Thursday, September 27, 2007

Consitutionally speaking...

I recently finished reading The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore and I have to recommend it to anyone interested in the the historical and Constitutional roots of secular government in the United States. My only real gripe is the odd system of citation used in the book, which has no footnotes but utilizes a chapter by chapter bibliography just before the index. Regardless, the book is a worthwhile and easy read (an unusual combination) about one of the most important subjects facing our nation today.

I've grown somewhat bolder about leaving my nontheistic books lying around in the open at work lately, so a couple of days ago the title of The Godless Constitution happened to be noticed by one of my (quite) religious colleagues. "What's that about," she asked, "are they saying that they want to establish a Constitution without God in it?" I assured her that no, the book was a discussion of the Constitution under which we currently live. "No," she said, "we have a Christian Constitution. Don't we?"

The discussion went on briefly about how, for one thing, the Constitution contains no direct references to God and only mentions religion in the context of the "no religious tests" clause in Article 6, section 3. My coworker was courteous about everything but seemed unconvinced, especially when I mentioned that "under God" was only tacked onto the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s as a way of giving the finger to the godless commies. In the end, all she said was "I'm shocked", though it was unclear to me whether she was shocked about the enshrinement of secularism in our nation's founding document or shocked at the realization that one of her coworkers was an atheist.

In any event, the whole episode reminded me that there has been a colossal hijacking of our national narrative on the part of the religious right. They labor under an inaccurate belief that somehow the United States was founded as some sort of uber-Christian utopia that has slowly been perverted by us maniacal secularists, when in fact the reverse is true. While peopled at all times by at least a nominally Christian majority, the United States government was founded principles of secularism and government non-involvement with religion. The Constitution, with its complete lack of Christian symbolism and rhetoric, has been under attack since even before its ratification for its secular stance, as has the idea of a secular government in general. References to God on our money and in our pledge, as well as the end of Sunday mail service and countless other nods to Christianity, are chinks that have been carved into the original wall of separation, not the last few bricks of the Christian Camelot that some people imagine our country to have been.

The most amazing thing about our Constitution is its lack of religion. It serves as a reminder that our leaders get their power from us, not from some unquestionable divine mandate. The Constitution should remind us that our government serves us at our pleasure, not God's, and that the government holds absolutely no control over anyone's conscience. These are important ideas, ideas that our ancestors fought and killed and died for.

The American Revolution ended in 1781. Now, barely two and quarter centuries later,
there are politically powerful elements of our society that are committed to the destruction of one of this country's most important founding ideals. It would almost be funny if it weren't so damned frightening.

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