Friday, July 16, 2010

One Nation Under God?

The recent trip to Utah got me to thinking about the subject of religious freedom and religious dominance. Utah, as anyone with even a cursory understanding of U.S. history knows, is the only state since the formation of the United States that set about to govern as a theocracy.

You may have noticed that the topic of whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation is once again much in the news. There are some people in the U.S. who are pushing hard to undo the First Amendment, especially where it applies to separation of church and state. The concept of separation of church and state takes a regular beating from some folk--pointing out, correctly, that the term "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. But the question I have is would we REALLY want the U.S. to erase the lines that separate church and state? Would we really want the U.S. to be a Christian nation in the sense that we would govern as a theocracy?

A quick note here, about definitions. Theocracy is generally defined as "a form of government in which god or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God's or deity's laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities."

A most interesting article entitled "Theocracy in America" gives a sense of what life could be like were the U.S. a theocracy. The author grew up in Utah, with her family being non-Mormons. She has many interesting observations, and I commend her entire article for your reading. Some of what the author points out in that article, I can resonate with, based on our visit to Utah. She notes:

"As you might imagine, being a Utah Gentile can be tough. In fact, living as a non-Mormon in Utah may be the closest a white person can come to understanding what it's like to be a minority in this country. . . It's not that Mormons are bad people. They aren't. They have a church welfare system that is without rival, and their family focus makes Utah a safe place to grow up. . . But the cultural differences between Mormons and Gentiles are significant."


She pointed out that her family was one of only a few non-Mormons in their neighborhood. They were regularly besieged by Mormon missionaries trying to convert them, or trying to collect the tithe church members must give to the church.

We recently visited with an old college friend of mine. Their son now lives in Utah, also a non-Mormon. Our friend told us that neighborhoods are divided into wards, by the church, and that houses where non-Mormons live are marked with Xs so people know a "Gentile" lives there. Gentile is the term Mormons use for anyone who is not Mormon, including--ironically--anyone who is Jewish. Our friend's son has small children, and while the neighborhood where they live has many children, the Mormon children rarely play with these "Gentile" children.

So, what would the U.S. be like if we were a theocracy? Is the Utah experience instructive? Utah, of course, is not technically a theocracy—they gave up that approach to government (along with polygamy) when they were admitted to the United States. It is striking that even though Utah gave up being a theocracy, there are ways in which the pressure is on non-Mormons. During our recent trip, when we were offered to take post-cards so we could request more information on being Mormon--we all declined. But our daughter-in-law got a rejoinder from the young Mormon missionary who was pressuring her. Oh, a non-believer, she sniffed.

True, early American history did feature some colonies that functioned as mini-theocracies. Settlers from England fled religious persecution and intolerance, only to set up places in New England that duplicated those same conditions. I have always been struck by the irony of those first English Puritans who came to the New World to escape religious persecution ended up persecuting others in the name of religion. The Middle Colonies (including Pennsylvania) were a bit more tolerant, at least toward other religions. By the colonies came together to form the union, the concept of not having a state established religion had taken hold.

Whatever the framers of the Constitution had in mind, they clearly intended to prohibit the kind of intolerance that they had experienced that drove them to seek a new place in which to live. The language of the first amendment--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--makes it clear (at least to me) that the founders of what became the United States did not want a theocracy.

What of other experiences around the world where theocracies exist? Here, let us turn to current examples of theocracy in the world. Wikipedia identifies three theocracies: Iran, the Vatican, and Israel. Ah--how's that for a nice balance, representing three different religions. What they share is the concept that the laws of the state are the laws that God has decreed. The head of state is the religious leader, either elected or appointed. That leader is the interpreter of God's intent as far as law is concerned. What these examples also share is the dominance of the religion over matters of state. If you are the follower of another religion, you may not be free to worship as you wish under a theocracy.

The particular genius of the United States is that, while the majority may rule, the Constitution also builds in a strong protection for the minority. It is that genius that is lost in those countries that are theocracies. The minority is not protected, and in the worst of circumstances is totally subjected by the power of the majority.

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the prospect of the United States becoming a theocracy. For me, because of our ever-so-brief time in Utah and my own perusal of information on the topic of theocracy, I am unalterably opposed to the U.S. ever moving to being a theocracy. Keep church and state apart. The inch-by-inch erasure of that invisible line that separate church and state is one of the greatest threats to the particular genius of the United States.

16 comments:

Ginger said...

How interesting! I am in total agreement with you about the wisdom of keeping church and state separate, for the reasons you've mentioned.

On a minor point, I found it odd that Wikipedia would list Israel as a theocracy. It isn't, to my knowledge, and it doesn't satisfy the descriptors listed. The head of state, for example, is not a religious leader.

egretsnest said...

Couldn't agree with you more.

Anvilcloud said...

I must tell my DIL that she would be considered a gentile in Utah. Let's hope that the constitution withstands the assaults of the theocratists. Anyway, given the plethora of denominations, I can't imagine that any sort of true agreement could be reached among them about what leader or rules should be followed.

Jayne said...

Amen.

KGMom said...

Ginger--point taken. Wikipedia seems to acknowledge that as it says that Israel being a theocracy is debatable. I guess they listed it because preference in many things is given to those citizens who are Jewish.
My guess is if you were a Palestinian living in a house that was destroyed by the Jewish state you might not be so concerned with the fine points of definitions of theocracy.

Climenheise said...

Thanks for an interesting description! Many strange and wonderful contortions.

Israel is an interesting case -- Orthodox Judaism ha great influence, but most Israelis are secular. Arab Israelis are clearly second class (see among many examples the writings of Elias Chacour).

Nepal and Bhutan, not to mention Thailand, are as much "theocracies" as Israel -- except that the term "theocracy" derives from monotheism, I think, which is why the three examples you listed are within the Abrahamic traditions. So also Indonesia and Pakistan and parts of India.

The trouble is that the wall of separation in the United States has become its own kind of religion. I'm not sure you've escaped theocracy, sister mine; you just changed "theos". Canada and England and Australia show an alternate example of accepting the Christian religion (and others) without being theocracies.

I know: material for a much longer discussion. I enjoyed the description and agree with most of it. It sounds to me, however, as though you think that the choices are two: theocracy a la Utah, or a public square scrubbed free of religion. I don't think I am reading you correctly, but that's what it sounds like.

Elizabeth said...

That article is incredibly disingenuous about the Mormon church purchasing that strip of Main St. That section is a street between THE Mormon Church (think the Vatican) and other Mormon buildings. The Mormons have not taken over downtown Salt Lake City. I work on Main St. There is nothing on the street until you reach the Mormon headquarters that would indicate anything about Mormons (except a tourist store that is selling things mocking Mormons).

Furthermore, being a non-Mormon myself I think people focus on Mormons because they're different. Why is it that no one can talk about Mormons without bringing up polygamy? The Mormons gave up polygamy in 1890, a mere 60 years after the practice was first adopted! When people talk about Christians they don't always bring up the fact that Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. When we talk about Catholics people don't always mention that they think they are literally consuming the blood and body of Jesus during communion. Why don't we talk about Catholics subscribing to cannibalism? Because it's well known and Christians are respected.

Lastly, I can't speak to the author's experience attending public school in Utah as I moved here last December. But I grew up as an atheist in a Massachusetts town that was predominantly Catholic and I was relentlessly teased in public school about being an atheist. So I find it hard to imagine that living in this supposed "theocracy" makes much of a difference. If you are any type of minority in a town it will be more difficult growing up there.

Murr Brewster said...

It has always struck me that so many factions that claim to have God on their side seem so insecure as to have to have everyone else strapped into their boat.

KGMom said...

Elizabeth--first, thanks for stopping by for I assume may have been your first visit to my blog.
Second, the article that talks about the "takeover" on Main St. was recounting something that happened in the latge 1990s. Perhaps the author observed a before & after that you would not have seen, having recently arrived.
Third, the entire park area around the temple, which encompasses several blocks, is very much under Mormon control.
Fourth, I think you may be right that part of why people focus on aspects of being Mormon are because "they are different" as you observe. However, the difference that you overlook is that, after the establishment of the United States, no other religion tried to establish a theocracy, which the Mormons not only attempted but actually had in place. Brigham Young was first the ruler of what became Utah, and then its first governor all the while being the second prophet and head of the Mormon church.

KGMom said...

Daryl--I would disagree that I have substituted "theos". I do not argue for absence of all religion in the public square. I would propose that a) you can't have religion in the public square if that looks like "establishing" religion, and b) if you want mention of religion in the public square, you have to be willing to accept any and all mentions. You can't have only Christian references exclusively. It has been my experience that when people complain about NOT having religion in the public square, they don't mean ALL religions; they mean Christianity.
I have at times asked people who are comfortable with public prayers evoking the name of Jesus if they would also be comfortable with prayers to Allah. Usually, they are not.

Climenheise said...

AS i said, I suspect I am taking you to imply more than you mean. Living in Steinbach, a community overwhelmingly Christian, we held our multicultural day several months ago. We had a booth for Hinduism as part of the displays, because some residents of Steinbach are now Hindu. My own answer to whether or not someone should pray in the name of Allah is: "If that person has been asked as a representative of the Muslims community in that place to pray in a public event, I would expect him/her to pray 'In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate". What other name should a Muslim pray in?

My own desire is for a public square in which all are free to participate fully, from inside of their own private and public and secular and religious identity. So I agree wholeheartedly with your statement b): willing to accept any and all religions (unless there is some overwhelming public reason to exclude a particular group). I suspect that the difference in our reading of your statement a) is that I would place the bar significantly higher for measuring when a particular religious expression looks like establishing any particular religion.

Again, an interesting blog, with an interesting set of responses from various readers. Thank you!

Ginnie said...

My blood turns cold when I think of our country as "Christian" only. Just which version would take over and by who's right? I also hate the use of the word in sentences such as "it was the christian thing to do"...implying that then it was good and clean, etc. I've seen so much hypocricy in Christianity over the years (and especially in politics where it has no place ) that it literally makes me sick.

NCmountainwoman said...

There is an old Bob Dylan song, "With God on our Side" which I learned to love in the early 60s. It says a lot about how some people feel about God being for us.

I have seen the rise of those who believe we do live in a theocracy. I hope it never comes to that and that we can begin to reverse the trend of such thinking.

merrilymarylee said...

Encore! Encore!

Theocracies don't have a very good track record of respecting women, do they?!

Teena in Toronto said...

Happy blogoversary :)

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Those who insist the US is a Christian nation have not read enough of the writings of the founding Fathers. Most of them were the religious liberals of their day, deists and/or religiously tolerant. I like the idea that Washington promised to defend the first Jews to come to America. Sephardic Jews settled in Providence. RI.
In my ongoing interest in comparing and contrasting Canadian and American culture I often read a book called "The Book of American Values and Virtues" This collection of quotations has several from the early fathers which specifically mentions acceptance of Muslims (Musselmen)as well as Jews and Christians. The US was set up as a secular State where religion was revered but largely a private matter.

I left it to your brother to mention the Canadian model for the relationship between religion and the State. In Canada, peoples religion like their sexuality is not a subject for political discussion.