By Paul

When the framers of the Constitution added the Bill of Rights, they began first of all by talking about freedom of religion. As much as this was, and still is, a shining moment in the history of humankind, it should also be acknowledged that there have been many concerns over the years related to the interpretation of these rights. To quote it directly, here is what the so-called “establishment clause” actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In fact, these two short statements often seem to be in a kind of opposition to each other, and have almost from the beginning been the subject of discussion, argumentation, contention, division, and a myriad of claims related to the right way and the wrong way of living and behaving. What does it mean for the government to establish a religion? In one sense, this is clear. It cannot require all citizens to be members of and adhere to any one religious organization. This was added in to the Bill of Rights as an obvious reaction to laws that the framers of the Constitution, or their recent ancestors, had lived under, which forced all Englishmen of the time to belong to the Church of England. The colonies were founded, for the most part anyway, by people who had fled England specifically in order to be able to practice religions other than the established one. To be sure, these other religions were mainly Protestant Christian in nature, Presbyterian, Methodist, and of course Puritanism. The likelihood is very small that it ever occurred to the founders that this amendment to the Constitution might eventually also apply to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, and even to Catholics, to say nothing of Wiccans or, more obliquely maybe, to those who believed in no God and no religion at all. And yet, the modern interpretation of the 1st Amendment does apply to all of the above.

Or does it? The basic question always seems to be, where do you fairly and impartially strike a balance when it comes to restricting government from setting up an official religion? And where is the line between the free ability of the people, perhaps even a majority of people, who wish to see aspects of their religion infused into the public life of the polis, and those opposed to these religious views and values being part of the law of the land?

The Supreme Court has grappled over and over with this tug of war, sometimes coming down on one side, sometimes on the other. The latest push-pull came just a few days ago, when a majority five members of the court voted to allow public prayers – prayers that were, in fact, predominately Christian in nature – to be said before a town meeting. Two citizens, a Jew and an atheist, had brought suit against the town council of Greece, New York, accusing them of repeatedly allowing prayers to open their meeting. Many of these prayers directly referenced Christianity, speaking of Jesus, his resurrection, and of other dogmas clearly associated with Christianity.

At issue is the comfort of non-Christian citizens, who may have business before their town council. Does a Jewish citizen of the town of Greece, for example, or an atheist, or a Buddhist (if there are any) feel all right about sitting through a prayer, any prayer, but especially one that ends with the phrase “in Jesus’ name,” all the while awaiting to conduct business before a government council?

In fact, let us not forget that the 1st Amendment of the Constitution does not stop with the declaration related to religious freedom. It goes on to list several other rights, as well. It may even be worthwhile to quote the entire amendment here:

“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 peacefully to assemble, and to petition Government for a redress of grievances.”

In other words, the 1st Amendment goes on to also speak of other freedoms essential to the health of a democracy, namely, that of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of petitioning the government when things go wrong. Does a prayer, and specifically a Christian prayer, at the beginning of a town council meeting abridge any of these other freedoms? Arguably, it may well, particularly in regard to the last one listed, namely, the right of the people to petition the government (i.e., the town council, in this case) for a redress of grievances. And is this, along with all the other rights, not also a co-equal partner with freedom of religion, as delineated in the 1st Amendment?

According to Justice Kennedy, who wrote for the majority, the prayers were “merely ceremonial, and meant to signal the solemnity of the occasion.” Indeed, even the Obama Administration came down on the side of “protecting freedom of religion” in this case. And while it is true that most governmental bodies in this country do allow some sort of prayer before opening for business, more commonly these prayers are at very least entirely non-sectarian in nature, addressing a kind of generic “God,” without the addition of a specific name, and certainly not referencing “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross,” as one such prayer before the Greece, N. Y. town council meeting did.

For my money, I think that Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that there ought to be a wall of separation between church and state. And if solemnity before a public meeting is required, fine. Let us open with a moment of silence, during which time each person can address their own vision of God in their own heart, or not at all, if that is their individual wish. What, in fact, could be more solemn, less sectarian, less intrusive, and at the same time more “religious,” than silence?

Kennedy did go on to say that such prayers ought not to denigrate other religions, or to proselytize, or “to threaten damnation.” Really? Is this the bar to which we should be held: let us not “threaten” Jews or Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims, or atheists before town council meetings held here in these United States? Well, that surely would be good.

But it is not enough. The Supreme Court has gone too far this time, and its conservative majority has upset the delicate balance that must be maintained among the various rights enumerated within the 1st Amendment. All of those rights need to be taken into consideration, and those of Christians to say their prayers ought not to take precedence. That, after all, is the essence of what it means to live a pluralistic society. In a balanced way, this is what the 1st Amendment should protect, and this is what we ought to expect of a fair and even-minded judiciary. Unfortunately, as has happened far too often of late, this Court has failed to do its job, and as such has done a great disservice not only to the people – all the people, Christians and non-Christians alike – but also even to its own constitutional mandate.


By Paul

“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to an Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI, The Constitution of the United States of America

 It was for good reason that the Founding Fathers of this country decided to include the above passage in the Constitution they created to govern the newly independent United States.  Specifically, it could be said that they did not want the choice of elected officials to be limited to persons of any one particular religion, and they most definitely did not want an “established religion,” such as Great Britain had, which could lord it over other religions. However, on a grander scale we can also read this section of Article VI as saying that they did not want religion of any kind to interfere with the running of the country.  Thus, by definition within the body of the Constitution itself the United States cannot be called a “Christian country.”  Yes, we may have many people of Christian beliefs living here (note the plural form, by the way, beliefs, that is, not just one form of Christianity), but this does not make the country Christian in any legal sense. 

Why am I even concerning myself at this point with something so self-evident?  First of all, there are those who disagree with the statement that the United States is not a Christian country.  Many, in fact, believe that it is.  For this reason, it is my fervent hope that everyone, conservative and liberal alike, would take the time to read the Constitution.  If anyone has not, I highly recommend it as an extremely interesting and enlightening document.  And for those who may be wondering, a law degree is not required in order to understand it.  Indeed, for the most part I should think that a decent high school education would largely suffice, as it is quite straight-forward, even if its English is now almost two hundred and twenty-five years old. 

I was reminded of all this when I read recently about the results of a poll taken just a few days ago among likely GOP voters in Alabama and Mississippi.  In Alabama, for example, only 14% said that they believed Mr. Obama to be a Christian, while 45% said they thought him to be Muslim, and 41% were not sure.  The results in Mississippi were even more stunning.  There only 12% believed him to be Christian, while 52% said they thought he was a Muslim, and 36% were not sure.  If we combine the number of people who believe him to be Muslim with those who are not certain (meaning, surely, that “maybe he is”), we get a whopping 86% and 88% respectively among likely Republican voters in those two states.     

Now, I hope it goes without saying that I am not trying to make a case here for any one religion over another.   Personally, I don’t think much of any organized religion.  In my experience, and again with perhaps a few exceptions here and there, I find most of them to be astoundingly bigoted and closed-minded.  What is perhaps even more interesting about these polls, however, is what I can only assume to be their strong subtext which, as I read it, is first of all that Christians are better than Muslims, and second that the president is not one of us; he is instead “other.” 

Let us leave aside for the moment, if that is even possible, the whole question of race, and continue concentrating instead on that of religion.  It was in fact Rick Santorum who stated not so long ago that he believed that Pres. Obama based his decisions “…on some phony theology.  Oh, on a theology not based on the Bible.”  These are his words.  What theology could he mean?  Etymologically the word theology means “the study of God,” and is associated only with religion.  And while Santorum may have been speaking about global warming, is it too much of a stretch to think that he also wished to tap into the belief, I will even say the fear, of apparently so many Americans that their president is not “one of them” in some very important way? 

And so, in spite of what the president has repeatedly stated regarding his religious affiliation, a sizeable number of people in the country continue to disbelieve him.  And what if he even were a Muslim?  So long as he, or any future president, believed firmly in what John F. Kennedy said about maintaining an absolute wall between church and state, what difference would it make?   Indeed, what difference?   Difference being the operable word here. 

Maybe I was too hasty above in skipping over the whole issue of race.  Maybe Muslim, or at least “not Christian,” is in this context code for “Black”?  And that in spite of the fact that there are so many Black Christians (note, for example, how many Black fundamentalists have crusaded, and continue to crusade, against gay rights).  Maybe in the end we can only say that none of us is free of his or her prejudices.  Surely, many would say that I am prejudiced against people of faith.  For the record here, let me add that I harbor no prejudice whatsoever against people who believe in the Divine Spirit.  I may, however, have my prejudices against organized religion, and for what I consider to be good reason.  

Indeed, I believe that it is just for these very reasons that those who founded this country were so adamant when it came to separating the state from the church.  “No religious test shall ever be required.”  The italics in this case may be mine, but the sentiments are those of the Founding Fathers, and they could not be more true, more appropriate – or more needed – today.