America’s long struggle to balance church and state isn’t getting any easier
By Jay Tolson
A t the entrance to the city zoo in Tulsa, Okla., stands a marble globe inscribed with an American Indian proverb: “The. earth is our mother.. .The sky is our father.” . Near the zoo’s elephant exhibit is a statue of the elephant-like Hindu god Ganesh.
Tulsa architect Dan Hicks, a devout Christian, thinks so. He has long argued that the biblical perspective also deserves a place at the zoo. He proposed adding a plaque telling part of the Genesis story to a scientific exhibit on the origins of the Earth and its creatures. After loud support from Mayor Bill LaFortune and many hundreds of pro-creationist Tulsans, the park and recreation board agreed to the display in June, 2005. But the board reversed itself a month later, bowing, its members said, to public pressure and to their own careful re-examination of the matter. “I don’t believe religious scriptures belong in a zoo,” says Dale McNamara, the sole board member to consistently oppose the plaque. In her view, the Hindu statue and similar items are consistent with the zoo’s ongoing effort to explore the cultural significance of animals, while putting the Genesis story in the origins exhibit seems to have a specifically religious intent.
The Tulsa park board is not alone these days in having to draw such fine distinctions between permissible and impermissible expressions of religious belief in public institutions. Consider what the Supreme Court. did at the end of its past term. In McCreary County v. American Civil l Liberties Union of Ky., the court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that two courthouses in Kentucky could not display framed copies of the Ten Commandments on their walls, while a 5-to-4 majority decided in Van Orden v. Periy that it was constitutional for a 6-foot monument in scribed with those same Ten Commandments to remain standing on the capitol grounds in Austin.
The hair that was split in reaching these two decisions was fine indeed. In the Texas ruling, the majority reasoned that the monument could stay because it had been around for a relatively long time.(since 1961) and was surrounded by non-religious educational and historical symbols.
The Kentucky displays failed that educational and historical test. Put up in 1999, they, too, were surrounded by secular documents—including the Magna Carta—but those had been added after a federal judge ordered the Ten Commandments to be taken down. The belated effort clearly failed to sway the majority of the nation’s highest court.
If the Supreme Court decisions seemed to offer something to both sides of America’s secular-religious divide, no one sounds mollified. The Texas ruling is a boost to the religious right’s efforts to “put religious symbols everywhere in the public realm,” says Paul Kurtz, founder and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism. Tony Perkins,head of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based Christian think tank, is equally disappointed.. He charges that the two decisions
mean “that you can have monuments only as long as you detach them from their religious meaning,” which in his view is tantamount to “sandblasting the [nation’s] Judeo-Christian heritage.” Little surprise then that activists are gearing up for a fight over whether John G. Roberts, a conservative Roman Catholic, should fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s seat on the Supreme Court.
Name any number of the hot-button issues of our time—abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research—and the question of religion’s place in American politics and public life looms large. Indeed, no line in public life is more hotly disputed or subject to more relentless negotiation than the one dividing church and state. To many religious Americans—and America is the most religious of the advanced nations—faith has a legitimate role in shaping the laws of the nation. The First Amendment, they insist, was not written to exclude religion from the public sphere. But many of the Americans who claim to have no religion—and whose numbers, by one survey, doubled from 14 million to 29 million between 1990 and 000—disagree They hold that this public sphere should rightly be a secular space, not favoring or even representing the views of any religious orientation . Even many devout Americans feel that religion’s entry into the public sphere violates the Founding Fathers’ intent.
But the knotty question is discerning just what the founders really intended. Militant secularists argue that the founders meant religion to be strictly a matter of private conviction, never to impinge on public life. Militant religionists counter that they intended to create an explicitly Christian nation. But both overlook the fact that America, as a country and as a concept, was truly founded by two different generations of leaders who had quite different views about church and state . Indeed, argues Purdue University historian Frank Lambert in his book The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, America really had two sets of spiritual fathers.
More than a century and a half later—after the spread of the skeptical scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment among colonial elites and after the Great Awakening challenged the authority of the established religious sects—a different group of national leaders, the Founding Fathers, came together to forge a new national compact. When these founders gathered in Philadelphia, most not only acknowledged the futility of imposing a national church on such a diverse people but abhorred the idea of doing so . In fact, James Madison, a key architect of the Constitution, thought that the religious diversity of Americans was so thoroughly entrenched that it was unnecessary for the national charter to guarantee religious freedom . But when it became clear that Madison’s own fellow Virginians (particularly Baptists) wanted such an explicit guarantee, Madison helped draft the famous religion clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
But Madison and the other founders never imagined they were banishing religion from the public sphere. In the words they spoke, the symbols they embraced, the rituals they established—from days of thanksgiving to prayers at the start of our Congress—the founders made clear that acknowledgment of divine providence was not only acceptable but essential. This “civic” religion was distinctly nonsectarian, though many of its elements reflected the reality that 95 percent of citizens belonged to one Protestant sect or another. Whether they were Calvinists or liberal deists, writes James Hutson in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, the founders believed divine will legitimized their laws and made citizens
more willing to respect them.
Although Americans became even more religiously diverse and zealous over the next few decades, there were only minor struggles about the place of religion in public life. That all began to change when the first public schools were founded in the 1820s. Americans were forced to confront the question of what kind of religious principles should inform the moral instruction of children in these schools. The solution was non-sectarianism:. the teaching of a set of principles thought to be shared by all Christian sects.. In practice, this consisted largely of reading the Bible without imposing any kind of doctrine.
Ultimately, though, the strongest challenge to America’s cautious embrace of religion in its public life would come not from groups who objected to its Protestant coloring . It would come, instead, from the champions of an ideological form of secularism, which combined scientific skepticism with stringent views on the incompatibility of religion with liberal values such as tolerance and pluralism. Its adherents would increasingly claim, often through the courts, that the only acceptable views in the public sphere—whether in the educating of young minds or in the making or interpreting of laws—were secularist views. Giving special impetus to the rise of this ideology was the haunting memory of the Civil War. The fact that combatants on both sides used religion to justify their pro-or-anti-slavery positions made a number of prominent intellectuals, including William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Dewey, determined to find a philosophy that, as Louis Menand writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Metaphysical Club, would “make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs.” Known as pragmatists, they sought to create a society that was more tolerant of divergent convictions. “It wasn’t part of their project to secularize the public sphere,” says Menand. “They were addressing the fanaticism that, at its worst, religion can cause. Pragmatists thought that even if beliefs were absolute, we have to think about them in a pragmatic way—through debate and testing.”
possible to sustain. The spread of Darwin’s ideas boosted a quasi-religious faith among intellectuals in the power of science to explain everything. At the same time, explains Julie Reuben in The Making of the Modern University, some of the most prestigious universities, long the source of the country’s spiritual education, were seeking to banish religious dogmatism from the curriculum in favor of professional academic disciplines, themselves imbued with the values of scientific objectivity. Some university presidents believed their institutions could have a moral influence without their religious ties, but by the 1930s most of the nation’s leading universities had essentially banished religion to the extracurricular areas of student life. The more educated Americans gravitated toward the more liberal aspects of their religious traditions, if they remained churchgoers at all, and slowly a rift opened between them and many less advantaged Americans.
As modernist thinking encroached upon religion itself—subjecting bedrock prin-ciples of faith such as the virgin birth to scientific-historical scrutiny—a number of evangelical ministers responded by asserting the “fundamentals.” The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, which took its name from a book of pamphlets called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, first convened in 1919 and set out to refute modernist criticism of Christian doctrine and the Bible. “It would take another 75 years, explains New York University legal scholar Noah Feldman in his valuable new book, Divided by God, “ and the transformation of a peripheral movement into one supported by its own universities and national political organizations, but fundamentalism would eventually change the face of American religion and politics, and give its name to a broader worldwide phenomenon of enormous historical importance.”
More immediately, a defining battle between fundamentalists and secularists was joined in a Tennessee courtroom in 1925. William Jennings Bryan, a prominent spokesman for “old-time religion and a three-time Democratic candidate for the presidency, had taken up the cause of resisting the spread of secularist ideas ---namely, Darwinian theory—in America’s classrooms. Evangelical fervor was then wedded not to the Republican Party but to the populist wing of the Democratic Party.) Bryan, ‘the Great Commoner,” brought his crusade to a head in his courtroom clash with the aggressively secularist attorney Clarence Darrow, who defended John Scopes’s right to reach evolution in defiance of Tennessee Law. Bryan won the Scopes “monkey Trial,” but historians have argued ever since over whether extreme secularism or fundamentalist religion suffered the greater setback. At the very least, secularists could now be impugned as haughty elitists, while the religiously devout could be characterized as know-nothing hicks—caricatures that would serve in the future culture wars and be hurled across the now infamous divide between “red” and “blue” America.
But in the shorter term, the extremists went into remission, as the nation pulled itself together to face growing international challenges—fascism and communism—in wars both hot and cold. Churchgoing actually increased during the decades after the Scopes trial, but fundamentalism took a distant back seat to a milder, more liberal form of religion that reconciled science with allegorical readings of the sacred texts and generally accentuated the social gospel over dogma and doctrine.
A wary world.
Those contrary tendencies—the challenging of all religious influence in the public realm and the effort to reassert religious values there—have played a defining role in national domestic politics over the past 40 years. And while most Americans are less extreme than their activist leaders, they tend to be pulled in a more radical direction in political elections. During the modern era, of course, the strong secularists have become more firmly allied with liberalism and the Democratic Party, while the strong religionists —first the fundamentalists of the Moral Majority and then a much broader evangelical movement shifted decisively into the Republican camp (with the exception of most African-American evangelicals). Battling over such issues as abortion or same-sex marriages, secularists tell religious folks not to impose their faith-based views and morality on other Americans, whether through laws or education or public symbolic expressions of religious beliefs . The religious counter that Roe v. Wade and the Massachusetts high court’s decision permitting same-sex unions are themselves efforts to impose another sort of moral reasoning on the American people. Unfortunately, the legal arena is not well suited to resolving these fraught cultural and moral issues, says Wilfred McClay, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee—Chattanooga who has written extensively about American secularism. Law is a particularly blunt instrument, he explains, when it comes to dealing with factors like customary usage and tradition, though it is precisely those sorts of considerations that the Supreme Court had to rely on in its Ten Commandments decisions.
So how to reconcile the two factions warring for America’s public space? Feldman believes ; that there need to be more concessions from both sides, with religionists surrendering things like government funding for faith-based initiatives and secularists allowing religious symbolism in the public realm. But his solution may require both too little and too much . After all, argues Perkins of the Family Research Council, “giving up faith-based initiatives wouldn’t be as big a loss to faith-based communities as to the undeserved.” And as McClay points out, “Christian believers must share the public sphere with other kinds of believers as well as non-believers.” That means accepting a more representative sampling of the symbolic expressions of those other beliefs.
For the time being, people will have to continue exploring the limits of how much, or how little, religion is permissible in the public square. “Where you draw the line is the question,” says Richard Cizik, chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. While he approves evangelicals’ current assertiveness, Cizik, a self-described “prudentialists” warns that people could hurt their own cause by pushing the line too far. Folks on both sides of the divide might profitably take a cue from that caution.
U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
August 8, 2005. (Pgs. 41-48)
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