GUEST POST: Public displays of religion: Why history tells us ‘It’s just a phase.’

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 ( 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.


19 responses to “GUEST POST: Public displays of religion: Why history tells us ‘It’s just a phase.’

  1. I found this article interesting in trying to explain why change is so hard to come by.:

  2. Wonderful, wonderful!!! I so enjoyed reading this. I feel I can breathe a sigh of relief now knowing this is ‘just a phase’:) However, what would be even better news is to hear that instead of fear and petitions to God, humans start relying on themselves to pull out of the mess THEY have created. How long before we as a species can leave behind myths and superstitions?

  3. Stella_Bella

    This relationship between religion and fear and uncertainty certainly makes sense. In times of political, financial and economic strife, I have noticed that religion based law-making seems to take more of a front page stance lately in the US. Up in Canada we don’t see that as much. Religion and politics seem to be very much intertwined in the US, almost as much as many Muslim nations. It seems to the outside observer that laws with religious undertones are on the rise in the US, as much as they are in Russia and Muslim nations. Secular countries don’t seem to fall victim to this trend quite as much and for that I am certainly thankful.

  4. Robert, interesting post. As a historian and a religion teacher, I agree with you that there is a historical pattern to swings in religious fervor based on fear. I respectfully disagree that there is nothing to worry about this time round. The Salem witch trials were a response to colonial fears of Native American attacks and the perceived declension of belief among the children and grandchildren of the original settlers of Boston (no, this is not an error. The settlement of Plymouth was a mistake – they were blown off course – and it’s intention was mainly financial, not religious. Boston, however, was settled with a specific religious purpose.) There are countless other examples in our history of religious fear turning to violence.

    George Will recently penned an opinion piece that accuses atheists as thin-skinned about Christian displays of power and piety. Christians can have their “Merry Christmas” and their yule trees. Let them hunt Easter eggs in public parks and invoke Jesus at civic events. Public displays are not the problem. It is the laws based on Biblical interpretation that are most frightening to me because western religions never stop at the theater that is public piety.

    Religion is dying in the U.S. Poll after poll attests to this. I understand why religious people are afraid. But that does not mean I don’t fear the ways in which they are dealing with their fears. Legislating faith and silencing dissenters might work in the short-term, but history shows us that this is not an effective long-term strategy for spreading the gospel.

  5. Understanding the why doesn’t make me any happier about it. The fearful can invoke their superstitions all they want as long as they don’t expect everyone to follow suit. I will never accept, for example, the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance I learned as a child.

  6. How very appropriate that I read this right after a trip to Philadelphia (chaperone for my son’s class trip.) We are on the way back as I write this, and I actually was thinking about a lot of what you wrote while the tourguide was talking. Good stuff.

  7. Thanks, Robert. I’m inclined to agree. I see the pushing of religion into public spaces as coming from conservatism rather than religion. The conservatives pine for the good old days (which never really existed), and mistakenly think that their pushing of the symbols of religion will slow the rate of change.

  8. Atheists are called thin skinned about “Christian displays”. What does that remind me of? Oh, I know: feminists being called thin-skinned about misogynistic displays. Rape survivors being thin-skinned about rape jokes. People of color being thin-skinned about ethnic slurs. Neo-pagans being thin-skinned about witch-burning jokes.

    I don’t really care how frightened they are — welcome, in other words, to the world various marginalized peoples have lived in for a long, long time. They need to find the courage to not try coping with their fears in the same rather homicidal ways of the past-times of their “faith”.

  9. Thank you for a very well written article, Robert. What does history tell us about the timing of these phases? Are we likely to see a shift during our lifetimes? I fear not.

    Oh to have lived during the Age of Enlightenment! Well, that is, if they had gotten around to women’s rights, civil rights, and various medical advances.

  10. LanceThruster

    What always galls me is that lawmakers so often see publicly endorsed religion as no different from someone’s personal expression of their ‘godviews.’ If you point out the inappropriateness of the government sanctioned piety, they act as if their personal religious freedoms have been abridged.

    They’re truly an insecure lot.

  11. Good information. I love to hear all the historical facts, and wholeheartedly agree. It’s so very clear that fear is the motivating factor here, yet that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. But I very much appreciate having more data that I can use when necessary to make a point in “discussions” with my religious family! Thank you for posting this.

  12. Anne Wallman

    What a well written and thoughtful piece Robert. I enjoyed reading it and agree with most of the comments. I’d like to add a fear category to your list that piggybacks on Neil’s comments about pining for the “good old days”. Fear of change is a very real thing and the more conservative we are the greater we fear change. As we age, we all become more conservative (lower case “c” meaning more risk averse and cautious). If we are conservative by nature – and I would broadly categorize the traditionally religious as conservative thinkers – then our fear of change is greater and our perception of threat out of balance with reality. I wish people in the media didn’t fan the flames of these fears quite so much. There are plenty of things we should worry about – having the words “under god” in the pledge of allegiance isn’t one of them.

  13. Great comments. As Americans, we fear the “other.” We fear the unknown. We fear god. It seems that we have an addiction to fear.

  14. Thanks for this unique guest article! Being interested in US Coinage, I found that the discussion of the official National Motto, “In God We Trust,” could benefit from some numismatic historical perspective to truly understand the forces that shaped its adoption. There are several key factors omitted here, and to say that national fear drove its adoption is such a simplification as to be misleading.

    I started writing as a comment here, but it quickly grew into deeper research (to properly back my assertions), so I’m now writing my own blog post about this subject which I’ll publish on Monday. I plan to discuss in depth not only the Coinage Act of 1864 which sneaked this motto into its fine print, but also about its progenitor, the Coinage Act of 1792, requiring all coinage to depict “Liberty” on the obverse and the bald eagle on the reverse.

    Why did the Lincoln commemorative penny of 1909 kick the “Union Shield” off our coins for 100 years? Why did Benjamin Franklin put the “All-Seeing Eye” on our nation’s first coinage in 1776? I need to do more research first, but I’ll explore how our nation’s coins and symbols have always had their finger on the pulse of our diverse American culture.

  15. Well stated and well thought out.

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