Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's a two-way street

"Polarized" is a word I hear frequently, as in 'our nation is becoming increasingly polarized.' I sometimes wonder if it's really more polarized than in the past or if it just seems like it, but regardless there's plenty of extremism and intolerance for differing viewpoints in the news every day. Wasn't it Rodney King who said: "Can't we all just get along?"

"Every party cries out for Liberty & toleration till they get to be uppermost, and then will allow none." ~ Lord Bishop of Salisbury

Unfortunately, this polarization and extremism extends deeply into religion as well, and historically it always has. But America was different because its founding included the idea that freedom of religion was a basic right – to worship where and how one chooses, or not. Nonetheless, we sometimes hear appeals to restore our country to the Christian principles and ideals it was founded upon – ignoring the fact that freedom is the most important of Christian principles.

"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." ~ Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

Jon Meacham has written a very interesting little book called American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation that looks at what the founders really intended when they established our government. He points out that while many of the earliest settlers came seeking religious freedom, they usually forgot about the "freedom" part once they got here, mandating religious adherence and severe punishments for those who didn't conform. But when the colonies came together to form a new government they seized upon this radical idea that Americans should be free to worship – or not – according to their conscience. No one should be compelled to attend or support (especially with their taxes) any church, and the government should stay out of such affairs.

"If Scripture cannot err, certain of its interpreters and commentators can and do so in many ways." ~ Galileo

But don't get the idea that Meacham is anti-religion. He argues strongly that religion has an important place in American society and history. The Declaration of Independence along with many of the writings of the founders (and most leaders since) make frequent mentions of God or the Creator or Providence. The Constitution is deliberately free of such statements, but the Bill of Rights clearly defines the religious freedom we should all expect. It's what Benjamin Franklin and Meacham call "public religion" that makes America different from the European powers, giving religion an important voice in the public forum yet not sanctioning one viewpoint (religious or not) over another.

"Democracy is easy; republicanism is hard. Democracy is fueled by passion; republicanism is founded on moderation. Democracy is loud, raucous, disorderly; republicanism is quiet, cool, judicious – and that we still live in its light is the Founders' most wondrous deed." ~ Jon Meacham

And this is a viewpoint I appreciate – not throwing religion out of the argument but allowing for tolerance for all opinions. I like how Meacham sums it up: "Secularists point to a 'wall of separation between church and state,' while many conservatives act as though the Founding Fathers were apostles in knee britches... [but] neither extreme has it right." And it's a middle ground – as well as a short and easy read – which I recommend.

No comments:

Post a Comment