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.