As a brilliant, kind, generous and open-minded Christian, and as a proud citizen of this country, I feel you may be in the best position to help a foreigner understand something.
1. Is secularity an important concept in the United States? This is a genuine question. While for many countries, secularity came as a direct consequence of modernity and progress, some States (such as Israel and the U.K., for example), clearly have a religion attached to it (even if the Queen's subjects don't practice it en masse, much the opposite in fact), so I'm perfectly willing to accept that secularity might not be at the top of the list here.
2. If it is an important concept, then is the way things are done acceptable (i.e., the motto, "One nation under God", the fact that a politician has little chance of being elected if he doesn't publicly refer to God in his speeches)? Again, an honest question: I have experienced first hand that while the definition of secularity might be the same everywhere, its practice varies wildly from country to country (for example, in France, the Muslim headscarf has been banned from schools while in other secular European nations, it's perfectly acceptable for girls to wear it in class).
Freedom of religion (which is guaranteed by the first amendment here) and secularity (which I understand to be the absence of reference to religion or God in any of the symbols that might be associated with a nation's government in order for every citizen - not just the majority - to be represented by it) are very, very different things. But I'm starting to ask myself whether there is a confusion between two concepts (as in, whether for many people, freedom of religion is secularity, which it really isn't)... Any thoughts?
Aww. Flattery will get you everywhere :-)
First off, I’m glad you defined your terms because that was my first question.
So, let’s start there:
secularity: “the absence of reference to religion or God in any of the symbols that might be associated with a nation’s government in order for every citizen - not just the majority - to be represented by it.”
I should also state up front that I’m no constitutional scholar or law expert. I’m speaking from my observations and opinions.
From my understanding of the intentions of “founding fathers” it was that no religion be established over any other. There were a variety of levels of personal belief among them, but they saw the damage that ‘state sponsored religion’ had done, not just in England, but in the colonies. They saw people persecuted for having their beliefs differ from other people’s.
The intent (as I understand it) was that no one was treated better or worse because of their practice of religion. Honestly, I’m not sure what their intentions were regarding those who chose ‘none’ but again I think the same would hold: no advantage or disadvantage.
In his book, The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen L. Carter argued that the separation of church and state was designed to protect the church from the state not the other way around. That is, their intention was that the church should be free to influence the government, but the government should not interfere with the practice of religion. I don’t know how Carter’s opinions are viewed by others, but I remember finding the book fairly compelling when I read it about 10 years ago.
Carter told the story of a man who had an apartment to rent (actually I think it may have been a room over his garage), and a couple wanted to rent it. They weren’t married. The man refused to rent the apartment to them because he believed that premarital sex was a sin. IIRC the case was still being deliberated when the book was written. The question was not whether or not unmarried couples should be allowed to rent apartments, but whether or not someone could be compelled to violate their religious beliefs just because they put an ad in the paper advertizing an apartment for rent.
The answer to that question may seem obvious to some (“Of course he has to rent the apartment to them!”) but what if you changed the situation? What if the person who wanted to rent the apartment was the head of the local KKK? What if a man came by to rent the apartment but the lecherous way he looked at your teenage daughter made you uncomfortable? Are you allowed to decide who you rent to, or aren’t you? Are ‘secular moral’ (KKK) or personal (daughter’s perceived safety) objections OK but religious objections not?
Again, as a non-lawyer, I think all the First Amendment says about this is that Congress can’t pass a law saying that you can’t own property if you aren’t, say, a Methodist.
After reading the Prop 8 ruling from California, I’m pretty convinced that there is no non-religious argument against full and equal right for gay/lesbian people. (For those who haven’t read it, the argument they tried to make was that marriage was supposed to be about having kids.) The largest group of people who object to equal rights do so for religious reasons. Well, sorry, but religious objections aren’t sufficient in a court of law. The effect of that law is currently: “If you don’t subscribe to a certain conservative brand of Christian sexual mores, you can’t get married.” That strikes me as obviously against the separation of church and state, the same way that the so-called “Blue Laws” which kept businesses from opening on Sundays because those was “church day.”
As anyone who has studied language knows, there’s a lot of importance in the “little words.” Does the Constitution promise freedom of religion (meaning the freedom to practice however one wishes) or freedom from religion. Clearly there are some people (like those who object to “In God We Trust” being printed on currency or the words “Under God” being part of the Pledge of Allegiance) who want it to be freedom from religion. I’m not sure that’s part of the First Amendment.
I don’t want kids on the public football team to be required to say the Lord’s Prayer before a game. I don’t want public officials to have to pretend to have religious affiliations. I don’t want people to have to pretend to be Christian so (among other things) their kids won’t be excluded from play dates. Why? Because all of these things cheapen true faith by forcing people who don’t really believe to participate.
I don want there to be prayers that open Congress or Senate meetings, and I certainly don’t want to to hear the State of the Union address talk about our continued involvement in two seemingly endless wars end with “God bless America” because I think it becomes too easy to believe that God in on “our” side (especially when one former president whose name I won’t mention categorized our enemies as “evildoers” which is a 10,000dB ‘dog whistle’).
The founding father’s intent seems to have been (from what I know) that Americans would have the freedom to practice their religion without government interference. I’m not sure that translates to freedom from religion for those who choose that path. That being said, I also think it is clear that they didn’t want the government shoving religion down anyone’s throat. So, yeah, we have “In God We Trust” in our money, but you aren’t required to be Presbyterian to qualify for Social Security or get a government-backed student loan. The voting public may currently prefer a candidate who can “talk religion” but the government doesn’t require that you pass an “orthodoxy test” to get your name on a ballot.
My point earlier was that peppering a little “God talk” on our currency and into the Pledge of Allegiance (something I’m not convinced Christians should recite anyway but that’s another story) isn’t the same as Congress establishing a national religion.
Gosh that’s a really long answer, isn’t it?
See also: postscript