Uncommon Common Sense
In God We Trust?
President Barack Obama was heavily criticized by conservatives earlier this year when he made a rather obvious observation at the National Prayer Breakfast. In light of the heinous violence perpetrated by Islamic Jihadists, he had the audacity to point out that Christians have also resorted to the indiscriminate killing of innocents when they slaughtered thousands of Muslims during the Crusades. Indeed, religion has often provided the impetus for war and killing.
Many terrorist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan, have used Christianity as a pretext for killing. Obama was trying to give the violence being perpetrated by ISIS in some context. People have been using religious belief as a pretext for killing for centuries. Today’s violence in the Middle East and North Africa, although particularly barbaric, is not a new phenomenon.
The reaction of American conservatives to his statements, however, is particularly revealing. Because Republican politicians are playing to a base that is overwhelmingly religious, they felt compelled to defend their Christian faith from its own history. In fact, religion, particularly evangelical Christianity, is seeping into the political arena with disturbing regularity.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has noted that in May of 2011, in the midst of a Presidential campaign, then Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested that government is incapable of confronting the many problems faced in the world. “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God, you’re going to have to fix this.’” He gathered 30,000 people for a “call to prayer for a nation in crisis” and promoted the event from the Governor’s office, using his official letterhead.
President George W. Bush famously responded to the question about whether he consulted his father for advice that he got his advice from “a higher authority.” Mike Huckabee, another presidential hopeful, recently asserted on television that the United States seems to be forgetting that it is “a God-centered nation that understands that our laws do not come from Man, they come from God.”
Conservative politicians regularly doubt Darwin’s theory of evolution, and worse, they try to forbid the teaching of Evolution in schools. They use religion as a basis for their positions on women’s reproductive health, capital punishment, opposition to same-sex marriage, welfare reform and other issues. Pandering to Christianity has not been limited to Republicans. Virtually no politician dares run for office as an avowed agnostic, let alone atheist. Barack Obama had to defend his “strong Christian faith” in a famous speech during the 2008 campaign. Presidents always attend national prayer breakfasts and conspicuously attend church services.
Many of the founding fathers were uncomfortable enough with religion themselves to claim to be deists, who believe that God may have created the earth but disavowed any interest in otherwise interfering with our affairs. They saw the danger of religion creeping into public affairs and prominently forbade such activity, they thought, with the First Amendment, prohibiting the establishment of a state religion and establishing a separation between church and state.
Most of us would agree that everyone should have the opportunity to practice whatever religion they choose without interference from their government. But this presupposes that their faith is deeply personal and that citizens in a free society should never have another’s faith thrust upon them. This is, in essence, what many conservative politicians in the United States are trying to do. When public events are opened with a Christian prayer, the Jews, Muslims, and atheists in the crowd are being subjected to a type of state religion. When Alabama politicians tried to install a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state capitol, they were trying to force a Judeo-Christian religious practice on the people of Alabama.
Here in Mexico, there is a stronger wall between Church and the State. The Church is not allowed to own property, participate in politics, or be involved in public education. I have not read about any Mexican politician invoking his or her Christian faith to defend a political position. I think this is one area, at least, where the US could learn a useful lesson from its southern neighbor!