Religion In America

The conservatives and neoconservatives are rushing to establish a connection between “God and Country”. While there have always been some who tried to do this, there is a more intense desire, it seems, to “prove” that this country was based on Christian principles, in spite of the statement of John Adams that:
“As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion–as it has itself no character of enmity against the law, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen…”

There is yet the argument that somehow this government is directly founded on Christian principles. Madison, however, saw that in Christianity or in any religion, trying to govern by the “truth of God” was near impossible. As he wrote in “The Federalist”:

“When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated”.

The problem lay in translation and interpretation, as Jefferson commented in a letter to a friend:

“Differences in opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of censor morum over each other”.

It is not that the founders especially believed in Christianity, or in any other religion, as a direct authority for government, but that they saw religion as an agent by which power could be equally divided in the name of conscience. This need to maintain a “balance of power” among factions in government became recognized as the “Madisonian problem” as Madison agonized over in “Federalist #10”:

“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project”.

We can conclude that Madison certainly never intended for any religion to represent the elimination of property rights. In fact, we can see from both Madison and Jefferson that both men intended that no “national council” could ever seek to overturn the property rights of people in the several states.

The “separation of church and state” which many claim is represented in the First Amendment, designed, according to Madison’s statement, to maintain property rights and discourage national power to override those rights. Both Madison and Jefferson were less involved with the ‘truth” of religion that with its ability to confound and separate people to the point they could not create “conflagrations” of power by using “paper money, abolition of debts, and for an equal division of property”, all of which we seem to have developed a taste for in recent times, not to mention the outright use of “paper money” with no Constitutional authorization.

The founders understood quite well that no person, especially themselves, had the knowledge or authority to speak for God, but they also intended that the government could, in no fashion, interfere with the free exercise of religion, not because they wished the government to be subject to God, but because they knew that no man could ever prove himself to be a representative of God.

As Madison wrote in the famous “Memorial And Remonstrance”:

“The religion then, of every man, must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate”.

While men may be subject to God, the state could never, in any sense, speak for God. None of the statements above show that the founders, in any way, intended for the state to claim power over any person’s conscience. They understood quite clearly that no belief in God could ever be reduced to state-endorsed rules.

While the right to worship God was permitted, it was intended as a counter-measure to the power of the state, but never to be subject to controls other than those chosen by the people themselves as individuals. More than the state, and less than the God in which they believed. Mankind, in the eyes of the founders, consisted of more than rules and laws. Mankind was made in the image of something which he could not define, but had the right to seek and desire.

What are the Limits to Religious Tolerance?

One of the greatest legacies of America’s Founding Fathers is the Bill of Rights which was made a part of our Constitution. Of particular note is the First Amendment which says,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

While those “rights” have over the years been bent and battered by authority, they remain an essential part of the mythos of America as a “free country.” In the first and second clauses, it was the intention of the Founders to prevent the federal government from establishing a “national religion.” This provision is generally described as requiring “the separation of church and state.” What that actually means in practice has long been a subject of debate and a matter for judicial clarification. People generally take it to mean that the government is prevented from favoring one religious institution over the others by prescribing particular religious practices or providing public (material) support to any particular religious institution.

Americans tend to forget that many other countries around the world do not adhere to the ideal of the state as a “secular” entity. Most, but not all of those that have a state religion are Islamic. Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Greece each have as their official religion some form of Christianity, as does Argentina, which happens to be Roman Catholic.

Islam has of late, for a variety of reasons, been the focus of greater scrutiny by both Americans and Europeans. Until recently, there had been little direct contact with Muslims. They were “those people, over there,” in the middle-east or Asia. But now they are coming here in greater numbers and their presence is being felt. Mosques are becoming increasingly common and Islamic practices are ever more noticeable. The city of Dearborn, Michigan, with a 40% Muslim population, is now known as “America’s Muslim Capital.” How has that impacted the lives of non-Muslims in southeastern Michigan? I’ve not done enough research to say, but I did find a video that disturbs me. It is titled, Arab Festival 2009: Sharia in the US, and shows what happened when a video crew sought to get some answers on camera.


Now I consider myself a social liberal. My personal philosophy is “live and let live,” and one of my primary personal goals is to promote human unity. It is an undeniable fact that religion has throughout history been one of the most divisive forces, and all manner of atrocities have been committed in the name of one god or another. The fact is that religion has always exerted political influence in one way or another.

Islam has been particularly assertive in that regard. When speaking of a particular religion, one must be careful not to over-generalize. Islam, like Christianity has its multitudinous sects and schisms, and more than its fair share of crazy clerics. But I have a distinct impression that for Muslims in general, religious tolerance is NOT a two-way street. It seems that most Muslim clerics have as their agenda the imposition of “Sharia law” upon civil society. It would be prudent for Westerners to learn about Islam, its agenda, and its methods. Bill Warner has provided A Short Overview of Sharia Law, which highlights a few items from the Koran that I find very disturbing.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Muslim countries, mostly in Malaysia, and had a chance to see the way things work there. Malaysia is probably the most moderate of Muslim countries. It is a federation of states, Sultanates, and former western colonies that was cobbled together in 1957. The official religion is Islam. Other religions are tolerated and freely practiced but they do not enjoy the same support as Islam. On the surface, there is the appearance of social harmony, but there is an undercurrent of tension that often bubbles to the surface. About two thirds of the population of the Malaysian Federation is Muslim. The remainder is comprised mainly of Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus, but the distribution of the minorities varies widely from one state to another. Some Malaysian states are overwhelmingly Muslim, and Sharia law tends to be more generally applied.

On my first extended visit to Malaysia I spent the first night at a guesthouse close to the beach. It happened to be located directly in front of a mosque and it was during the month of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims. As you may know, it is Muslim practice to call the faithful to prayers five times a day. It would not be so bad if the call was not so strongly amplified electronically, but it was so loud, persistent and prolonged that it had to flee the area to find more peaceful surroundings in the city.

The sign pictured here was taken at a hotel where massage is offered, this in a state that is majority Chinese. Even there, Sharia law is enforced, but only upon Muslims. There are “religious police” that carry out unannounced inspections to assure that the HPIM6178SignCrp-300x208law is being complied with. How do they determine who is Muslim and who is not? In Malaysia, everyone has an identity card that specifies their religious affiliation. “Born a Muslim, always a Muslim,” is the official position asserted by Islamic institutions and culture. It’s extremely difficult for anyone to renounce that religion, and we’ve all seen how touchy and vengeful the Imams can be with their fatwas. One celebrated case of a few years ago was the “contract” that was put out on the life of Salman Rushdie because some Imams found his Satanic Verses to be “offensive to Islam.” They actually offered a cash reward to anyone who would kill him.

My experience with Muslims as individuals has been generally positive. My Muslim friends are warm, generous, and hospitable, but the institutions of Islam bear watching. The general assertion of any particular religious views and practices tends to repress others and create an atmosphere of fear and submission, and leads to widespread hypocrisy. Hence, the regular visits of Muslim men to neighboring Thailand where they can more safely pursue their carnal pleasures.

The most disturbing thing I’ve come across lately was a video so grizzly and repulsive that I even hesitate to mention it. It was sent to me by a friend and it shows the stoning of a young girl that occurred recently in some unspecified Islamic country. I’m still haunted by the image of the final blow, a young man smashing a cement block into the girl’s head. The girl’s alleged crime was her refusal of an arranged marriage to a much older man.

To my Islamic brothers and sisters I offer this bit of wisdom from an article that appeared recently in the Huffington Post. In it, religious scholar and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong quotes “the great thirteenth-century Sufi philosopher” Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi:

“Do not attach yourself in an exclusive manner to any one creed, so that you disbelieve all the rest: if you do this, you will miss much good; nay, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for He says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah” (Quran 2.109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

The looming global economic, social, political and environmental transition is going to be difficult enough; we should not complicate it by too much mixing of divergent cultural and religious traditions. The future of civilization will depend upon those of us who can put aside religious, racial, cultural, and political differences to work together in common cause to create a sustainable, convivial, equitable and peaceful civilization.

I’m no fan of Newt Gingrich but I think he may be right on this point: Speaking at the Value Voters Summit, Gingrich proposed a federal law banning Sharia (Muslim) law in America. He said, “I am opposed to any effort to impose Sharia in the United States, and we should have a federal law that says under no circumstances in any jurisdiction in the United States will Sharia be used, in any court, to apply to any judgment made about American law.”

I think John Lennon had it right when he was inspired to write his song, Imagine. Note the phrase: …and no religion, too.

Here are the complete lyrics:

Imagine – John Lennon

Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope someday you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.

#     #     #