Monday, February 14, 2011

God Bless America and no one else?

There's no getting around it.  Religion is serious business, it matters, and is relevant to everyone (beliver and  non-beliver alike).  According to the many scholars and people that advanced the concepts of Secularization Theory, the United States and much of the world should have let go of their attachments to spirituality and faith by now, replacing it with critical thinking and rationality.  Events of the past few weeks in a rural, mountainous county, as well as the chambers of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Kentucky legislature, disputes this theory. 

The issues of hanging the Ten Commandments and prayer on school property are once again being hotly debated.  On one side, citizens who profess America's foundations as a Christian Nation.  On the other, advocates for strict separation in matters of faith and state.  This tug-of-war has found a new ground zero in this ongoing national debate:  Giles County Virginia

Back in December, in response to a complaint from a group that advocates for the strict separation of church and state called the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Giles County Schools Superintendent agreed to remove prints of the Ten Commandments from the classrooms after conferring with the attorney for the School District. 

In late January, the Giles County School Board vote unanimously to rehang the prints of the Ten Commandments after more than 200 parents, citizens, and leaders from Giles County churches packed the School Board meeting room and spoke passionately to defy the law.  This has brought strong reaction from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, as well as the Virginia ACLU who has threatened to file a lawsuit. 

Eric Gentry, Chairman of the Giles County Board of Supervisors, expressed support for fighting any legal action that may come, as well as fighting any "hate groups" like the ACLU.  In response to Eric Gentry's statement, Virginia ACLU Board Member David Drachsler has written an op-ed in the Roanoke Times that address this charge and does an excellent job of framing the historical context and perspective of why it is a really, really, bad idea for any government body to promote one faith over another. 

Then we have Delegate Bill Carrico, (R)-Grayson County, who again introduced a bill to amend the state Constitution, HJ 593, to guarentee the right to pray on public property, which includes public schools in Virginia.  It passed the House of Delegate easily, but it is likely to die in the State Senate. 

In Kentucky, three Democratic legislators have introduced a bill to "teach Bible literacy", as an elective.  Opponents argue this is noting more than a "backdoor approach to teaching religion" in public schools. 

These might seem like well intentioned efforts, but one has to question the raw motivation behind challenges to longstanding state and federal legal rulings on Church-State separation.  So why do we have a First Amendment which states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment off religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;", or the constitutional guarentee that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" (U.S. Constitution, Article VI sec. 3), or state laws that reflect the same legal philosophy?  It seems the reasons can be found much farther back than those of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Contrary to what we have been told or learned in school, the founding of the original colonies were not based on a desire for religious freedom.  It seems that when any of the religiously oppressed groups landed and established their communities, they also enacted laws and other rules that established their faith and prosecuted anyone that did not conform. 

In an article published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion in 2005 titled "Political Origins of Religious Liberty", Anthony Gill, PhD., Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, offers a very insightful section on religion in the colonies called "The Early United States."  If you can picture a map of the original Thirteen Colonies, Congregaionalists had New England, down south (Virginia to Georgia) was dominated by Episcopalians and Presbyterians, the Quakers had Pennsylvania and the Catholics controlled Maryland. 

Each colony had some form of a religious tax or mandatory tithing.  Individual towns and communities had religious laws, some of which were quite strict.  What became clear very early on, it's extremely costly to enforce a strict set of religious laws.  As Anthony Gill states,
"While some denominations tried to maintain strict control over the beliefs and practices fo the local population, de facto religious pluralism and freedom gradually resulted from the mere fact that people could up and move if they did not like the laws under which they were living,..."
What is also interesting is that strict enforcement of religious laws started impacting interstate trade.  So much so that religious orthodoxy almost resulted in a trade war between Puritans and Quakers in 1659.  In essence, the desire to engage in commerce and trade trumped religious dogma and purity.

So, all this nibbling around the edges with introducing bills to change state constitutions to allow prayer on public school property, elective classes on Biblical literacy, and fighting to post the Ten Commandments in every classroom, is a little disconcerting to say the least.  So again, what are the motives behind these efforts to introduce religious regulations into a secular government?  Political pandering, plain and simple. 

Religion is a private matter that has a public presence.  Billions of people draw personal strength from their respective faiths.  By and large, most people that publicly profess their faith are good people.  But then there are those that profess those same beliefs and take them a step or two, or three further and politicize their faith.  There are just places that are meant for faith and places that should be neutral ground.  Our public schools are a place where religion can be discussed as part of the learning process, but not where one faith is promoted over all others. 

While these recent moves to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, allow government sanctioned prayer on public school property, and teach Biblical literacy are not likely to withstand longtime legal precedent on the matter, if it did would this also mean that we would be on the path to laws that forbid the United States from doing business with China or the Middle East?  Who knows, but one thing is clear, the United States was founded on commerce and trade and not Christian principles.

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