For many years, we’ve heard network pundits talk about a “war on Christianity” and call for the US to officially become a Christian nation. Such talk would have made our Founding Fathers cringe. After all, many of them had settled in the US, like some of my ancestors did, as the result of religious persecution in Europe. Our earliest European settlers were Puritans, Huguenots, Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Jews and others who had fled their homes in search of religious freedom.
Yet, some of the original colonies themselves began imposing their religious views on others, claiming that a particular denomination was the official religion of the colony and taxing all citizens to support that denomination. It was as a result of such discrimination that those who wrote the US Constitution included the wording that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Nevertheless, preying on our citizens’ fear of radical Islamic terrorism, many of our political candidates continue to call for the US to be named a Christian nation. One wants to prohibit certain immigrants based on their religion. Others want to “return our nation to its Christian values.”
That may be good politics. But it is dangerous policy. After all, almost every atrocity in the world has been committed in the name of righteousness – crimes committed as the result of zealotry for an ideology based on the ends justifying the means.
Such atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity, Islam, Judaism…even Buddhism. But the problem doesn’t just lie with religion. Out of the same kind of self-righteous zealotry, they have also been committed in the name of communism, fascism and capitalism. Almost always, such crimes are not considered crimes by those committing them – the true believers believe that they are doing the right thing for their religion, their nation or their children. Such was the case when the Bush administration zealously decided to impose democracy in Iraq resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands (some say hundreds of thousands) Iraqis.
There have been examples of other destructive examples of self-righteous zealotry in the US. The KKK murdered blacks under the cross of Christianity. Senator Joe McCarthy accused, investigated, blacklisted and imprisoned many who failed to demonstrate that they were not communists or communist sympathizers (it’s always difficult to prove a negative). The same mentality led to the John Birch Society which believed both the Soviet Union and the US were led by a cabal of internationalists, bankers and corrupt politicians. Its leader even accused President Eisenhower of being a communist. The same rightwing conservatives wrapped themselves in the cloak of Christianity to draw greater distinctions between righteous Americans and the godless communists. To distinguish themselves from communism, they pushed through legislation replacing the original national motto “E Pluribus Unum” – from many one – with “In God We Trust.” They added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And congressional members of The Fellowship, aka The Family, instituted the National Prayer Breakfast at the capitol, a quasi-governmental Christian event that has been held every year since 1953.
Much of the conservative-based zealotry was driven underground after Edward R. Murrow focused attention on the abuses of McCarthyism and after William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater shunned the John Birch Society. But the ideology never went away. As a result, we are now seeing conservatives again using religion to divide. The movement again raised its ugly head with the “Moral Majority” of the 70s and 80s. About the same time, the GOP’s “southern strategy” reached out to racist southern Democrats who were outraged by the Civil Rights Act. GOP politicians also latched onto the issues of abortion and the so-called “sanctity of marriage” to embolden the “righteous” and further divide us. And they claim that any attempt to prevent the establishment of Christianity as the official state religion – the placement of Christian symbols and the institution of mandatory Christian prayers in public schools and government meetings – is a “war on Christianity.” You can hear such accusations at any GOP presidential debate, at most GOP rallies and on GOP media such as Fox News Channel.
Now you may wonder, what harm could come from institutionalizing Christian values in our government? The answer lies in history – the history of Christian Protestants and others being persecuted and driven out of their homes by Catholic Christians. That’s not to say that Catholicism is any worse, or better, than other religions. It’s just that one person’s religious values can easily become another person’s religious persecution.
Though it is true that the US has long been predominately Christian, it has never been a Christian nation, and it never should be. When we hear politicians like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and others call for special treatment of those who believe in one religion over another, or over those who believe in no religion at all, we should all be mindful that our Founding Fathers created our Constitution and our government to end tyranny, including tyranny by the majority.
To learn how a government led by a self-righteous authoritarian like Trump might look like, I encourage you to read Thom Hartmann’s excellent essay for AlterNet.org.