4/03/2005

In gods we trust

From Juan Cole on Salon:
Both the reelection of George Bush and the Schiavo travesty have heightened the sense that the religious right in the United States is all-powerful. Reading the press, you get the impression that almost all Americans are devout Christians, people who believe in a literal heaven and hell and spend their idle moments devouring the "Left Behind" novels about the end of the world. This isn't true -- and it's getting less true all the time. While evangelical Christians are a significant political force, they are probably only a fifth of the country, and not all of them are politically conservative: Only 14 percent of voters in an exit poll for the presidential elections in 2000 characterized themselves as part of the "Christian right." In fact, polls show that the United States is becoming less religious. Only about 60 percent of Americans say religion is important in their lives. The United States is still a predominantly Christian country, but it is no longer an overwhelmingly Christian one. And more and more Americans are either non-religious, unchurched or subscribe to non-Christian religions. The public relations fiasco that attended the Republican Party's cynical attempt to play the religion card in the tragic case of the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo suggests that the religious right has jumped the shark. (This phrase refers to the point at which a popular television series does something weird and over-the-top and then goes into a ratings spiral.) Still, it has not given up exploiting God for political gain, as demonstrated by the widespread movement among American evangelicals to place the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Secular analysts cast this struggle as one between liberal and conservative principles. There is another conflict going on here, however, between the new multicultural America of many religions (or none), and the traditionally Christian-dominated country that is fading away at the beginning of the 21st century. In 2001, Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama had a massive two-ton granite monument bearing the Ten Commandments wheeled into the state Supreme Court building. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations sued to have it removed, on the grounds that its installation in this public building constituted a state endorsement of a particular religion. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This archaic phrase is now difficult to understand. In colonial times, each of the 13 colonies had an "established" religion, which was officially endorsed by the government and imposed on citizens. In Anglican Virginia, ship captains who brought Quakers into the state were fined, and dissidents were tried for heresy. The Bill of Rights was intended to ensure that the federal government of the new United States did not "establish" (that is, adopt as official and obligatory) any particular religion. The courts ruled against Moore, but he refused to obey them, declining to mothball the monument to the Ten Commandments. A special judicial court removed Moore from his position as chief justice late in 2003. Moore complained to CNN, "Without acknowledgement of God, we have no justice system, according to the Constitution. And that, I'm sworn to uphold." But fewer and fewer Americans are interested in Moore's God...Government endorsement of any particular religion's conception of God is also an obstacle to the American dream, of a society where the state is neutral with regard to theology. The founding fathers signed into law a 1797 treaty with Tripoli (now Libya), which declares that "...the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion" and adds that "it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims]." The idea of the United States government as religiously neutral was linked in this treaty with the notion of peace among nations. The treaty adds, "it is declared ... that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries..." More than 200 years later, all the progress achieved in the realm of religious tolerance by the first generation of Americans is in danger of being wiped out by ignorant fanatics who are not good enough to shine their shoes. That danger arises even as the number of non-Christians has risen to record highs. The irony is that the true iconoclasts throughout Christian history would have recognized Judge Moore's two-ton behemoth for what it is: a graven idol.

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