[The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has taken this one too: Of Religion and Original Intent.]
Back in the mid-nineties, when I was a professor at a small college in West Virginia, I had a telling encounter with a Muslim international student. We were going over a paper he had written for my class, and at one point in the paper, he had referred to America as a “Christian nation.” The context was innocent enough. He was not attacking America, and this was before 9/11 raised the national consciousness about the problem of Muslim extremism. So I saw this as merely the occasion for a teachable moment—an opportunity to give the student a more sophisticated understanding of our American government.
I explained that, while the majority of Americans may consider themselves to be Christians, America has no official religion and that our Constitution mandates a separation of church and state. I could see the student becoming visibly upset as I tried to explain this concept to him. I had obviously shaken a deeply held core belief. I let the matter drop and went on to point out the rhetorical and grammatical problems with his paper. I realize now that religious identity must have been central to his concept of nationhood and that, as far as he was concerned, every nation had to fit into one of three categories: Muslim, Jewish, or Christian.
I think of this encounter every time I hear one of the rightwing pundits calling America a “Christian nation,” or dating the doom from the demise of school prayer—or, worse yet in my view, asserting that our founding fathers never intended to build a wall between church and state. I also think of it whenever I hear these same pundits calling for a reaffirmation of America’s exceptionality.
When I went to school, I was taught that one of our greatest marks of distinction as a nation was our decision to keep religion out of politics. I was told that our founding fathers--as men of the Enlightenment, the aptly named “Age of Reason”--had learned the lesson of hundreds of years of religious strife in Europe. They wisely wanted to set America apart from all that. Hence, they crafted the First Amendment forbidding the establishment of a state religion and guaranteeing freedom of worship.
A close reading of the Declaration of Independence will reveal that the framers claimed their right to rebel not directly from God but from “the laws of nature and . . . nature’s God.” That is not a Christian formulation but rather a deist one, a philosophy that was much in vogue during the 18th century. Deism held God to be the “great clockmaker” who set the universe up according to natural laws and who is now leaving it up to us to take care of the secular realm. Hence, I am all for turning back to the original intent of our founding fathers. It is past time to usher in a new age of secular humanism, reaffirming that religion is a private affair.
I don’t know how that young Muslim student felt about America, nor do I know whether he went on to become radicalized or not. But I do know that the so-called “narrative” that Muslim extremists are using to recruit and radicalize moderate Muslims holds that America is waging a new crusade against Islam in general. And I have to believe that all the neo-conservatives rallying and agitating to redefine America as Christian are reinforcing that narrative and playing into the hands of the extremists. --EFP
- Edward F. Palm
- Forest, Virginia, United States
- A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)