America wants to be and believes that it is a moral nation, at least as moral as flawed humans know how to make it, but we are in the midst of a tug of war to decide if our morality will be secular or religious. It is unclear why we are even having this argument. The Constitution and our forefathers clearly come down on the side of religious freedom for American citizens and they have left enough written documentation to convince most of us that the founders of our nation felt that the best way to insure religious freedom is to separate government and religion. This would seem to negate the formation of a Theocracy.
However, some in present-day politics are trying to walk back our traditional understanding of what our founders intended while claiming that they can channel the actual intentions of those who wrote our founding documents. They argue that America harbored only sects of Christianity in Colonial times and that, if our forefathers had been faced with Muslims, or Buddhists, or other global religions that have found a home in modern day America, then they might have written about religion and government in a different way, or they might have made America a Christian nation. But wishing it, or even positing it as a logical conclusion, does not make it so. I would like to think that our founders were far-sighted and wise, but think the 3/5 rule which turned some people into objects, and think about the blatant elitism of our forefathers, which suggest that they were products of their times, perhaps overseers rather than seers.
Examining the differences between secular morality and what advocates mean when they long for religious morality might help inform of us of which way we would like to go. The right wing Conservatives, with a preponderance of Evangelical Christians offer us some insight into religious morality. We get an impression of an Old Testament sensibility, a return to the rules as laid down in Leviticus. We have the Ten Commandments, of course, but when we turn them into very literal rules for our nation they would change America a great deal. I won’t go through them one by one.
The Commandment we are most caught up in right now is Thou shalt not commit murder. Here is the Pro Life argument in a nutshell. How will we ever get around the moral argument about whether or not the killing of an unborn baby, whether it is a mere blob of cells, a possibility of life, or whether it has taken fetal form and resembles a child is murder or whether that Christian concept is not the business of our government. We know women have aborted unwanted children since the beginnings of time and at great risk. Sometimes the timing of a pregnancy is so wrong or the circumstances of the pregnancy are so repugnant that a woman is almost obsessed with stopping the pregnancy. Sometimes a woman knows or senses her own life will be in danger if she gives birth to a child or even shows anyone that she is pregnant. Since pregnancy falls within the female realm, the decision about aborting a pregnancy should fall within the female realm and the process should be as safe as possible and should definitely not involve rooting the fetal cells out with a stick or a coat hanger. If the GOP truly wants to end abortion then they need to set up humane systems to help women through to term and to find parents for the children that are the result of unwanted pregnancies. Until these systems are in place I don’t see how women will agree to ending legal abortion.
Besides adopting a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, we have those who suggest that we need to heed things that are often incidentally described in the Bible as the Christian traditions that pertained at the times when the Bible was written, although quite a few centuries passed before we had both the new and the old testaments. So we have those who admonish women to be submissive and to allow their husbands to control the lives of the family. I’m not sure, given what we now understand about the way this can lead to domestic abuse of wives or children or both why we would ever want to take power away from women ever again, or why women would freely give up their position as equals.
Those on the religious right argue that having women once again assume a submissive role in relation to their husband would restore the nuclear family, end crime, end immorality and end sexual and gender “deviation”, in other words, would put LGBT people back into the closet or put them in danger of being punished for their “immoral” behavior. And then, they (these new patriarchs) argue we could end all this political correctness crap and, in fact, life would be good. Society’s rules would be simple and clear, and right and wrong would be spelled out according to God and Jesus [or to someone’s interpretation of acceptable Christian protocols for living a Godly life].
The Bible does not talk about evolution, so we would just bury centuries of scientific inquiry? Science, in fact, comes up with so many conclusions that appear to be at odds with the Bible that we can expect that abandoning scientific pursuits will bring us all closer to the heaven. Will we punish those who have curiosity built into their psyches? Well we will certainly have to pass laws against such investigations of our world and decide how we will punish those who persist. Can you see how this could all get out of hand very fast? Do you want an America that lives out the dream of the Puritans? Do we want to measure our government’s laws by any particular religion? Will we have a democratic government if it is “God” (as interpreted by man) calling the shots?
Clearly sticking with secular morality grants us the freedom to maintain a democracy. But what rules apply to secular morality? That is what makes it all so difficult to enjoy freedom because a citizen must frequently judge what will offer maximum freedom to the most people, while doing the least harm. This is an enormous task. We often get the balance wrong. Here we rely on the dialectic to set things right. When things go too far in one direction forces drag events back towards the center.
So take the case of campaign finance, which most of us agree is totally out of whack with the very foundation of democratic government. Once our Supremes agreed that corporations were people we gave our elections back to the very elite who argued for ascendancy at our nation’s founding. We gave our elections to the wealthy this time, not the landowners, although I’m sure they all own land (perhaps not in America, though). President Obama’s election proves that small donors have some power, but the right wing is trying hard to negate that. Republicans have more milestones on their agenda to turn our governance over to the wealthy. Now individuals can give as much as they wish. Republicans manufactured an IRS scandal and raised such a ruckus that no one can reevaluate the use of 501 C-4’s again. Even the ploy to pass a flat tax needs to be examined very carefully because it is most likely a political IED. In fact Republicans would like to simplify our government right to death.
We are trying to make sure that secular morality, that old golden rule of ‘Do Unto Others as You Would Have Others Do Unto You’ is still a guiding force in our nation. We are trying to practice a new American Exceptionalism that relies on diplomacy and a ‘live and let live’ spirit (whenever possible) rather than the old idea of exceptionalism that says we must loom over everyone and threaten to beat them into submission because fear is the only emotion people really understand.
The American experiment to respect each other and to share power is still an exceptionally idealistic one and, in that sense, our exceptionalism still lives and, if we were allowed to cooperate with other world governments to help lift people around the globe and turn the planet into a safe, stable, and healthy world the morality of that would far outshine any Puritanical rule of lockstep religious practices and prejudices that could ever come out of the atavistic longings of the right wing of the Republican Party in America.
By Nancy Brisson