I am delighted to have a guest post by a reader on the east coast. Robert Partridge has an interesting perspective on religion and politics. I hope his unique insights spark an interesting discussion! Thanks for sharing, Rob!
Public displays of religion: Why history tells us ‘It’s just a phase.’
By Robert Partridge – guest blogger (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 8, 2014
In the re-energized debate regarding religion’s appropriate public role, as well as the Separation of Church and State, one need not be a religious or historical scholar to recognize what is going on but, to borrow from the old quip, “It helps.”
To begin this review it is important to note that at no time in the history of these United States did such lofty issues enjoy a consensus among the population – not even before the nation was formally established. Research which barely scratches the surface will reveal sources describing the Founders’ motivations as being driven by Colonial nationalism and financial self-interest, as often as suggesting they were driven by religious spirit or a belief in Divine intervention. An abundance of evidence exists indicating that those who left Europe to escape religious persecution – especially the Quakers – placed a high priority on the importance of not persecuting others, and not forcing their religious beliefs on the rest of society. Except for the French in Quebec and the Spanish in Florida, an institution as far-reaching as the Catholic Church did not have significant impact on the development of attitudes and laws in the United States until the major migrations to the U.S. of Germans, Irish, Italians and Poles took place from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s.
Would you agree that concepts such as “In God We Trust” on coinage or “One Nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are as enduring as the nation itself? Spoiler alert: that would be an improper assertion.
“In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 and the relevance of that date is critical. The Civil War was about to enter its fourth year, seemingly with no end in sight, and the desperate hope that God would favor one side over the other was an increasingly prevalent position of both the Union and the Confederacy. As for the Pledge of Allegiance, it was in 1954 with the global Communist threat at its height that President Dwight Eisenhower directed Congress to explore adding the words “under God,” modifying the existing pledge into the form that is recited today.
Have you spotted a trend? In each case, as an appeal to the Christian Supreme Being was made, threats to the existence of the nation were actually in play or perceived as quite real. The same is revealed in examples of the Founders drawing on the support of Providence in their quest to attain independence. Dr. Benjamin Franklin, not a particularly religious individual himself, nonetheless underscored the tensions and potential consequences of the time in his famous statement following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Such life or death moments have tended to push societies toward their closest orbits with religion.
And so we have come full circle to the topic at hand. Why is the highly-visible reemergence of religion in public life being promoted by lawmakers, judges, political pundits and even some journalists, many of whom proclaim a fear for the very survival of our country at this particular moment? Let there be little uncertainty about the catalysts. The same perceptions of vulnerability and risk to our nation that were present during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s are once again taking hold.
Recent historical events such as the Iranian Revolution of 1977 and hostage-taking at the Tehran U.S. Embassy in 1979, bombings at the hands of Islamic radicals of U.S. troop barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and Saudi Arabia in 1996, and the Gulf War of 1991 in reaction to Saddam Hussein’s assault on Kuwait all helped disturb the American sense of balance in the world. The 9/11 attacks, followed by the invasion to rid Afghanistan of al Qaida and the Taliban (and the Weapons of Mass Destruction debacle that led to the second Iraq War in 2003) dramatically added to that sense of imbalance and furthered the ongoing military-religious conflict which underlies the real cause of our nation’s actions; Fear.
That is not fear defined in the cowardly sense. It is the fear generated in Thomas Hobbes’ State of Nature, when one entity senses it is cornered and left with no options. The human reaction to that fear is and has been predictable since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans: a preparation for and engagement in conflict, hand-in-hand with petitions to God (or to ‘the gods’, as was the case 2,500 years ago.)
Please do not compose angry letters accusing me of questioning the depth or sincerity of anyone’s faith. That is not at issue here and my intent is to insult no one. This piece serves merely to provide the historical perspective as to why societies and governments will always respond to collective anxiety by attempting to amplify public religious practices and symbolism.
So, for those who identify themselves as non-believers, do not wonder or worry about our neighbors’ increasingly aggressive and noisy position on public displays of religion. It’s mostly just fear at work – once again.