PENN STATE ESSAY CONTEST
Religion’s Place in American Politics
The influence of religion and religious institutions on the governments of the world and especially that of the United States has, in this modern age, developed into an intricate and dynamic balance of power and philosophies. In this nation, religion has always played an enormous part, from its founding to its ongoing maturation. Many of our Founding Fathers subscribed to the Christian faith, and almost all were religious in some measure. Christianity, undeniably the most influential religion through America’s history, was a vital basis for this ideas of freedom and equality that our forefathers defended. The various progressive reform movements of the United States have also been deeply rooted in religious movements and motives. Reforms in welfare, prison quality, and capital punishment all stemmed from the second Great Awakening of American Protestants, in which both the hellfire-and-brimstone threats of Calvinism and the personalization of religious conversion took hold of the country. Even the Civil War was a product of such religious reform; for instance, Harriet Beecher Stove, whose novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin rocked the North irrevocably towards defiance of proslavery laws, professed emphatically that her words came from God Himself. Yet, though many modern Americans may acknowledge that a good and moral national lifeblood called Christianity has always flowed through America’s rich veins of history, they forgot the complex dance between religion and secularism – at times, a dance of sabers and swords. Standard “American” principles were founded not only on Christianity but also on the many secular humanistic philosophers of Europe, such as the brilliant atheist Voltaire. Among the greatest Founding Fathers were Deistic defenders of a secular nation. Moderation in national reform is also a byproduct of a balance between religious and secular influences. So, too, is the modern American “Melting Pot” a mix of races, ideas, and religious beliefs. That such a blend of peoples has existed throughout the history of this nation is an indication that America is not a Christian nation, but a nation meant to embrace all worldviews.
The role that religion has grown to play in the governance of America endangers the balance of ideas in America. The current federal administration often takes a Christian perspective towards social policy. A primary argument for such a Christian government is that America has always been intended as a Christian nation. It is indeed true that the Founding Fathers were Christian, but Christians often fallaciously apply a sense of absolution to such statements. In fact, perhaps, the two greatest minds of the founding era were Deists: Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. A Deist is the child of Christianity and secular humanism; Deists believe in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Supreme Creator, but deny that He decides the morals of the world. Jefferson crafted the Constitution and Franklin shaped much of our national policy as the unshakeable and wise elder who often presided over policy debates. These two did intend to craft a moral and God-created nation – but not a Christian one. Both avidly fought for freedom, but more importantly, they fought for balance. Though America was never meant to be unified by a single religion, it was always meant to embrace these institutionalized beliefs. By a unanimous vote of the Continental Congress, our Founding Fathers began each meeting with a prayer from a local minister. They extolled individualism and freedom from absolute control; thus, although they practiced their beliefs individually, they denied that it should ever be forced upon anyone.
Modern policies, however, defy our forefathers’ plan for this nation. Many fiats and dictates from our current President and administration dent the equal rights given to all people which the Founding Fathers protected above all else. Laws against flag burning, against the science of stem cell research, or against gay rights are blatant invasions of freedom and equality. The Founding Fathers believed that Christianity was an enormously strong moral foundation. Very little can match the prevalence of Christianity in its teaching of almost universally accepted ethical guidelines, such as those against murder and usury, or of “turning the other cheek.” But Christians seem to have lost their own way. Proponents of a Christian America cry inaccurately that there is no doctrine of the separation of church and state in the Constitution, but the document’s very nature – a promise of freedoms and equal rights, including freedom of religious practice – is against the Founding Fathers’ intentions. By attempting to force a nation to eschew its supposedly sinful secularism, Christians have lost their own path. The Bible itself tells of Jesus asking sinners to join Him, but never of His incessant pursuit or His force towards those who reject Him. Modern Christians seems much too focused on the nominal aspects of the faith, and as such the morality which the institution once contributed to national progress is becoming jaded and prejudiced hindrance. The War on Iraq is a wonderful and hateful example of the wishy-washiness of modern Christian stances and biases. In reaction to an attack made by a select few extremists, the tides of the entire nation’s beliefs have turned against the Islam faith. Such reaction also shows that many Christians of today’s America do not understand the concept of the line drawn between the individual and his institution. Christianity dictates that only true repentance will bring salvation, but Christians are so bound to the idea that the Christian label is an all-access pass to heaven that they are blinded to the individual nature of human beings; the individual is not a reflection of the whole institution: not all Muslims are extremist terrorists, and not all Christians – very few, at this point – are bastions of morality. The Christians are not the only chosen children of God, if one follows the Bible’s argument; all of humanity enjoys His love, in equal parts.
History has proven that Christianity can have grand and beautiful effects on the nation’s moral standpoint. However, the modern application of Christianity has experiences a moral degradation to the extent that it has proven unfit to guide the nation forward. With the religious zeal of a crusade, America has launched a war against Iraq and has committed many grievous offenses; religious prejudice has revived an internationally outlawed form of torture called waterboarding, which simulates the struggle and fear of drowning. The Founding Fathers intended all Americans to be free of dictatorial power of any kind, whether it be a king or God Himself. Christianity in its purest form extols and treasures life and love, truth and justice and freedom and equality, just as the law of our land has long championed. But its modern political and social applications are broken and dismally poor reflections of this ideological purity. Protecting the lives of the select few by laying to waste equally valuable lives abroad; denying love between people -- love that is not necessarily lustful, a love which is condemned by Christianity, but a love which can be as pure as any between a man and a woman – simply because of their genders; sacrificing the possibility of physical salvation for millions through stem cell research of unused embryos for no reason besides conforming behind the nominal political label of “pro-choice” in order to win an election: this is the modern consequence of Christianity in politics. Thus, in order to reaffirm its status as a moral guide, the nation must undo the union between religion and government. The role of American government is to protect the nation’s secular beliefs, those of freedom and equality as praised by our founders. The role of religion or religious philosophies, though, is a separate—but still vital – moral guideline, based on individual beliefs; it is, therefore, never to be confused with any policy which finds jurisdiction in the entire United States.