Thursday, March 30th, 2023

Religion in America: history relevant to today

Billy GloverOctober 13, 2010.

If someone is really interested in understanding the relationship of religion and government, there are two current resources that seem to be objective in giving information that helps citizens learn what the nation’s founders thought and what is thought today.

And the issue is relevant to the discussion of slavery and how black Americans today feel about homosexuality and how homosexuality and slavery are covered in the Bible — and indirectly how the issue of separation of church and state — is something some churches don’t understand until they oppose the church which might be supported by the government, in this case Islam.

Radical Christians keep saying that this is a Christian nation, and we need to “return” to having religion control the government. Yet according to two current resources this is not true. And it is complicated, which is why bigots don’t take the time to understand the facts but just “want” something to be true, like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”

The first resource, discussed recently on C-SPAN’s BookTV, is a book by Thomas Kidd, religion professor at Baylor University, discussed at Indiana Wesleyan University. The book is God of Liberty, Religious History of the American Revolution, if I remember it correctly. The issue is “civil religion.” Many early settlers brought religion with them but were just as narrow minded about it as others were in the nations they left. And some states had an established church, mostly Anglican.

The terrible fact is that early “Christians” killed Native American Indians, trying to force them to become Christian. And in a state where one religion dominated, other religions were persecuted, much as Islam persecutes other religions today. An example is how the Iroquois were killed when they refused to become Christian.

In both resources, we learn much about Thomas Jefferson that we did not understand. He was not anti-religion and helped Baptists gained equal rights, which led to his proclaiming the wall of separation of church and state (Danbury Baptists). But he did reject much of the Bible and made his own version of it. In the election of 1800, he was accused of being anti-god and an atheist. The goal was no coercion to a religion but no hostility to religions. Often religious terms were thrown about by politicians but did not reflect their true feelings — most were Deists.

When the effort was made to reject an established church — which meant everyone had to pay taxes to support the one “established” — the leaders opposed this and said that if not forced, people would soon not be “religious.” The irony is that today, in this nation that supports no religion, all religions thrive. It is a great example of free enterprise and competition and capitalism.

Religion was thought to give stability to society, but too often it divided citizens. And it could be said that people began to “worship” the nation and that it was civil spirituality that gave the nation the support it needed to become strong. Some have said that efforts like the event sponsored by Glenn Beck is proof that today we have a civil religion. That is the background of 4th of July celebrations, etc.

It is interesting that religion affected how people thought about the idea of the new nation becoming independent. John Wesley and others did not favor this.  Some quoted the Bible to say citizens owed allegiance to the government, in this case England. Divine right of kings, etc. Each side thought “God was on their side,” as became true later in the Civil War. Both sides had preachers quoting the Bible to prove their cause was just.

But the fact is that we have a godless constitution. Deliberately. And to pretend the founders were evangelical is nonsense. See Benjamin Franklin, for instance. But people with all views were able to work together to get the Constitution and start the Revolution.  It was something like classical republican Greece.  The fact is that the founders were politicians, like politicians today.  They preached equality of all men, but the only “equal” citizens were male property owners.  The majority of citizens were second class—poor men, women, slaves, etc.

The question of where equality comes from was not settled then, nor has it been settled now—does it come from a creator or from all citizens?

The second resource is a documentary currently showing on PBS, titled God In America, giving the history of how religion has been thought of in America. It covers such issues as how each new wave of immigrants brought their own religions and beliefs with them and usually had problems with the prevailing citizens. Examples were when many Catholics started coming, as they are today from Mexico, and then Jews from Europe. Most integrated and made essential changes to survive in America. The basic question then and now is how much essential beliefs had to be kept and how cultural additions to the religion had to change. Jews came from nations that forced them into ghettos, controlling their civil lives. They adjusted to America where they were free and equal and no longer lived in ghettos — an issue relevant to homosexual citizens.

As to how black Americans have been treated, based on religion, is a sad situation. While the Abolitionists were religious, the major religions supported slavery and at the time of the Civil War they separated and churches in the south supported slavery. It is sad and strange to hear sermons from white preachers and politicians in the south of that time quoting scripture from the Bible to prove that slavery was their god’s will. Today, the same preachers, joined by now free black preachers quote scripture to “prove” their god disapproves of homosexuality.

Common sense tells us that in all our nation’s life politicians have been the same, and they say what they think will get them elected and power. Too often, the more a politician or preacher talks against something, he or she is guilty of that “sin.”  The more a politician talks about their religious beliefs, the less godly they are. And when some “religious” voters say that their god ordained the president they like, they then say the devil gave them the president they don’t like. Preachers said their god ordained the Civil War. The problem is that both the north and south said this, and it was hard for the south to explain when they lost the war — why their god had failed them.

The one important issue that neither resource seems to answer is the eternal question of how a “true” religious person acts in a nation where they are able to help guide the government. It doesn’t matter in a nation where the citizen has no voice — such was probably the time of Jesus, and in most of history. So, even as such people as Billy Graham said in this time, the effort is made to spread the gospel and save people, and they in turn can make the nation/society better.  But the rule was, give unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His.

So the question is, can a religious person then support a politician or law they object to on religious grounds — when they are one and the same? That is where religion and America have a problem.

A sincere person may kill a physician who does abortions, or someone they think is homosexual, because their religion tells them both are wrong. But can a nation survive when each religion says different things? And can any citizen kill any other that they think are sinful? That is what our nation still faces. There are citizens who simply don’t believe a black person should be president and will do and say anything to prevent it. There are citizens who believe they have a right to use drugs and will defy laws that prevent it. And during the civil rights efforts of black Americans, laws were violated because they were unjust and unconstitutional. You can have no respect for a law or law’s agent when the law takes away your civil rights and the enforcers join others and kill you for trying to gain that guaranteed equality.

So there are no answers in these resources or most religious spokespersons or politicians. The answer is that the founders dreamed of and tried to set us on the path to: a nation of laws, not men or religions. Through laws based on common sense, such as the Bill of Rights, citizens demanded of the government, a government of their consent.

I truly hope that we are getting closer to that goal every generation.


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