Friday, December 16, 2011
T’is the season for religion in general and Christianity in particular to come under attack by the not-so-tolerant anti-god folks. Having pretty much eliminated any references to Christmas in our schools and other public spaces (Holiday Trees anyone?) they can now put all their energy into the battle against nativity scenes and Tim Tebow.
At such a time it useful to consider the role religion plays in a free society and what the founders of our republic thought of its importance to a people who wished to be self-governing. It’s hard to argue that our nation’s tilt toward secularism has produced a more virtuous people so what might more personal religiosity as well as moral and ethical introspection do to improve our current situation?
While the founders differed in their personal religious beliefs, they still honored the Judeo-Christian worldview which influenced western civilization. They also recognized the need for the teaching of morality and republican values in the young American population. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, said John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
George Washington agreed. In his farewell address he argued that religion and morality were “indispensable supports” of the fledgling nation. “The mere Politician, equally with the pious man,” said Washington, “ought to respect and to cherish them.”
As adherents to John Locke’s philosophy of natural moral law the founders believed, in the words of Samuel Adams, that an American citizen retained the right to “worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.” This belief was codified in the First Amendment to the Constitution which states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” Taken at face value it is hard to see how that translates into first graders being forbidden to eat cupcakes off Santa Claus paper plates at their celebrations-formerly-known-as-Christmas-parties but in my nieces’ upstate New York elementary school that is exactly how far anti-religion fervor and political correctness have been taken.
This begs the question of why religion threatens so many people. Certainly we’ve all heard the contention that evil acts committed in the name of religion outweigh the good. This is a specious argument for two reasons: first, it is impossible to know how many good and decent acts have been carried out by people of faith, especially since small daily acts of kindness rarely makes the news; but even more obviously one can argue that much more evil has been perpetrated by leaders and regimes that claimed no connection to religion whatsoever, but were in fact officially atheistic. Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot were not exactly known for their piety. They were, however, officially sanctioned heads of state so should we look into abolishing government?
This actually gets a little closer to why religion threatens some. A self-governing people need less external control, which makes much of government unnecessary. When neighbors take seriously the commandment to love one another, and provide such services as meals and rides to the doctor for those in need, these state-sponsored services become unnecessary. When families care for their children and their elderly we don’t need state-sponsored daycare and seniorcare. When families form in the first place we don’t need as many poverty programs. A community of compassionate, benevolent and committed people like those often produced through adherence to a religious creed takes care of its own so the state doesn’t have to.
On an individual level these people can also be threatening because they demonstrate that there is another way to live, a way that demands more of us than we sometimes wish to demand of ourselves. The attacks on devoutly and unabashedly Christian Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow illustrate this point.
Tebow has been excoriated for dropping to a knee in prayer after throwing a touchdown pass, sporting biblical verses on the paint beneath his eyes and thanking Jesus first and foremost after every game. During the off-season he participates in mission trips to third-world orphanages and generally walks the walk of which he talks. It’s a little puzzling that behavior such as this is an issue in a league where it is estimated one out of five players will be arrested at some point on charges of anything from DUI to domestic assault to murder but some commentators and players have made it so and the young man has been roundly criticized.
But Tebow also has his defenders and they are starting to include the majority of Americans. Even when we ourselves do not live up to high standards of behavior we usually admire someone who does. This coincides with our appreciation of religion and Christmas in particular. According to a recent Rasmussen poll the number of religious Americans is on the rise and eighty-eight percent of American say they celebrate Christmas. In light of these numbers a lot of us are wondering why the remaining twelve-percent get to call the shots when it comes to the upcoming holiday.
There is nothing “offensive” about a nativity scene on public property and wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” is not an attempt to convert the non-religious. Both are merely universally understood expressions of love and good will. Exposure to religious ideas and symbols does not harm psychologically healthy people but provides guidance and comfort to many.
The Judeo-Christian worldview is the foundation of many of our American values and should be accepted as such. Tolerance should go both ways.