As we enter the New Year, let us solemnly remember, only 353 shopping days till Christmas. Only 353 more days of litigation over crosses, crèches, pledges of allegiance, Ten Commandments, legislative invocations, and intelligent design. Only 353 days of dispute between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
America is engaged in a defining debate between religion and non-religion, between religion and secular humanism. The religious schism manifests itself in such diverse issues as abortion, Boy Scouts, capital punishment, definitions of marriage, gay rights, school vouchers, stem cell research, and Supreme Court nominations.
America is a pluralistic society centered on assimilating waves of immigrants while respecting their customs and religious beliefs. Tolerance has largely freed us from the religious wars, crusades, jihads, and genocides which periodically ravage civilization.
The United States has paradoxically become the most religious country in the Western world precisely because we are not a religious country. The state neither compels an official religion nor atheism.
The First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion frees us to follow the religious views of our choice. The First Amendment is a clear statement that the government can neither discriminate in favor of religion (The Establishment Clause), between religions, or against religion (The Free Exercise Clause) - thus the separation of Church and State.
Significantly, the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mandate strict neutrality between religion and non-religion.
The legal, jurisprudential, and political error of those advocating and litigating against “symbols of religion” is their tenet that anything that is even remotely “religious” violates the cardinal principle of separation of Church and State. Their approach would affirmatively require the state to unconstitutionally discriminate against religion. Much to their legal dismay, courts have consistently ruled religious groups can hold meetings at public schools, and student religious organizations must be recognized on an equal basis as non-religious organizations.
The anti-religion advocates are selective in their efforts. Since we are a highly religious nation in which believers greatly outnumber non-believers by a 9:1 ratio, they dare not risk pushing the envelope too far.
For example, our marriage license was issued by the State of New York. The ceremony was performed by Msgn. James McDermott at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Mt. Vernon, New York.
The significance is not that, like most Americans, we were married by a priest, minister, rabbi, iman, pandit, or gian ji, but that the state, followed by the federal government, recognizes religious weddings without requiring a separate secular ceremony.
Under a strict separation of Church and State, religious marriages would have no legal validity. Similarly, all crosses and Stars of David would be removed from our national cemeteries.
An even more literal interpretation would mandate the renaming of all cities, towns, villages, and counties, whose name has a religious significance, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Ana, and Corpus Christi.
Opponents of school vouchers unsuccessfully argued before the Supreme Court that they are impermissible at religious schools, thereby effectively neutralizing the value of vouchers in most urban areas.
By analogy, the guaranteed student loan at my Jesuit alma mater would be unconstitutional, as would any government research grants to a religiously affiliated institution. Religious hospitals would be barred from receiving government funds, such as Medicare and Medicaid/Medi-Cal. Indeed, by this reasoning we should end all charitable tax deductions and property tax exemptions for religious institutions. As with vouchers, the separation of Church and State does not go that far.
The teaching of religion in the public schools is, of course, unconstitutional, but not teaching about religion as an academic exercise. For example, the understanding of Thanksgiving and the settlement of America only makes sense in the light of the Pilgrims and Puritans. Similarly, the cross on the seal of the City of Angels is not an affirmation of religion, but the recognition of the historical founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles by Spanish missionaries.
“In God We Trust” is also suspect by analogy, along with official oaths on the Bible, religious phrases on courthouses, including the Supreme Court, and prayers to start legislative sessions.
The reality is that many opponents of organized religion prefer a state sponsored religion of the own, but do not openly refer to it. It is known as secular humanism, and has governed some of ruling class for the past 50 years. Secular humanism looks to the self for meaning in life, morality and values. In other words, morality emanates from within each one of us rather than from the Judeo-Christian heritage. The effect is to border on anarchy and nihilism, and encourage amoral and immoral behavior.
Let us remember that Nietzsche’s famous phrase “God is dead” reverberated through the college campuses of the 60”s. Less well known was prescient graffiti on the walls of the New York City subway system: “Nietzsche is dead! God.”