One of our most famous Presidents won a tough battle against an incumbent who attacked the challenger for his “non belief” in God. The challenger, a man who deeply believed in individual spirituality and considered Jesus the greatest morality teacher in history, was nonetheless beset by statements he made about God and religion….
“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make half the world fools and half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the world…”
“Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.”
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
“The Book of Revelations are….merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams”.
The inflammatory statements above came from the mind of Thomas Jefferson…a Founding Father if ever there was one. These statements begin to explain why he fought so hard for a separation of church and state, but they also crystallize the conflict that rages today. All Americans benefit from the religious freedoms that Jefferson and the other founders and framers put in place. For most Americans, the journey that leads them through belief, non-belief, and all of the points along the path is a lifelong trip. Religious freedom allows this journey to happen at a pace chosen by the individual.
Beliefs, of course, affect others; this becomes the fundamental challenge in our society. All rights demand the same toll of free citizens; a respect for actions and beliefs that do not meet with the citizen’s approval, and an acknowledgement through one’s actions that another’s beliefs have value. The trick in a democracy is for the majority to express itself without trouncing on the minority; and for the minority to hold the line on their rights without attacking majority beliefs simply because they can. Human beings instinctively want to share their beliefs and knowledge; we Americans have made a special skill out of “sharing” our beliefs with the rest of the world. It is not surprising then, that we have so many battles with lines drawn along religious or philosophical divides.
The rational middle is tired of being shot at by both sides of a battle that should not, in a free country, have to exist. The battle is driven by anger over past actions, and fear over imagined consequences. Fundamentally, it is driven by hypocrisy and irrationality shared equally by both sides. Most Americans, far better than a simple majority, are content with compromise and an end to conflict. For politicians and a media animal that feeds of off conflict, the drive to continue the arguments is too potent to ignore.
Some examples…or food for argument…
For a group of people who champion two-parent households, and those parents responsibility towards teaching morality to their kids; why are you focused on teaching religion in public schools? For committed atheists and others who raise children in a world filled with fairy tales; what harm is there in having a moment of contemplation after the Pledge; where is the harm in Christmas/Hanukkah and Easter/Passover, traditional holidays celebrated or acknowledged by (perhaps) 90% or more of the democracy, being recognized in those same schools?
The states that mandate abstinence-only sex-ed are among the most challenged in the union in terms of teen pregnancy. The folks on the other side that insist that teaching abstinence is silly ignore the fact that it is the most effective strategy when applied.
Those who insist that provisions in abortion laws that allow for procedures in the third trimester for the health of the mother are immoral have never personally asked a women to carry a dead fetus to term. Those pro-choice individuals who claim to be rationalists depart from the path of reason when they insist that physical birth changes anything in the status of that life. (“Viable life” is quite possibly the least scientific and most irrational idea ever…the notion that a 6 month old baby is more viable than a 32 week fetus is a fairy tale of, dare I say, biblical proportions.)
The rational middle has a question for each side….
If God exists, why does His law need justification or support from the courts and congresses of men; if God does not exist, where is the harm in a prayer or representation that offers comfort or support to a believer?
The founding fathers were a mix not unfamiliar to today’s eyes in religious terms. Some were Christians all their lives, others spent their time departing and returning. Many were Deists who believed in the “God of Nature”. Jefferson ultimately produced a document now called the Jefferson Bible. Basically the New Testament without prophesy, miracle, or divinity, the book created by Jefferson expressed a fundamentally American theme: a citizen searching for his or her spirituality or moral compass in a nation that allowed the search to happen without restraint.
God Bless America!