The New Frontiers
Culture war is in the air. What started out as a debate about contraception has turned into an all-encompassing fight about the role of religion in public life, and, as usual, you already know where the battle-lines are drawn. On one side stand the conservatives, declaring America a Christian nation and the Founders and Framers a godly group.
On the other are liberals, once again ready to repulse the forces of reaction. I grow weary of this conflict; it should have been settled long ago by facts. The great men of the United States’ founding generation were not Bible thumpers. Benjamin Franklin identified himself as a Deist in his 1771 autobiography, and later said that “lighthouses are more useful than churches.” John Adams was a Unitarian who shared many views with his more secular friends; even he, however, thought that the world would be better without religion. Thomas Jefferson, another Deist, stated that “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man,” publishing a rewritten version of the New Testament in which all references to Jesus’ divinity and the miracles the prophet performed were stripped out. Their God was non-interventionist, and private.
Those who claim America is a Christian nation point to the fact that the wall of separation first mentioned by Jefferson in the 1790s didn’t exist until the 20th century. That reflects two fundamental truths about our society and constitutionalism.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in 1776 and 1789, both contained promises deferred, and the Constitution, seemingly rigid, was meant to be a living document, evolving through the ages via the amendment process and judicial review. “All men are created equal” took 90 years to be codified by the Reconstruction amendments, which were dead letters themselves until the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The Establishment and Free Exercises
Clauses were also sleeping giants lurking in the Bill of Rights, waiting for the time when the judiciary was willing to fully realize them.
And the courts did take up that task, starting in 1943 when the Supremes ruled in West Virginia v. Barnette that Jehovah’s Witnesses could refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The process continued with the Warren Court, which held in Engel v. Vitale that school prayer was unconstitutional. Today, Orthodox Jews and Catholics join evangelicals in their clamor to ‘bring God back into the public schools’; those two groups want to belt out the Amidah or an Ave Maria at morning lineup. But Catholics forget why parochial schools exist in the first place. When the Irish and Italians came to America, they encountered a harsh wave of nativism, constantly knocking them down in their quest to gain acceptance.
New York mandated compulsory school attendance in 1874 and the justification was ostensibly child welfare. Nonetheless, the city’s Protestant elite had murkier motives, trying to pull away immigrant children from the Roman Catholic Church by making teachers assign passages from the King James Bible.
That ugly episode in our history crystallizes for me why government and religion have to be totally separate from each other.
Something just doesn’t sit right, and I wasn’t able to express what it was until my freshman-year flirtation with Ayn Rand. Since, I have rejected most of her philosophy for its sheer narcissism and impracticality, but she got it right when it came to matters of faith.
In her essay, “For the New Intellectual,” Rand posited that history was defined by the presence of two archetypes, Attila and the Witch Doctor. Attila rules by force, subjugating men with clubs and fists.
The Witch Doctor paralyzes man’s mind, filling it with irrationality and preventing him from reaching higher levels of cognition. Attila and the Witch Doctor enter into an alliance to oppress producers, people who dare to think and work.
The aim of a modern, democratic society, then, is to keep the two apart, so when one becomes too oppressive, we can seek refuge in the other. The Founders and Framers understood this acutely; their fathers lived in a time when the Anglican Church and the English state, under the thumb of monarchs who asserted divine right, drove the Puritans out of Europe and onto these shores. Their wisdom is lost on Rick Santorum. *****
Opening The Wave last week, I was flabbergasted by the utterly delusional attack that Republican District Leader Jane Deacy made on me. Responding to a column I had written calling for Congressman Bob Turner’s ouster, she accused me of distorting the facts on the representative’s record, alleged that The Wave had placed my article on page 13 to advance a hidden agenda, and suggested my views didn’t merit publication because they were “out of sync with the Rockaway community.”
What I penned about Turner was entirely devoid of guile; it was based on observations, press releases, and congressional votes, and it certainly attaches to his recently announced bid for the Senate, though Kirsten Gillibrand, if he gets the nomination, will trounce him. Anyone who has ever looked at the Letters section of The Wave knows that this newspaper gives equal space to the conservative perspective, despite Deacy’s claims of media bias, which fit in perfectly with her party’s penchant for playing the victim. As to that last item: Deacy is right, the west end of this peninsula has pivoted rightward over the past decade, and my opinions are now out of sync with Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Breezy Point. Still, that is what I believe, and last time I checked I have the right to express my views just as she does.