Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Citizens' Proclaimation for Sanity

I have had many people tell me that when you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you. This is a point which seems lost on most politicians, the Oklahoma Legislature perhaps even more than average. In yet another example of how we make of ourselves a completely polarized nation, the Oklahoma Legislature takes time out of keeping us 36th in the country in education (2007 rankings), 5th and 6th in the country in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births to tell you that the source of the recession and the so-called degradation of our society is…wait for it…your morality. (I’m sure it’s not yours, probably someone else’s…)

In a wonderful continuation of Christian revisionist history we are compelled, as most of these arguments go, to return to a time when everything was great and we didn’t have any of these problems because we recognized the “biblical admonitions to live clean and pure lives” and did not “forsake the rich Christian heritage upon which this nation was built”. We are never told when this time was; just believe them when they tell you. Don’t bring up the fact that “biblical admonitions” were the very thing that were used to keep African-Americans in slavery, women from voting and even children working in factories. These same “biblical admonitions” demand that people who commit adultery are to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10) and that every seven years everyone should forgive all debts owed to them (Deuteronomy 15). And while we’re on the subject, you might want to ask a Native American what he or she thinks about our “rich Christian heritage”.

Of course, there are places you can go if you’d like to have a government driven by scripture. They’re called theocracies and perhaps Saudi Arabia or Iran would welcome you, as long as you convert. That’s going to be your problem – no Protestant Christian theocracies to choose from. You’ll have to convert, you just can’t make The United States a theocracy unless you are willing to give up the United States. Because the truth is that while Christianity certainly influences our “rich heritage”, what makes it rich is our freedom. And you can’t have both a Christian nation and a free nation at the same time – you have to choose.

My point is that this argument is really tired yet salacious enough to keep turning up again and again, despite its obvious flaws. The most obvious is that we are founded as a “Christian nation”. Do I believe that many practicing and believing Christians were part of the founding of this country? I certainly do. I also believe that they we wise enough not to place those personal views in the founding documents. The problem is, just like with reading the Bible, we are trying to read these documents with our own values in mind instead of seeing what was written then.

For instance, quoting Patrick Henry and James Madison to support the “Christian Nation” argument is disingenuous primarily because they were on opposite sides of this issue during their lives. James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” was written in 1785 in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry that all Virginians be taxed to support “teachers of the Christian religion.” The “Memorial and Remonstrance” remains one of the most powerful arguments against government-supported religion ever penned. Find the full text of the document here:

Three of the people quoted in the “Oklahoma Citizen's Proclamation for Morality” document had nothing to do with the founding of the country. They signed neither the Declaration nor the Constitution. Of the people quoted, it is Jefferson and Madison we must be most concerned with because they wrote the Declaration and the Constitution respectively. Certainly others were involved, but their signatures on the documents must mean that they agreed with the final product enough to have given their approval to it.

Pulling quotes out of context does not give one a viable picture of the turmoil and great debate in which the founding of this country took place.

I could easily counter a Madison quote with this:
“The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion." -James Madison

Or I could counter a Jefferson reference with this one:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It
neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
--Jefferson from the Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781 – 1785

We can play that game all day because these men lived just like we do – they looked at new information and they changed their minds. They grew and developed their opinions. So, reading quotes doesn’t really give us a complete picture. Looking at the documents that ALL parties signed does give us an idea about what they agreed on.

While God is mentioned expressly one of the founding documents, it is not applicable to simply insert your own personal Christian interpretation of that term, particularly since the founders had a variety of expressions themselves. If the Founders had intended to found a Christian nation, surely they would not have forgotten to leave out their Christian objectives in the Supreme law of the land. Nowhere in the Constitution do we have a single mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme Being. There occurs only two references to religion and they both use exclusionary wording. The 1st Amendment's says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . ." and in Article VI, Section 3, ". . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." There is a reference to the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, but this again cannot be taken to mean God in the way that Representative Kern or any other elected official sees it. This is more the God of 12-step groups, a “higher power” that is non-specific for the very purpose of being embraceable by the largest number of people. This is not a coincidence, it is the intention of the Founders so that the church and state could remain as separate as possible.

If indeed our Framers had aimed to found a Christian republic, it would seem highly unlikely that they would have forgotten to leave out their Christian intentions in the Supreme law of the land. In fact, nowhere in the Constitution do we have a single mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, or any Supreme Being. There occurs only two references to religion and they both use exclusionary wording. The 1st Amendment's says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . ." and in Article VI, Section 3, ". . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

There did occur, however, some who wished a connection between church and State. Patrick Henry, for example, proposed a tax to help sustain "some form of Christian worship" for the state of Virginia. But Jefferson and other statesmen did not agree. In 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill for the Statute for Religious Freedom which became Virginia law. Jefferson designed this law to completely separate religion from government. None of Henry's Christian views ever got introduced into Virginia's or U.S. Government law.

There is more to complain about than just the “Christian revisionism” and the blatant attempt to co-mingle religion and government (always with the religion of the instigator in the primary slot, of course…because they’re right.) The implication of this document is that our “moral crisis” has delivered us to a state of economic decline and ruin. Yet, the same people who profess this kind of Christian revisionist thinking have largely been in charge of the government for the past decade and nowhere in the “charges” leveled against our nation are things like unchecked greed, disregard for our fellow human beings, lack of love for our neighbors or any of the same accusations that Isaiah leveled against ancient Israel so long ago. Instead we get the same tired list of abortion, same sex marriage, and illegitimate births (among others). It wasn’t anything on this list that caused Bernie Madoff to rob thousands of people of their savings, nor is it same sex marriage that somehow threatens “traditional” marriage to the point of a 50% divorce rate.
If you wish to be helpful, begin to offer solutions that work beyond a glib and over-sentimentalized “return to morality”. It is clear that no side of this (or any other) argument has a monopoly on morality. We your constituents grow increasingly tired of one-upsmanship, the unambiguous support of party over country and the blatant attempts to enforce your own sense of religion as if it were the only answer. If that formula works for you, great. Knock yourselves out in your houses of worship and in your homes. But the capital building is where you serve everyone, not your own narrow interpretation of scripture, history or morality.

Despite my lengthy and somewhat frustrated argument above, my real issue with this is the undercurrent of theology that is present in this document. It is identical to the theology presented after Hurricane Katrina which held that the Gulf Coast was merely getting its due for its sins of debauchery and promiscuity. The idea that God is a vengeful being waiting to smite us with natural calamities, financial hardship or suffering of any kind is certainly present in the Bible. But so is the notion of a God who calls out Jerusalem with judgment but says this: “Look, I will send peace flowing over her like a river…As a mother comforts a child, so shall I comfort you…” (Isaiah 66:12).

God is not a God of fear but a God of love. As a minister of the Gospel I welcome calls for people to live moral lives, but not when they are presented as if there are some of us who do and some of us who don’t – and you know who you are. We all fall short of God’s Grace and the only way that we get anywhere is together in the spirit of love, not compartmentalized by the seat of judgment.

All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise, not from defects in their Constitution or Confederation, not from want of honor or virtue, so much as from the downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit and circulation. – John Adams

1 comment:

  1. Have you guys seen the John Adams series from HBO? We rented it on netflix and loved it. Our founding fathers were very smart, tough people, and they didn't agree on everything, most espeically religion!