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God and country

| Tuesday, September 8, 2020

In his column “The role of religion in government,” Blake Ziegler asks whether religious belief can be accepted under the constitution as justification for passing a law, a question he leans towards the negative. To truly tackle this question, however, we must also confront it on a broader, more philosophical level, asking not just “Is this allowed?” but also “Should it be allowed?”

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Why shouldn’t we allow our religious beliefs to have a say in making our laws? We may be tempted to say something about the separation of church and state, but the real problem, it seems, is that the idea of imposing one’s religious beliefs or religiously-based morals (our focus here) upon others sounds repulsive.

It’s easy to bristle at such a suggestion until you realize just how silly it would be to opposite it. Think about it: The statement “We shouldn’t impose our morality on others,” is itself an attempt to impose your morality on the listener! Such a belief self-destructs amidst its own relativist claims. The fact of the matter is that any substantive law on anything (not just particular issues like abortion) inherently rests on some set of moral principles since all law demands that someone “should” or has an “obligation” to do something. To never “impose” our morals would be to never have any truly meaningful or binding laws.  

So if imposing one’s morality is not the problem, then what is? At this point, I can imagine one suggesting that religiously-inspired morals are different because they are not widely agreed upon. But again, the claim is self-defeating — the sentence “We shouldn’t use moral beliefs or systems of beliefs that are controversial to justify laws,” is itself a moral belief (and based on a belief system) that is also controversial and not universally accepted.

But beyond that, why is it that we accept beliefs in egalitarianism and humanism as an acceptable justification for laws, but not religious beliefs? What about commitments to the “good” of free markets or, conversely, socialism? What about moral beliefs that democracy and the advancement of science are good things and will make a better world? These could all be up for debate, yet these beliefs are accepted as legitimate justification and can be used (as they should be) to demand the advancement of what is right and just.

If we are to still object to using religious beliefs as justification and motivation yet allow other philosophical worldviews to do just this, then we must either admit that this is a rather arbitrary exclusion or consider the possibility an “a priori” prejudice towards belief in God as somehow “irrational” or “narrow-minded.”

This analysis, of course, doesn’t answer the question from a constitutional perspective. Maybe the constitution singled out religious motivations for whatever reason. Yet history has shown that America has been a lot more comfortable with religion’s role in government than we may tend to believe. During Jefferson’s presidency, for example, the federal government held Sunday Protestant (and later Catholic) worship services in the House of Representatives (this continued for over half a century) and even promised funds to build a Catholic church in 1803. But beyond that, the Constitution itself, interestingly, makes special accommodations for Sundays in Article 1, Section 7, a nod that clearly gives preference to Christian practice.

While the intended role of religion in the U.S. government is certainly up for debate, this emphasis on and support of not just religion in general but specifically Christianity suggests that the “America is a Christian nation” theory might not be so quickly brushed aside.

Maybe this hypothesis is right, maybe it’s not, but what I find extremely perplexing is just how far some religious conservatives will go in insisting on the affirmative. As a conservative myself, I know this firsthand. There is a heightened passion and desperation in proving “the Christian founding” that can only be adequately characterized as religious fervor. Indeed, in some circles, political views surrounding the culture wars have seemingly become more central to their Christian identity than actually sharing and defending the faith itself. It disturbs me that many are much more concerned about who is on the Supreme Court or allowing prayer in schools than one’s (and others’) eternal destiny and relationship with the one they are praying to.

Politics, if treated as an ultimate end, will always make everything else subordinate to it, even our faith if we are not extremely careful. In centering their Christian identity inherently on the political, many have traded genuine Christianity for some mutated, nation-centered civic religion, and in doing so, they have effectively placed their citizenship in America over their citizenship in the Kingdom of God. More often than not, it seems like phrases like “God and country” and “God bless America” are more political statements veiled in religious language than anything else. To call this a tragedy is not an exaggeration but an understatement.

To be sure, many Christians (including many religious conservatives) do not fall into this category, and it would certainly be rather intellectually lazy to ignore Christianity as a possibility because people have misused or failed to follow it. Still, we must admit that the political has far too often trumped the cardinal concerns of the faith, and far too often Christianity has been diluted to a set of political beliefs rather than a faith that shapes and transforms one’s entire life and understanding of the world around them, including the political. But each of us must decide once and for all which one comes first in our lives: God or country.

Elijah’s cry to the Israelites rings true today: “How long will you waver between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21). We cannot have it both ways. It must be one or the other. “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). Which will it be? Are we christian Conservatives or conservative Christians?

Andrew Sveda is a sophomore at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science.  In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading, and playing the piano.  He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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