We, the people, are united by our shared humanity and our common citizenship. We are divided by our divergent sectarian beliefs. In the past, these divisions led to oppression of those out of favor by those holding the positions of power. At times, persecution reached the point of cruelty and lethality. At other times, civil wars broke out as competing sets of true believers sought to gain or retain temporal power. Based on the sterling insight of what unites us and the shameful history of what divides us, the Founding and the Framing generation ordained and established a secular Republic.
Despite the contemporary rampant ignorance of people who should know better, secularism is not a religion; it is a philosophic perspective and a constitutional prescription. The Constitution of the United States neither enthrones nor endorses any variety of religious persuasion, any more than it anoints or approves any particular approach to economic activity.
While congregants of particular religious denominations have struggled since the start of the Republic to seize the reins of power, they have always done so without constitutional justification. America is neither a Christian nor a Capitalist nation. It is a Constitutional Republic in which all are free to follow their conscience in the practice of religion and to seek their fortune by all legal means. The only requirement consistent with the constitution is that each of us allows others the freedom to do the same.
Despite this historical background and continuing reality, Mitt Romney in his response to a question about the recent HHS contraceptive regulation requiring religiously affiliated organizations to provide coverage for all women employees, declared: “I think there is a desire to establish a religion in America known as secularism.”
Politicians are notorious for saying outlandish things. This has gotten worse in American politics year after year and it seems the 2012 elections will shatter all records for lies and lunacy on the campaign trail. The candidates of one of the two major parties seem to meld Constitutional ignorance with campaigning unscrupulousness in a toxic mix of say anything about anything regardless of its malicious or fallacious nature.
A classic example of this is the nonsense about a war on religion. For some reason, many Republicans cannot recall or will not accept the stipulation in Article VI paragraph 3 that states:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
As John F. Kennedy said in 1960, “Neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection for if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly working to repeal it.” This provision of the Constitution was not, at the time it was written and ratified, a mere formality. The Framers knew the bloody history of alliances between church and state in national governance. They knew that intolerance and bigotry were tireless and devious in their stratagems to seize power and enforce conformity to their infallible truths. Catholics and Protestants both waged relentless wars to conquer and exterminate those who disagreed with their particular brand of dogmatic veracity. Due to the now long established custom and tradition of separation between ecclesiastic and civil power, contemporary Americans do not appreciate the danger of such an ignoble alliance. Current ignorance does not wipe away the bloody historical record and if we forget history, we will be condemned to repeat it. If we permit those who seek political office to incite suspicions against people who believe differently from the majority and arouse ambitions of theocratic ascendancy, our fractured society will be driven further apart. It bears repeating that our shared humanity and common citizenship unite us. We must emphasize these binding factors in our politics and downplay any sources of undue division.
The ignorance and duplicity of these pious politicians extends further than the “no religious test clause.” These charlatans seek to hijack the First Amendment’s non-establishment provision and its free exercise clause for their own misguided intentions. The first to protect nonconforming individuals from ecclesiastic authority; it is not intended to condone ecclesiastic dominion over everyone in their locale or affiliated institutions. Similarly the free exercise clause protects citizens in the formation, expression, and observance of their own religious beliefs. In the recent contraceptive access cause célèbre, the individual women were the ones who had the “right of conscience” claim, not the [mostly male] occupants of positions of authority.
The Founders and the Framers were seeking to design and launch the best possible system of governance. They were neither trying to found a new religion nor to invest an existing religion with civil power. For them religion was between individuals and whatever they conceived the deity to be. Though many of the Founders and Framers practiced some variety of Christianity, few of them sought to create the government of the nation as a weapon for the triumph of their particular denomination. We should follow their wise example.
Regardless of our sectarian beliefs, whether we are devoutly Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or Humanistic, our political obligation is to be soundly patriotic in the sense defined by the Constitution of the United States. As JFK opined, if we do not like provisions of the Constitution as it exists, our responsibility is to strive to amend it. We cannot in good conscience twist and ignore the clear language of the Constitution because our theological beliefs insist everyone conform to them.
First and foremost authentic patriots are Americans before they are congregants of any denomination. At our best, we are united by a civil faith as expressed in the Pledge of Allegiance – “the Republic … with liberty and justice for all.” This means liberty from all religious impositions and justice in the conduct of our political and civil affairs regardless of sectarian affiliations or the lack thereof.
The United States is a Constitutional Republic, the longest surviving and functioning one in human history. Though many persons of diverse origins and creeds participated in its founding and functioning, they have done so as American citizens and not as congregants of any variety of religious expression. Sectarianism divides us and at this time in our history when we most need to recall and affirm that united we stand and divided we fall. What unites us is our shared Constitutional heritage. In the 2012 elections all truly patriotic Americans will make their decisions in accordance with what their consciences tell them to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. No power or threat of punishment or ostracism must cause us to decide differently or act otherwise. In 1787 we were bequeathed “a Republic if we could keep it.” Now we must demonstrate that we are worthy heirs to this treasure and rise to the challenge of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States.