Writing in the New York Times (4/8/12) Ross Douthat argues “that religious common ground has all but disappeared.” The existence of a Judeo Christian center that helped bind the teeming nation together is in retreat, he claims. In a nation as divided as ours, religious polarization is inescapable as the race to the presidency has already suggested.
The fear about radical secularism, on one hand, drivingany aspect of religion out of the public square, and the specter of theocracy haunting the precincts of the liberal left, are offset by churches that are institutionally weak and fragmented. Americans do not separate religion from politics, but they are sensitive to the manner in which they are combined.
As I see it, notwithstanding the Douthat thesis that fragmentation characterizes the religious landscape, there is hope for a strategic alliance, a way for religions to embrace a common theme. The United States owes its origin and unique institutional qualities to religion, to the Judeo Christian tradition.
John Winthrop compared those seeking to avoid English religious prosecution in their pursuit of the New World with the exodus of Jews from Pharaoh’s Egypt. Thomas Jefferson’s reference to the phrase “all men are created equal” comes from the Book of Genesis. The separation of powers in the Constitution is based on the Augustinian supposition that evil and avarice must be countered with institutional checks and balances.
The Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay are filled with direct and indirect references to Original Sin including the belief that “if men were angels” institutional sanctions would be unnecessary. The founding of the new nation was seen through a belief in God’s will. Illustrations of the political motives and religious ideas abound.
For secularists to deny these antecedents undermines the unique history of the United States. We the people are religious to our historical core and those who want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance or deny religiosity in our public events eviscerate the national heritage.
It seems to me American history transcends the present fragmentation to which Mr. Douthat accurately refers. Most significantly, this reliance on the religious ideas that led to the birth of the Union could serve to unify our diverse population. The key would be an effort to educate Americans about their religious past, specifically the biblical ideals that helped to formulate the idiosyncratic system of government we have.
Our Declaration of Independence refers to God-given inalienable rights. Presumably since they are God-given, they cannot be removed by governments or those intent on dictatorial authority. Students may read the words in the Declaration, but do they understand and imbibe the lesson?
That is our challenge, to educate Americans about this civic dimension of religious ideas. A foundation for freedom and democracy can be found in our history and in the desire for unity, for the indivisible nation, Lincoln fought to create. Our historical past can be harnessed as a vehicle for coming together through an understanding of our religious heritage. Yes, we are divided now in part because our history is like a forgotten dream, but that might change if we can recall the gifts that God gave the new nation.
Herbert Londonis president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Books).
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