SANTA CRUZ, December 24, 2013 — Few times of year compare to the holidays when it comes to America’s cultural divisions regarding religion. Widely regarded as a christian holiday, Christmas can be irritating for secular Americans who want to celebrate the season with friends and family, but lack the religious cache to earn the right in the eyes of their christian fellows.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion. It is the basis for what Americans call the separation of church and state. The clause is meant to allow for an eternally secular government, while preserving every individual’s right to believe, or not, in whichever religion they choose.
It should not be surprising that, in a country as culturally diverse as the U.S., people engage in a myriad of religious practices. There are atheists, agnostics, and people who are not sure what to believe in. If Congress were able to establish only one religion which everyone would be compelled to follow, it is easy to envision the discord which would follow.
The Establishment Clause protects us from becoming a fascist or fundamentalist state. While members of government may have their own religious beliefs and practices, these ought to be a private matter of personal faith, not to be seen as a blueprint for governance. Most of the writing on which various religions are based is highly subjective, easily twisted to fit a wide range of dangerous, dogmatic ideologies.
The curious assertion that America has been ordained a Christian nation has plagued its policies since the Reagan Administration. While many presidents have been men of faith, few made so many public pronouncements about it. Under Reagan, the fundamentalist vision of the Christian Right began to take shape. Republican lawmakers now had to prove their Christianity before they could be elected, almost stumbling over each other in their haste to do so. How often they attended church suddenly became more important than their political ideas.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, pastor Rick Warren invited John McCain and Barack Obama to his Saddleback Church for a televised debate. For secular America, it was a more of a chills-inducing religious vetting than a presidential parley. Each candidate was forced to expound upon his Christian faith, the crowd cheering louder as each christian talking point was checked off.
While the night featured several questions for the two men, nobody thought to ask why a candidate’s faith was anybody’s business at all.
The idea that a president or any governing body must adhere to a particular faith is fraught with peril. A secular government, as guaranteed by the Establishment Clause, is important to everyone, secular and religious alike. Americans follow many different faiths, and their right to do so ought to be protected. This can only happen if the government itself has no religious goals or pretensions.
Fundamentalists who decry the lack of Christianity in Christmas ought to remember that the same laws and standards which allow them to worship Christ must apply equally to those who choose something else.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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