May 6, 2010

For some reason I just can't get over two recent events which have some bearing on the future of religion in America: The ruling that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional and the 5 to 4 vote on the Mojave Cross for American Veterans in a Federally owned National Park. The combustible mix of religion and politics has been somewhat newsworthy as of late, given these two rulings.

To refresh your memory, on April 15th, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the statute establishing the National Day of Prayer, a tradition dating back to 1775, was unconstitutional as it is "an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function." On April 28th, The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, declared a lower court was wrong to invalidate a plan that would keep the "Mojave Cross" on top of a rock formation in what is now the Mojave National Preserve. This case gained national attention because critics charged it was wrong to have the cross, first erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1934 to honor the World War I dead, on public land because it implied government preference of one religion over others. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said:

"The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm. A cross by the side of a public highway marking, for instance, the place where a state trooper perished need not be taken as a statement of governmental support for sectarian beliefs. The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society."

Amen. Most common-sense Americans understand the difference between the free expression of religion and compulsory establishment of a state faith. Most of the litigation that attempts to banish displays of religion to houses of worship and private homes, is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. We have a right to express our faith freely, to assemble with others who share our faith, and to petition our government on issues of importance to our faith.

It is in that context that I evaluated the recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on religious freedom worldwide. By comparison, the U.S. continues to be the land of the free when it comes to religious expression, and it is unique in that regard. Eighty-six percent of the world's population is subjected to moderate to very high restrictions on religious liberty,   The survey measured both government restrictions and social hostilities in arriving at its findings.

What caught my attention, however, was an uptick in America's social hostilities index regarding religious freedom, from low to moderate. By definition, countries with moderate social hostilities have severe levels of violence and intimidation on a few of 13 measures, or more moderate levels on several of them. The 13 measures are as follows:

Moreover, the Pew researchers said, "It is apparent that the two measures [government restrictions and social hostilities] tend to move together...This means that, in general, it is rare for countries that are high in social hostilities to be low on government restrictions, or for those that are high on government restrictions to be low in social hostilities."

Based on these findings, I'm compelled to wonder if the recent increases in court challenges to religious expression in America are reflective of an era of greater government restrictions on religious liberty. If the government's laws follow the social trends, we could see several attempts to codify the opinions of angry atheists and non-Judeo Christian faiths offended by displays of the Ten Commandments or the cross. When one examines the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on the Mojave Cross, while the typical reaction is exultation over the win, it concerns me greatly that the vote was so close, and that just one Supreme Court justice voting the other way could've reversed the outcome.

The founders did not mince words when it came to their dedication to religion and its place in American life:

"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." ~ John Adams

"Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure...are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments." ~ James Carroll

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” ~ James Madison

"I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man." ~ Alexander Hamilton

"Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports...And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." ~ George Washington

In my research, the founders' writings and recorded statements were suffused with references to the Bible, God, Jesus Christ, the Ten Commandments, and Christianity in general. Even our three branches of government were defined by the Bible; James Madison, "The Father of the Constitution," used Isaiah 33:22 as the justification for his design - “For the LORD is our judge [Supreme Court], the LORD is our lawgiver [Congress], the LORD is our king [President]; He will save us.”

Their devotion to Christian principles, if not the Christian faith itself, was not inconsistent in their minds with the freedoms of religion and conscience espoused in the Bill of Rights. Patrick Henry said:

“It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here [emphasis added].”

The founders believed the Christian principles of individual dignity and worth, freedom of conscience, and "the patience and longsuffering of God" made religious liberty for all possible, including the right to have no religion at all. They had endured the persecution of state-sponsored churches and were determined it would not happen here in America, and they leaned on Christian teachings to formulate their doctrine of religious liberty.

A conservative Jewish friend once told me that he has no objection whatsoever to public Christmas or Easter observances or any other expressions of faith by the Christian community. He said if his faith is so fragile that any display of another faith's symbols or icons offends him, the problem is not with the displays, but with his faith. This survey is a warning that attitudes like his are the exception, not the norm.

People of faith would probably point to the survey's findings elsewhere in the world as reason for America to intervene on behalf of religious liberty everywhere. Worldwide religious persecution is very difficult for America to combat, however, and if we're struggling with our interpretation of religious liberty here at home, we won't have the will to intervene in other parts of the world. It will fall to the churches to call attention to it, and the American people to decide if their nation should act. 

The sound I hear in the distance is the tolling of a bell. When devotion to religious principles have eroded to the extent they have in the last fifty years, the tolling announces a death has occurred. Religious liberty has died because social hostility toward religion has all but driven it underground and many will see that as a burial.