Archive for December, 2005

Notes on religious freedom

To a conscientious person, the holiday season brings concerns for respect of multiple cultures and religious beliefs. With the seasonal bustle and American obsession with time-efficiency, we produce phrases such as “Happy Christmukah” and “Merry Christmakwanzukuh” (I am still waiting for an elegant inclusion of our Pagan friends in a compound holiday).

To right-wing pundits, however, the holiday season is a time to propagate the perennial myth of the “war on Christmas”. In a disturbing twist, some of these pundits support their indignance with the claim that America is a “Christian nation”, a claim made by these extremists in other contexts as well. They assert that America was founded on Christian principles and that the founding fathers meant for Christianity to have a central or elevated status in the government.

This is, of course, absolutely wrong. Even my lousy grade school history unit conveyed that this country was founded on Enlightenment principles more than any others. It is well-documented that the core Founding Fathers were deists, not theists. Just to remind myself, though, I thought I would take a look at the roots of “separation of church and state” to see how tenuous is this privilege.

I have to admit, I’m not generally a history fan, and I hadn’t read much of the Bill of Rights since middle school. And I’m not given to emotional reactions to, well, most things, but especially government documents. So I was quite surprised at my visceral sense of awe and gratitude when I reviewed the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is such beautiful simplicity in this statement, so powerful as to grant unparalleled freedom to our civilization for more than two centuries. The principle of a secular government is not tenuous at all, but stated very clearly, right there in the Constitution! Obvious, I know, but apparently not obvious enough to many in our society.

Of course we rely not just on the letter of the constitution, but on the judicial interpretation of it. And thankfully that interpretation has been just as clear; as Justice David Souter wrote, “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.” (Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 1994).

I apologize for making an old and obvious point, but I feel personally moved to share it, and to say God bless our secular government.

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