The Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that humanity’s “capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” but our “inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” He might have said the same about our capacity for tolerance and our inclination to intolerance, especially in light of recent conversations about the establishment of Bible study courses in public schools.
How quickly we forget the hard-won lessons of history. Our predecessors, many of whom were people of deep faith, conjured up this unprecedented notion on which our country was founded: that a secular common ground is the best way to preserve religious freedom and the free exercise of religious values.
Witnesses to the bloodbath of European religious wars, these early Americans did not work to maintain secularity because they lacked faith in God, but because they distrusted human power. Many of them practiced faiths that were at the margins of European society. Indeed, we owe the religion clauses of the First Amendment to them. Afraid they would be outlawed in the New World as they had been in the Old, they worked hard for a level playing field in which the state would not establish one religious faith over another, nor criminalize faiths that were deemed strange, odd or untrue by those who held power.
From its outset, America rejected theocracies and preferred a secular common ground, believing that God loves freedom more than safety, even in matters of conscience.
Now we are told that our children need Bible study in public schools or else the moral fabric of our nation is imperiled. Such an argument is as dangerous as it is specious. It reminds me of a conversation I had 20 years ago when I was a pastor in a small Central Texas community.
A pastor of another church in town was fighting hard then to allow Bible studies and prayers to be broadcast each day over the loudspeakers in our local high school. He wanted to know why he did not have my support.
“Because I want my kids to have the freedom not to worship God the way you do,” I told him.
A few years ago, Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of London, wrote a fascinating book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. In it, he called for us to rediscover public reason, and to defend neutral spaces in which people of differing faiths (and of no faith at all) can, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “come reason together.”
The single “greatest antidote to violence is conversation,” writes Sacks.
The United States, through the genius of its Constitution, has established just such a neutral public space for us to reason together, a space belonging to all of us because it belongs exclusively to none of us, a secular space where we can reverence God as we choose and respect one another as we must if we are to live in peace.
Whether we are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, of another faith or none at all, our Constitution preserves a space where we can live together and negotiate our differences in freedom and in peace.
The answer to our society’s persistent anxieties over values, religious and otherwise, is not to establish Christian madrassas where our children, in the name of the state, are indoctrinated in sectarian religious ideas.
Any democratic society, any society that not only says it values freedom, but actually works to promote freedom, must maintain the secular structures that allow people to practice their faiths, articulate their ideas and live their values according to the dictates of their conscience, without the intrusion or oversight of the state.
It is not enough to admire the artifacts of freedom. If we care about religious values, we must preserve the secular common ground in which our values are freely forged, refined, disputed and lived.
Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including Christianity, Tolerance and Pluralism (Routledge, 2004).