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State-imposed faith won't make U.S. stronger
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Was 9-11 a sign of God’s judgment on America?

For members of the al-Qaida network, the answer is a resounding “yes.” That’s why they’re willing to die in order to carry out what they see as divine retribution.

The al-Qaida, Taliban and others of their ilk view what we call “freedom” as little more than “license” to defy God. What do they see when they look at the United States? A toxic culture where everyone is free to believe whatever they choose — and act in ways that violate God’s law.

They aren’t alone. Some Americans also see God’s judgment in the terrorist attacks. Behind Jerry Falwell’s controversial remarks last fall blaming everything from the ACLU to homosexuality for Sept. 11, is an old theological tradition in America dating all the way back to John Winthrop and the Puritans in 1630.

Before he even stepped off the Arabella (the little boat that brought him to the New World), Winthrop reminded his people that they must obey God’s commands in order to prosper and be “as a city upon a hill” to all the world. But if they disobey God “and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us,” they will be cursed “‘til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”

This anxiety about divine judgment on a wicked nation has been a consistent undercurrent in American history that rises to the surface during times of crisis. After the Civil War — a conflict that many Americans on both sides understood in deeply religious terms — there was a successful movement to put “In God We Trust” on our money. And during the height of the McCarthy era, “In God We Trust” was made a national motto and “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

What about the current crisis? Are there Americans today who are convinced that government proclamation of a nation “under God” will cleanse and restore our society?

Apparently so.

  • The town of Franklinton, La., recently put up four signs proclaiming “Jesus is Lord Over Franklinton.”
  • Using a different strategy to achieve the same goal, the mayor of Inglis, Fla., put up notices at the four entrances to the community banning Satan within town limits.

    Numerous city governments and judges are putting up the Ten Commandments in city halls and courtrooms all over the nation.

  • Legislatures in several states are trying to pass legislation requiring public schools to post “In God We Trust” in classrooms.
  • Unlike the al-Qaida network, the Americans pushing these initiatives don’t advocate force or violence to “return America to God.” (Although some in the “Christian Reconstruction” movement do, in fact, advocate revolution to create a biblical nation — but that’s another story.) Instead, they are urging official acknowledgement of our dependence on God, trusting that somehow this will lead to a more “Christian nation.”

    But surely this is a false hope. When in human history — or in the world today — has state-proclaimed religion led to authentic religious transformation? Roger Williams (who was banished by the Puritans for objecting to state-imposed religion) got it right when he argued that civil states are “essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.”

    Now, I’m not arguing that we strip all references to God or religion from patriotic exercises or government documents. References to deity are part of the warp and woof of American history — and harm no one. But when people begin to use the engine of the state to promote a kind of “official religion,” I see that as a violation of our commitment to religious freedom under the First Amendment.

    Besides, keeping the government from promoting religion is actually good for religion. The citizens of Franklinton proved this (unintentionally) when they started putting up “God is Lord Over All” signs on lawns and store fronts to protest an ACLU lawsuit that forced the town to take down the official signs proclaiming Jesus. Rather than a mere four government signs, there are now more than 1,000 signs on private property all over town. Keeping the government out of religion doesn’t remove religion from the public square — it frees religion to be independent and authentic.

    Fortunately, most Christians — even when disturbed by the toxic elements of American society — reject government promotion of religion as a way of reforming the nation. In their reading of scripture, only when people freely turn to God is genuine faith possible. The First Amendment may create a messy marketplace of religious and non-religious ideas — but only under this arrangement is it possible for people to freely choose in matters of faith.

    Contrary to widely held stereotypes, most American Muslims also reject government coercion in matters of faith. One Muslim leader recently described the United States as one of the most Islamic nations in the world. Why? Because some of our key civic principles — especially freedom of conscience for every person — are consistent with the religious principles found in the Koran.

    Here’s the issue for every American: If we are serious about defending freedom in this hour of national crisis, then we must be serious about defending religious liberty — at home and abroad.

    And if we must post a sign in the name of uniting and renewing America, let’s post our other national motto — E Pluribus Unum. That’s the motto that best reminds us of our founding ideal: One nation out of many peoples and faiths.


    California city adds 'In God We Trust' display to City Hall

    'The First Amendment is to keep government out of religion, not to keep believers out of government,' says Bakersfield councilwoman who led motto campaign. 07.31.02

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