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A threat to our pluralist roots

| Monday, February 22, 2016

This article is a response to Eddie Damstra’s Viewpoint, “Threat to our religious roots.” In his piece, Mr. Damstra claims electing a “culturally Jewish” 74-year old who “isn’t actively involved with organized religion” would “deliver a blow to the true greatness of America.”

We argue Mr. Damstra’s article is not only historically inaccurate but also reaches the dangerous conclusion that electing a non-Christian president would inherently violate our “fundamental value system.” Rather, we claim presenting American values as synonymous with those of an organized religion would undermine “the very underpinnings of our nation.”

Mr. Damstra claims “America was built on Judeo-Christian values and the people have consequently continued to elect Christian leaders to maintain such a principled foundation.” This is a distortion of the facts. Consider the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by John Adams and approved by Congress affirming that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Or consider James Madison, who in a 1785 pamphlet, wrote that “[to] employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy … [is] an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation” and that “legal establishment” of Christianity leads to “superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Do these sound like the words of men who intended America to be founded upon Christian values? Or do they sound like the words of men who built a country on secular values of equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

If we are electing our leaders based solely on their Christian religiosity, it seems we are doing a great disservice to our founding fathers. John F. Kennedy, a president elected in a time of pervasive discrimination against Catholics, argued “America … must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group.” Does this sound like a president determined to lead based on Christian values or one based on secular, American values?

Mr. Damastra argues the American motto “One nation under God” and the phrase “one nation under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance demonstrate the United States’ emphasis on Christianity. However, the motto only appeared in paper currency in 1957, and the phrase was added to the pledge in 1954. Neither addition demonstrates the foundation of the U.S. upon Christian values; rather, they are simply religious phrases added during the Cold War due to combat Communism and in no way demonstrate a founding of the country on Christian-Judeo principles.

Further, the notion of “Judeo-Christian values” expressed by Mr. Damstra is ill-defined. Was Andrew Jackson expressing Christian values when he pushed through his policies of Indian Removal? Consider also the slavery debate, in which both slave owners and abolitionists cited Holy Gospel to justify their actions. To claim there is a single ethic system common to Christianity and Judaism — and not, apparently, to Islam, despite its prominence as an Abrahamic religion — is reductionist. Consider the problem of war, where the same Christian values that justified the Crusades also led to the theory of just war and caused John Paul II to exclaim, “Never again war!” Christian values, and so by extension Judeo-Christian and Abrahamic values, can be used to justify almost anything. Undoubtedly, Mr. Damstra had a specific instance of “Judeo-Christian values” in mind when he wrote his article. However, he neglects to put forward his view and instead claims he holds the same set of Christian values as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Damstra also states, “While the government cannot support the establishment of a religion or prohibit one from exercising their respective religion freely, the First Amendment does not declare the United States a godless nation.” To suggest that electing a candidate who describes himself as “culturally Jewish” would throw our nation into “godlessness” is inflammatory and hyperbolic. Regardless of its leader’s personal religious beliefs, the United States is not a godless nation, for the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion.  

Despite this, we could never deny the United States has been heavily influenced by Christians and their values. Likewise, we could never deny the influence of many other religious groups whose values have been woven into the fabric of our nation. But there is a reason no religious test is required for public office: Our nation was built to champion pluralism so we could nurture freedom. As Ronald Reagan said, “Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism.” To declare the U.S. a Christian nation would be antithetical to this pluralism; it would send a pernicious message to non-Christian Americans. As non-Christians in a Christian nation, they would be unable to share in the American tradition without changing their faith; they would not be welcome, merely tolerated.

Mr. Damstra claims electing a non-religious president “would fundamentally change the essence of America.” He states the election of a non-religious candidate “is a rather frightening thought.” We should hold the merit of a potential leader’s platform, the content of his character, his capacity to lead and his accomplishments higher than what religious ceremonies he observes.

Christian religiosity is not what makes America exceptional. What makes America exceptional is that we would never disqualify a candidate because of his or her religious affiliations. What makes America exceptional is that we have been a safe haven for countless different religious and ethnic groups throughout our history. What makes America exceptional is that we are a bastion of opportunity and freedom for millions of hopeful immigrants. What makes America exceptional is that we promise the values of equality, opportunity and liberty for all.


Natasha Reifenberg

Patrick LeBlanc

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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