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Monday, January 16, 2012

"Congress shall make no law...."

What if the American Taliban ran this country?
By Will Collette

Over the past few days, we’ve had a raging debate going on in the Comments section of Progressive Charlestown over the federal court ruling in favor of Jessica Ahlquist. Jessica is a brave, 16-year-old Cranston High School West student who challenged the constitutionality of the prayer the high school has been publicly displaying in the school auditorium for nearly 50 years. There are some people, including it seems some Progressive Charlestown readers, who wouldn't mind seeing her dead, or at least banished to some other country.

But before going into that case and its fall-out, let me pose this question: what if the United States dropped the constitutional prohibition against state-sponsored religion and, instead, we went with a religious-based, presumably Christian, model of theocratic government?


This is not an academic question. Our continuing battles over issues clearly settled in the Constitution and generations of Supreme Court decisions – i.e., whether government can promote religion through words, displays, actions, allocation of resources, etc. – is ongoing. There is an interesting lawsuit to watch coming out of Pawtucket over the allocation of playing time on one of the public athletic fields.

The United States, under a Christian theocracy, would be a very different place. One of the first casualties would be science and our ability to keep up with other industrialized nations. Here’s one recent example.

The Baptist Press just released a survey of 1,000 American Protestant pastors on various science questions. This survey showed that 73% of the pastors do not believe in evolution. The pastors were split almost evenly on the question of whether the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Among evangelicals, 82% believe that Adam and Eve were real people.

To what extent can legitimate scientific research go on when such research is hampered by religious blinders?

What I find so interesting about America’s current conflicts over religion is that the strongest advocates of turning the United States into a Christian theocracy are among the most bitter opponents of Islamic shariah law. I know the irony of that escapes them – that they want to fight Islam’s imposition of religious law on Muslim majority countries by seeking to impose Christian religious law on the US.

How do we debate these issues when we do not share a common understanding of reality?

This takes me to the comments that have poured in to Progressive Charlestown. Most of the comments have been, in my opinion, pretty snarky games-playing – i.e., some anonymous or pseudonymous commenter thinking s/he is clever by nit-picking on language and choice of words. I have no patience for such foolishness and would not hesitate to trash those comments. My colleague Linda Felaco prefers to try to patiently address each one.

Others attack the motives or character of young Jessica Ahlquist and try to rationalize the hate and death threats aimed toward her. Shame on those who would say such things about a brave kid who is acting on her convictions and suffering the consequences. I would trash those comments too, except for my colleague’s interest in answering them.

But some advance the argument that there is some legal or constitutional basis for the government establishment of religion. These comments intrigue me, just like the preachers’ poll results do. It baffles me to see intelligent people who allow faith to overcome reason and to deny historical reality.

The writers of the Constitution did not want there to be any chance of a theocracy. The religious wars in Europe killed millions of people and were of recent memory to the Constitution’s writers. The New England colonies were founded by religious dissidents who fled the tyranny of theocracy. For that reason, the First Amendment of the Constitution forbids the government from establishing or promoting a religion while banning the government from restricting religious practices.

Over time, the Supreme Court reconciled the two prohibitions by constricting the extent to which the government may allow religious practice within it. It was a hard juggling act since the Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So for a time, official school prayer was allowed (“free exercise”), until the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the “establishment” ban. That doesn’t mean that prayers in public schools have been banned – it just means the public schools cannot give it official sanction through public displays that can easily be understood as the “establishment of religion.”

And so goes the display at Cranston West. There will no doubt be more Supreme Court decisions on the issue of public displays – cases like the kids busted for emulated that loser Tim Tebow by “Tebowing” in the corridors of their public school will make an interesting case.

For all those people who are so worked up over the Ahlquist case, I have to ask: what is it that you want? Do you want the government to support or promote religion? If so, which one? And what about people who don’t believe in that government-sponsored religion? If you want the government to support lots of religions, how far would you take it - i.e., where would you draw the line? And why?

And don’t say that all you want is for the government to acknowledge Christianity. That’s a specious point because the government already does – and it does it best through the ban against the government “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire - dissolved and pillaged
under Henry VIII
When you travel in Great Britain, I find one of the most enriching experiences is to visit their great cathedrals as well as their small parish churches. Some of these edifices move me to tears.

But throughout the land, you also see what government-established religion has done. Every old church bears the marks of Britain’s long years of religious war – from the pillaging of church and monastic treasures by Henry VIII after his break with the Church of Rome to the ruin of religious art under Cromwell. Walk through the ruins of a great monastery and you appreciate America’s decision to ban the government establishment of religion.