Give Me That Old Time Religion.

It’s easy to look back on our lives and glorify earlier years as something special. But our memories are fallible. And, in reality, those days were seldom as good as we remember. There are, however, exceptions. One prime example is religion.

I remember growing up at a time when churches and synagogues were the pillars of communities. They were gathering places for life’s most important moments…places of joy for baptisms and weddings. They served as support groups in times of sorrow when family members were lost. They also collected money for those less fortunate. And in many communities, traditional churches continue these are traditions.

Even more important, traditional religions taught good behavior based on principles such as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In my small Midwestern town, I cannot recall anyone proselytizing. One’s religious beliefs were considered private and personal. Indeed, the subject of religion seldom came up in gatherings, except at church. Everyone seemed to respect everyone else’s faith. There were no attempts to insert prayers before the Pledge of Allegiance in school; no attempts to install religious memorials on government property. There were, however, Christmas and Easter decorations in schools and in government buildings until they were, in my opinion, rightfully banned by the Supreme Court.

Fast forward to today when evangelicals proselytize at every opportunity. When they ignore the unethical, antisocial behavior of a president because they are convinced that he will give them the power they crave.

Today we have practitioners of the so-called “prosperity gospel” – the corrupted notion that God rewards true believers by making them wealthy. There are those who wish to hasten the “rapture” by unifying all of Jerusalem under Israeli rule, believing that only then will the next prophet appear. There are others who believe in the dominion principle, that only true believers are qualified to govern the United States. There are still others who believe one’s behavior is immaterial, that you can do whatever you wish as long as you declare your faith in Jesus.

For most of these, the Golden Rule has been relegated to the dust bins of history; a quaint notion that interferes with the business at hand. That business is raising money to provide a new mansion or jet for the pastor. Or to raise money and votes for representatives that believe as they do so they can make the US a Christian nation. Never mind that doing so would be blatantly unconstitutional and very much in contrast to the beliefs of our nation’s Founders.

Such a plan is antithetical to democracy. It would create a theocracy hostile to non-Christians…even to Christians who do not share the majority’s narrow religious view. In short, it would create a theocracy little different from the Taliban or ISIS.

If we are ever to make the US great again; if we are ever to regain our world leadership in matters other than military, we must stop focusing on the things that divide us. We must find a way to share the American experience. We must learn to care for one another; to respect one another; to talk with one another. We must commit to true equality.

That means rejecting faiths that proclaim their superiority over others; that try to dictate the behavior of others (that’s what the courts are for). And it means committing to the words and the intentions of the Declaration of Independence: “…that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

A Divided Nation.

I began this blog several years ago with a post “Why We’re Divided.” The point was that our political divide is not merely the result of differing ideologies. It’s the result of differing “facts.”

Never has that been more clearly demonstrated than by two competing advertising campaigns running on this Independence Day. In my state’s largest newspaper, there is an ad bearing the headline “In God We Trust.” Paid for by a company that is owned by a religious zealot, the ad uses a variety of quotes from our Founding Fathers to support the claim that our nation was founded on Christianity.

A few pages later, there is an ad bearing the headline “Celebrate Our Godless Constitution.” Paid for by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it, too, uses a variety of quotes from our Founding Fathers to support the claim that our nation was built on the principle of separation of Church and State.

This is a classic example of proof-texting – selectively choosing quotes that support a particular point of view. This technique is often used by the religious to justify actions or beliefs. Religious leaders use verses from the Bible to justify war, to rationalize genocide, to discriminate against gays and others, to ignore – indeed blame – the poor for struggling as the result of policies they didn’t create, etc.

No matter how ugly your point of view, you can find a verse in the Bible, the Torah or the Qur’an to justify an action or inaction.

The same is true when it comes to quotes by our Founding Fathers. As Michael Austin writes in his book That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing, the Founders were so diverse, you can find a quote from one of them to support almost any point of view. Among the Founders were Protestants, Catholics, Quakers, Jews, Deists, Agnostics and Atheists. There were idealists and slave owners. There were farmers, plantation owners, printers, attorneys, inventors, ship owners and many others.

There were Founders in favor of a strong central government and those who believed the power should reside exclusively with the states.

So which ad is correct? Both of them. And neither of them.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, who authored our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, strongly believed in separation of Church and State. The majority at the Constitutional Convention agreed. However, many of the Founders spoke of “divine providence” and the “principles of Christianity.”

More important, the ads demonstrate the growing divide between Americans; between the Federalists and those who believe in states’ rights; between the devoutly religious and the agnostics; between science and religion; between those who trust government and those who despise it; between the wealthy and the poor; between red and blue; between black, brown, red and white; between the educated and the uneducated; and between those who believe the US is the greatest nation on Earth and those who recognize its faults and intend to change them.

I think it no exaggeration to write that our nation is at a crossroads, more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Independence Day is the perfect time to consider the consequences of such a divide. Committing to compromise and finding common ground are imperative to the future of our nation.