One Constitution And One Country, But Two Views Of Americans

Accepting the con\xadcession of Sen. John F. Kerry on Nov. 3, President George W. Bush called for an end to division in America and said, “We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us.”

I’d only give him a partial affirmation of that. Yes, there is one set of national boundaries. Yes, there is one document called the Constitution but we would be foolish to pretend that there are not two radically different views of that document and precious little common ground between them.

I see the Constitution as a secular document that guarantees religious and philosophical freedom for all. Its First Amendment creates a separation of church and state. Its Article VI reinforces the non-religious nature of our government by banning religious qualifications for public office.

The other side reads the same document and somehow walks away concluding that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” To them, separation of church and state is a myth invented in modern times by the Supreme Court.

I look at the long line of church-state cases handed down by the Supreme Court, and, while there are certainly some I don’t agree with, in the main I think most are pretty good. Mandatory, coercive religious exercises have been removed from public schools. Direct government aid to religion has been banned. All religions, Christian and non-Christian, have been placed on equal footing. Religious freedom has been extended to all.

The other side reads those same rulings and shudders. To them, our public schools are the godless laboratories of “Secular Humanism.” Government’s failure to subsidize religion is discrimination. Legally equating other religions with Christianity is blasphemy.

I read the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other advocates of religious liberty and feel immense gratitude for the wisdom of those men. I feel thankful that they had the vision and foresight to create a system that ushered in the America we know today multi-faith, open, diverse and religiously vibrant.

The other side reads those founders’ words and either twists them beyond recognition to buttress their own narrow perspective or mocks them openly. That side feels threatened by the presence of other religions in America. They denigrate our multi-faith society as a politically correct nightmare that has suppressed America’s “true” Christian origins.

The divisions go on: I want evolution taught in our public schools. They want “creation science.” I support the public schools. They want to shut them down. I oppose censorship. They applaud it.

Yes, we live in one America. We inhabit the same huge section of a continent. But we are not in agreement on these issues, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise.

So where does that leave us, as we examine the political landscape of the post-2004 election? Well, fantasies about moving to New Zealand are acceptable but just for a little while. The fact is, we can’t cut and run. The American society we hold dear and all of the values it embodies are too precious to cede to the Religious Right.

We have an obligation, not just for ourselves but for future generations, to keep those values alive. We are commanded, even when the odds seem long and difficult, to hoist our banner high and march ahead.

We can do so with confidence. The fact is, the American people did not vote on Nov. 2 to trash the wall of separation between church and state. Analysts will pore over the election results for many years to come, but the claim that “values voters” swung the election is a canard that has already been debunked.

More in-depth analysis has shown that issues like the war in Iraq, terrorism and the security of our nation were the main concerns of the voters. The Religious Right’s obsessions were not high on the list.

Of course we must accept that the Religious Right is feeling emboldened by this election. There is no denying that this will make our work more challenging than ever. We’ll have to work harder and with more dedication than ever.

It’s a road we’ve traveled before. Remember, Americans United has been at this task since 1947. Anyone who thinks we’re going to pack up shop because of the results of one election is living on the third moon of Jupiter, as far as I’m concerned.

So let the Religious Right gloat. Let the movement’s leaders feel all-powerful. Let them believe they are masters of all they survey. Let them get big heads. They will be like Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose tragic hubris resulted in his destruction. Or, if you prefer, here’s a relevant biblical passage: “Pride goeth before a fall.”

President Bush says we have “one future.” Not so. Our future is in our control, and we face a choice. We can choose a path where religious dogma replaces science, supplants sound educational policy and takes the place of American constitutional values. Or we can choose to work to have a nation where moral choice is respected and where the rich religious and ethical mosaic of America is honored.

How do we ensure that America makes the right choice? There is only one way: Roll up your sleeves and let’s all work together. There is much work to be done.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.