Saturday, September 22, 2012

Value Judgment

Americans United [for Separation of Church and State], for one, does not seek, and has never sought, to restrict religious beliefs and practice in the United States. All we want is for religion to be kept out of the government (and government to be kept out of religion) because that’s what the U.S. Constitution requires. Our founders did not base our government of [sic] “biblical values,” as [Texas Governor Rick] Perry claims, but on the values of freedom and equality. You can be a good American regardless of your views about religion.
Satan, Separation And Absurdity: Texas Gov. Rallies ‘Christian Warriors’ To Scale The Church-State ‘Iron Curtain’
The third sentence of this paragraph is, for me, the most interesting, because it brings up one of the central conflicts between those Americans (especially Evangelicals) who feel that the United States is not religious enough and secular Americans. Are “freedom and equality” biblical values or secular ones? And, perhaps more importantly, must it be one or the other? The phrasing of the sentence, “Our founders did not base our government on ‘biblical values,’ as Perry claims, but on the values of freedom and equality,” implies that ‘biblical values’ and ‘the values of freedom and equality’ are not the same thing - that there is is necessary separation between the two. It also appears to stake out a claim to these values in the name of secularism.

Historically speaking, this isn't particularly far-fetched, especially if one is using Europe and the Americas as an example. The First Amendment to the Constitution, and later documents, such as the Manifesto of the Communist Party can be seen as direct reactions to abusive practices of governments that had been carried out in the name of religion or with the backing of religious authorities. While the grade-school version of American history tends to portray life in the colonies as difficult, but basically an extended round of singing Kumbayah in log cabins and quaint homes on cobbled streets, the reality is quite a bit darker. Colonists in the new world were not above making their own particular brand of Christianity a legal requirement in their communities, practicing slavery on a large scale and regarding the natives as little more than uppity wildlife that stood in the way of the rightful exploitation of land that had been granted to them by God. None of this interfered with them thinking of themselves as “good Christians.” So there's a case to be made that something other than religious sentiment was being drawn on.

It is, however, difficult to claim that the framers of the Constitution, and the authors of the First Amendment were a cabal of non-religious secularists. (Of course, by the same token, it's difficult, from examining the historical record, to find much evidence that the movers and shakers of the late colonies and early United States had much of a commitment to “the values of freedom and equality” unless you qualify that with: “for landowning, Anglo-European white men.”) The simplest argument for the idea that “freedom and equality” grew from a religious origin is found in the introduction and preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While we still have the thorny issue of just who “all men” refers to, it seems pretty clear that there was some aspect of religiosity in the proceedings.

In the end, the most likely explanation is a fairly simple one - that the founders of the United States, realizing what allowing for a state religion would likely result in (likely from recent history), nixed the idea, without any regard to their own faiths. Government was based less on strictly secular lines than it was on non-sectarian ones. The statement “Our founders did not base our government on ‘biblical values,’ as Perry claims, but on the values of freedom and equality,” is correct in that there was no directly religious imperative that was being carried out - “freedom and equality” were not part of a package deal of religious observances that were baked into the new nation. Rather, they came from the idea that the God the founders understood did not mean for them to bow before the arbitrary decrees of Kings and Noblemen (and Prelates, while we're on the subject) who had been set above them by Divine Right, and answerable to God, rather than their fellow citizens. One suspects that the founders were little different from people today, convinced that God's will just so happened to conveniently align with their own interests, if not those of everyone in the Americas. And it did what they intended it to in that it created a society mostly free of the religious strife that had plagued Europe and even some of the colonies. Illustrating that the effects of these values are of much more interest than their origins.

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