to a Baptist congregation.

"Fences make good neighbors" is certainly true between organized religion and governments. If some believe their's is the only way, let them not violate the freedom of others, but respect others and their ways. Separation of church and state is separation of organized bureaucracies, power and control groups. Religious feelings of awe, reverence, humility, ecstasy may motivate us into words and acts about policies and laws.

Democracies must work at being open and listening to people, and avoid becoming imperial, oppressive, unjust, violent.

Our secular school systems are essential, and are a national common denominator. Children learn the 3-Rs, vistas that sciences reveal, and our national history and culture, while arts enhance creativity. Education must be equal in quality for all. Many schools in poverty neighborhoods have quality education that includes a clinic and free lunch to meet the needs of children. Click here for the place of religion in American secular schools.

Organized religion relates to the government just like organized advocates for the aged, disabled, poor, and others. Churches, fraternal, and civic organizations grew rapidly in the U.S. They advocated for their members. Their goals were religious, working conditions, temperance, anti-slavery. In this secular America model organizations were not insiders in the government, unlike Europe where church leaders often conspired within governments.

In practical, daily life the government is not hostile to religion; religions always flourished in America. Now houses for worship for many religions are in our neighborhoods and their members are our colleagues at work and play. Secular America provides a fertile environment for the goals and ideals of organizations that work for their members, including faith-groups or denominations.

American history shows that all religions flourish in this unique American relationship in which no religious group gets favorable treatment, none has an inside track or influence in government, none should have access to tax money without accountability. Our secular America means that agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wicca, liberals and fundamentalists speak out, organize, and flourish based on their own contributions and messages.

Plaques of the Ten Commandments are the current demand of some. Do those who advocate placing plaques in schools and other secular locations realize that the first five are no basis for any American laws? The sixth, eighth, and ninth are the only Commandments that are a basis for our laws. All who are not Jews, Christians, or Moslems may be offended by these plaques. Why should any of us use something central to our religion to hurt the religious sensitivity of fellow citizens?

Copyright © 2003, 2015 John F. Yeaman

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