If they haven’t discerned it before this, Americans must by now have realized, that the first freedom guaranteed by our Constitution is our most onerous and burdensome one: Religious freedom. By now, Americans should have ascertained that every right is counter-balanced by a responsibility. In this case, the right to religious belief and worship literally requires respect for others to enjoy a similar right, and if different, to refrain from any dissent, contrary persuasion or resistance. It is this onus that provides the strongest argument against the assertion that ours’ was conceived as a ‘Christian’ nation. It was not hostility to Christianity that moved the founders to this assertion, it was the need to ensure religious neutrality. The Treaty of Tripoli, an agreement between the United States and the Muslim Region of North Africa, signed in 1797, by then President George Washington and approved by the Senate, under John Adams, states flatly: “The Government of The United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.” This in no way places a restriction on religious belief or practice by any citizen, only a responsibility to ensure the same for everyone else. It literally requires that we all show tolerance and respect for the beliefs or non-beliefs of others and refrain from intolerant argument or actions to the contrary. What it does do is bar those who may have over-zealously deemed themselves as self-appointed emissaries or spokespersons, from exercising such unsanctioned power. It also makes the vision of pluralism a more viable reality, at a time when we appear to be more than ever, in need of embracing it. The crux of this festering problem lies in a divergent concept of religious dogma: the first of the “Ten Commandments;” widely accepted by congregants of Judeo/Christian belief. It was noted by Abraham Lincoln, who was strongly criticized by a member of the Republican committee, considering his possible nomination for the Presidency, because of Lincoln’s refusal to join a congregation of any organized church. Lincoln was reported to have stated that he would only join a congregation in which the First Commandment was held to be less important than the other nine. In his view, the argumentative differences over who was the true Divinity, overshadowed the far greater importance of ethical conduct by congregants. Lincoln also obviously had strong feelings about the hypocritical piety of those who falsely defined themselves as: ‘religious’. Writing in answer to the insistent petition of a woman who urged the President to pardon her husband, whom she defined as a “religious man,” Lincoln replied that while he was not much of a judge of religion, he believed that… “the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because they think it doesn’t help those… to eat their bread on the sweat of others’ faces, is not the sort of religion by which people get to heaven!” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain, in citing a Darwinian view of the societal effect of religion, has noted that the great religions were most effective as moral tutors, when they turned our gazes outward to the “human other,” who reflects the “Divine other,” by getting us to do ethically demanding things together in the context of community. This fragile ‘miraculous’ experiment in people’s governance can never succeed, as the result of an imposition of Divine will or power, as imposed by self-appointed emissaries, driven by an ungovernable ambition to “play God.” Only by respecting our differences and working together to achieve equal justice, equal opportunity and equal freedom for all, can we ensure the kind of future our founders wisely envisioned and enshrined in the Constitution and its even more critical amendments.
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