Religion and the Republic

Religion is a regular topic of the letters on the Voices page. This is hardly news to readers, a goodly percentage of whom probably fall into one of two camps, depending on the particular theological argument made: aginners or amen-ers.

I am actually neither, or perhaps, rather, both. What I see most when perusing the letters attempting to use religion to justify this political policy or that is a widespread misunderstanding of the R-word as it applies to our Republic.

Religion is a broad realm, one that was hardly lost on the founders. Indeed, it was addressed so eloquently in our national charter documents as to seem, well, divine.

For there emerged from their minds a twin concept, which we have essentially codified today in the national vocabulary with two succinct phrases: “God & Country” and “Church & State.”

The first, God & Country, was enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. We the patriots made it clear that because our unalienable rights were God-given, neither the king of England nor any other earthly tyrant could usurp them or deny them to us.

The second, Church & State, was expressed in our Constitution. We the people made it clear that Congress could neither establish a national church (they were thinking mainly along the lines of the Anglican or European Roman Catholic church-states in Europe) nor impede the individual freedom to worship.

God & Country and Church & State are not the same thing, not by a country mile. Agreement around the distinct demarcation of the two phrases is imperative, or discourse on the subject degenerates into chaos inflamed by religious fervor.

From our inception, the idea of God & Country was deemed a beneficial association. It’s a foundational idea, a cornerstone of our national identity. It’s sanctioned in our heritage and confirmed by historical precedent. Atheists may not like it; they probably didn’t like it in 1776 either. But like it or not, God was written in to every state constitution. He’s prominent in our classic patriotic music and prose. Our trust in him is stamped on our currency. We start court proceedings invoking his name, and presidents end speeches beseeching his blessings.

God & Country is a very general thing. It doesn’t refer to a denominational deity, but rather asserts a national belief in and a respect for our creator. The Declaration speaks in sweeping terms of humanity and divinity, of human events and Nature’s God.

God & Country doesn’t dictate that you or I believe in a particular doctrine, but rather promotes a consensus of national thought around the idea that a virtuous people are necessary for a long-standing republic.

So I’m all for the preservation of God & Country, and you should be, too—regardless of what church you go or don’t go to.

Speaking of church brings us to the second phrase.

From the start, beginning with the first words in our Bill of Rights, Church & State were defined as different dominions sharing an inviolate boundary. The separation between the federal government, with its power to tax and regulate, and the various denominations and churches was prudent and visionary, not to mention revolutionary.

Church & State is much more specific in its scope. “Congress shall make no law” explicitly identifies the U.S. government, forever forbids a federal church and guarantees every citizen’s faith to be defined by his own conscience.

So I’m also all for the separation of Church & State, and you should be, too.

Just because both phrases have validity hardly means there’s no room for argument within each, of course. But it does mean that intellectually honest debaters should take care to not confuse the two during discourse.

Those driven by radical agendas have no more fidelity to the truth than to objectivity. Atheists who claim that America was never founded as a religious (and mostly Christian) country are deceitful; they may well have deceived themselves.

So, too, are closed-minded proselytizers who think the United States was founded as a government subscribing to the chapter-and-verse theology of the peculiar doctrinal flavor they prefer.

We ought to revere both “God & Country” and “Church & State” for their respective principles.

I attended a moving church service last weekend that honored Independence Day. Hearing all the verses of songs like “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” sung by a packed sanctuary, led by the choir with orchestra and pipe organ, swells the heart.

So does seeing pictures of local veterans appearing on the large multimedia screen, along with their branch of service, tour of duty and theater of battle. It was God & Country at its finest!

But no legislature had prescribed the worship service, ordained its content, or compelled my attendance. No tax supported the church building or the pastor’s fund. No law governed other churches’ programs, or other peoples’ worship choices.

It was separation of Church & State at its finest.

Religion and our Republic go remarkably well together, when properly categorized. There’s more to celebrate than condemn, and maybe someday the letters will better reflect that.


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