A New Nation, Conceived in Liberty Without Respect to Religion

Statue of LibertyOn this anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain I stumbled upon two articles. The first, written by my friend Blackiswhite, Imperial Consigliere starts off looking like a reminder that our founding fathers associated liberty with a warning against government overreach and this notion would have been fine but then BiW had to go back to the historical revisionism of the Declaration of Independence being a “Christian document”. This is a sad trend in current political discourse from conservatives who would like to see prayer in the classroom and creationism replace evolution in the science curriculum.

So it was with great pleasure that I tripped over an article on CNN’s Opinion page by historian Kenneth C. Davis entitled, “Why U.S. is not a Christian Nation“. Some choice excerpts:

While president in 1802, Jefferson wrote: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State … ”

As president, Jefferson was voicing an idea that was fundamental to his view of religion and government, expressed most significantly in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he drafted in 1777.

Revised by James Madison and passed by Virginia’s legislature in January 1786, the bill stated: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened (sic) in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief …”

— In 1797, with President John Adams in office, the Senate unanimously approved one of America’s earliest foreign treaties, which emphatically stated (Article 11): “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen (Muslims) …”

No one can argue, as “Christian Nation” proponents correctly state, that the Founding Fathers were not Christian, although some notably doubted Christ’s divinity.

More precisely, the founders were, with very few exceptions, mainstream Protestants. Many of them were Episcopalians, the American offshoot of the official Church of England.  …

But the founders, and more specifically the framers of the Constitution, included men who had fought a war for independence — the very war celebrated on the “Glorious Fourth” — against a country in which church and state were essentially one.

They understood the long history of sectarian bloodshed in Europe that brought many pilgrims to America. They knew the dangers of merging government, which was designed to protect individual rights, with religion, which as Jefferson argued, was a matter of individual conscience.

And that is why the U.S. Constitution reads as it does.

The supreme law of the land, written in the summer of 1787, includes no references to religion — including in the presidential oath of office — until the conclusion of Article VI, after all that dull stuff about debts and treaties: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (There is a pro forma “Year of the Lord” reference in the date at the Constitution’s conclusion.)

Original intent? “No religious Test” seems pretty clear cut.

The article goes on to discuss the Bill of Rights vis-a-vis establishing a secular government. Blackiswhite reminds us that our framers were Christians. But as I reminded him at his blog, if a Mexican runs a Chinese restaurant it does not mean you are going to find Mexican food there. A Christian who fully understands the danger of a new nation establishing an official religion will make sure this does NOT happen. It is the founder’s very experience with Christianity and discrimination that prompted them to establish a secular government.

To paraphrase Lee Greenwood, I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free to practice whatever religion I want or no religion at all. I’m proud that in my country the government stays out of my spiritual life and sticks to governing. That is how we were founded. It is fundamental to our country and we must protect this tradition from all those who might hope to change it.

Happy 4th of July, my friends, and Happy Birthday, America!


Image: Paul Martin Eldridge / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Is Barack Obama an American?

No, I have not lost my mind. I have not become a “birther”. President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 (incidentally the same year I was born in New York City), is a citizen of these United States and is a legitimate President. What I want to address here goes beyond the facts of his birth. I want to get an angle on the constant “he’s not one of us” theme that we hear. I want to get beyond the obvious suspicions of racism and go a bit deeper, or since the argument is fairly obvious, perhaps not that deep. You be the judge.

On Sean Hannity’s Fox News broadcast former Vice President Dick Cheney made the usual ass of himself but one of the things he said can be examined more closely.

Cheney says, “this is a guy who … does not share that view of American exceptionalism that most of us believe in.” Let’s put aside the disrespect inherent in “this is a guy” (he’s your damn President DICK), and look at the statement. Obama does not believe that America is exceptional. One could look, as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews did, at Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 where he says that his story could only happen in America, and see that Obama thinks our country is special. But does he see this in an academic, almost clinical way? Does he feel it viscerally?

Let’s rewind a few months to see Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz’s assessment:

The president has a problem. For, despite a great election victory, Mr. Obama, it becomes ever clearer, knows little about Americans. He knows the crowds—he is at home with those. He is a stranger to the country’s heart and character.

He seems unable to grasp what runs counter to its nature. That Americans don’t take well, for instance, to bullying, especially of the moralizing kind, implicit in those speeches on health care for everybody. Neither do they wish to be taken where they don’t know they want to go and being told it’s good for them.

via Dorothy Rabinowitz: Obama’s Tone-Deaf Health Campaign – WSJ.com.

Dorothy says Obama is a “stranger to the country’s heart and character.” A similar perception to that of the former Vice President. Is Obama simply a victim of this assessment or has he contributed to it in some way?

I think there is an intuitive answer that demonstrates Obama’s contribution to this perception. From the time he was born until he graduated from high school, Barack Obama lived outside the mainland United States. I would argue that Hawaii, just barely a state in 1961, was hardly representative of the “American experience” and of course, Obama spent several years in Jakarta, Indonesia. Twenty years after his graduation from an exclusive Hawaiian high school, he wrote in their bulletin, “The opportunity that Hawaii offered — to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect — became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.” [1] I think we could safely argue that although mostly raised by his Kansas bred grandparents, Barack Obama got anything but a typical mid-west white bread view of America.

I believe that having not lived in the mainland United States until college, that Obama had an objective view of our country atypical of most of our other Presidents. In Obama’s world view, America might be special, but not necessarily “better” than other civilized countries. America might be a land of virtue and ideals but not the be-all end-all barometer of morality. On the contrary, America could be capable of doing the wrong thing. America could be imperfect. America could need improvement.

I believe that Obama’s objective view of our country, much from the perspective of an outsider (even more outside than the average black man), makes his love for our country appear less visceral. America likes its Presidents to reek of Americana, whether it’s Abe Lincoln splitting logs or Eisenhower or Kennedy bravely defending their country in war. Obama comes to us with a different story. A story of an outsider who wants to fix the problems that the insiders may be too blind to see. Such outsiders do not usually engender affection from the insiders.

Is Barack Obama an American? Well, yes he is but he is a different kind of American. He is an American who believes you can be special and still be equal to your peers, showing them respect and apologizing when you’ve done them wrong. America is a proud country, proud to a fault. Humility, on an international scale runs, as Ms. Rabinowitz puts it “counter to its nature.” Hence she and Dick Cheney will probably never understand what a good American Barack Obama really is.


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A Reminder of What it is to be an American

If you have a child living at home with you, take some time today to look at your son or daughter and imagine them living in a hellish state where military force rules, a state where true democracy is a joke. Then take a moment to appreciate the good fortune of your child being born in this country.

This is not mere nationalism on my part. Some things are objectively right and some objectively wrong. A state that kills its own people to maintain its power is wrong. Case closed. Period. End of sentence.

If you need a graphic reminder of how fortunate you are to live in this country, then watch the video below. It is not for the squeamish. It depicts, as best as can be verified, a young woman dying in the streets of Iran after being shot by parties acting on behalf of the government.

There is heated debate in this country about what our government should do and say regarding the Iran uprising. Most reasonable people look at our history with Iran and concede that the less said by us right now, the better. Iran’s knee-jerk reaction to internal strife is to blame it on external “interference”. If we allow our country to become part of the argument in Iran, we take away the legitimacy of the protesters. They become the “tools” of imperial America. That is not what they need and that is not what we need.

Still the President issued a statement over the weekend that should unambiguously clarify our country’s position on this conflict:

The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

Martin Luther King once said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.  — Market Watch

What more needs to be said? What stronger message are Senator Lindsay Graham and other Republicans looking for? The fact is that President Obama has stated the view of our country clearly and concisely without swagger.

The sad truth is that since this turmoil is not happening in our country, all we can really do is appeal to what little decency may exist within the Iranian government and hope that cooler heads prevail. We can also tuck our children in at night with gratitude toward our dumb luck that we (or at least they) were born in the United States of America where the imperfect experiment of democracy is exercised better than in any other country in the world.


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