The Curious Attitude toward Religion in America

The World and I, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Curious Attitude toward Religion in America


The Special Report in Current Issues this month deals with religious persecution. I should like to discuss briefly the schizophrenia in contemporary America on the subject of religion. Superficially, this is one of the most religious nations on earth. Roughly 98 percent of the population believes in God. Yet religion seems more a social than a religious factor in much of the country. Although most believers in God are Christians, perhaps the social aspect of religion in America explains why there is scant outrage over the persecution of Christians in other nations.

Christianity, except for a minority, is a matter of social conformity rather than of character. It is quite unlike the faith of the Jesus who refused to bend before the might of Rome. Although I favor the separation between church and state the founders wrote into the Constitution, perhaps the thinness of religious life in America explains why a wall between--rather than a separation of--religion and politics is being built.

Posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms would not breach separation. The commandments are a fundamental historical aspect of the American culture. They do not separate Christianity or Judaism from any other major religion. Agnostics and atheists are free to regard them as fundamental moral rules imposed by Moses, and not God, in an effort to bind diverse tribes into a single moral community.

The fiction of George Washington and the cherry tree is integral to the integration of the Ten Commandments into the American culture. However, those who desire a wall between the state and religion--rather than a mere separation--do not want any display that has any type of connection to deep belief in a common moral community.

An atheist who observes the Ten Commandments is a good American, and priests, ministers, or rabbis who break them are bad Americans. Jesus' message to love our neighbors falls under the same rubric. As a Jew, I am appalled by the leading rabbi of Shas because of the noxious things he says about Arabs. If I were a Muslim, I hope I would be appalled by the things Louis Farrakhan says about Jews.

We should be appalled by the persecution of religious people (or atheists) abroad. And we should be free to post in schoolrooms some of the most fundamental moral beliefs of the American people, even if they have their origins in religion. The founders did not intend that kind of wall. It has got to the stupid point that even a moment of silence may not be permitted by the Court because some of the meditators may silently pray. …

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