Despite my faith in God, I’ve always maintained that the separation of church and state was a healthy part of this nation’s history. And it is a part of history: I’ll list the Enlightenment and Deist influences in our founding when others claim the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. I’ll point out that “under God” was only added to the pledge and “In God we trust” only added to our currency in the mid-twentieth century. I’ll cringe when I see an American flag in a nave or sanctuary.
On a selfish note, if there was not a separation of church and state, then Catholicism would have never been tolerated here, and my joining the Church would have been a monumental hurdle. On a less selfish note, the country had seen the corruption of European intermingling faith and politics, resulting in lots of bloodshed, and sought a place where one could express his conscience without the threat of execution. People could worship freely and express their political views freely and work together on common interests. The public square could be civil without being uniformed.
But over time, that idea of diverse ideologies coming together to build society got distorted. It is no longer alright to have differing ideas. Diversity means diverse in looks, ethnicities, genders, and orientations. But you must be uniform in your religious and political stances. This article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the current problem with liberalism: in its claim to celebrate diversity, it is intolerant of an individual’s conscience.
As I became Catholic, my political stances became more liberal. Issues of social justice, dignity of work, just economics, respect for the environment, preservation for all life, were all influenced by my understanding of the faith. But so too were issues of family structure, sexual ethics, and religious liberty. In the binary world of American politics, I couldn’t find a home—even if I wanted to.
In liberalism, it’s kinda-sorta ok to believe in God. As long as that belief doesn’t contradict established liberal politics. Your God loves the poor, hates war, and is all about love is love is love? Come on in. Your God requires you to follow certain moral standards, profess a creed, and convert others? Take your bronze-age ideas elsewhere, bigot. Hippy Jesus is very big; he was just a brown dude who spoke up for outcasts and preached love. Well, he also overturned tables, cursed trees that didn’t bear fruit, warned of hell for non-repentants, and asked his followers to eat his body. Oh, and he was God; that was kind of his thing.
Jesus didn’t come to organize the masses in political resistance or overthrow the Empire. He didn’t come to chill with prostitutes and thieves and be totally cool with their lifestyles. He came to defeat death, to open up the kingdom of heaven, to reunite man with his creator. He poured out mercy and love. But that mercy and love has a context that cannot be pushed aside in favor of feel-good relativism.
I used to think it was sort of silly that America took up the banner of God in its fight against “godless” communists. How did saying “under God” undermine a political foe? But it was true that the communists were godless. Atheism was the state religion. Adherence to the state system was the de facto doctrine. Who needs a God-guided conscience when the political state can instruct you?
Maybe the USSR fell, but part of its ideology has won. Because there is a belief in western politics now that beliefs must be uniformly secular. God-guided conscience cannot be tolerated, even when tolerance is a purported principle of the state. A politician can advocate for a just wage, banking regulations, environmental protections, and universal healthcare. He can even say that abortion restrictions are counterproductive. But because he believes everyone is a “sinner” and that abortion is “wrong,” he is not welcome in the public forum. Concepts like “sin” and “wrong” are transgressions to modernist liberalism.
A Muslim bowing toward Mecca or a Hindu throwing dye during Holi or a Christian with ashes on his forehead are acceptable. But non-Enlightenment philosophies that lead to those rituals aren’t. Keep the look; drop the belief. For a believer, the truth is deeper than public displays of cultural diversity. The rituals point to faith and the faith is rooted in truth. How could someone be expected to reject the truth in favor of hegemony? God is more important than human politics. Truth is more important than human feelings.
The Muslim and Hindu and Christian can fundamentally disagree on many things. And that may cause problems. But they can also agree on many things and work together. Literacy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, decent housing, decent wages. The basics of society don’t require philosophical uniformity.
So maybe it is unfair for America to slap “In God We Trust” on its courthouses and currency, because not all Americans trust God or worship the same one. But not all Americans are secularists either. Some are religious, the true kind of religious where their faith shapes their values and politics, where it permeates their daily lives. Religious liberty means no state religion, including a state religion of “none.” It also means that citizens are free to practice their faith and advocate for a society that reflects their religiously-rooted values. We individuals can freely say in the public forum that we place our trust in God.