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Writing in the New York Times last April, Ross Douthat asserted that "religious common ground has all but disappeared" in America ("Divided by God," 4/7/12). In generations past, he argued, "the existence of a Christian center [had] helped bind a vast and teeming nation together," but this center no longer holds. In a nation as divided as ours is now, religious polarization is inescapable, as the presidential race has already manifested.
On the one hand are conservatives who fear that radical secularism will drivereligion out of the public square, and on the other are leftists who see the specter of theocracy rising with every utterance of someone like Rick Santorum. These fears are unlikely to be assuaged, says Douthat, because "America's churches are increasingly too institutionally weak, too fragmented and internally divided to bring people from different political persuasions together."
As I see it, notwithstanding Douthat's thesis that fragmentation characterizes the American religious landscape, there is hope for a strategic alliance, a way for us to embrace a common theme. It lies in a reawakening of our minds to our history, to the fact that the United States owes its origin and unique institutional qualities to religion, specifically, to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
We might remind ourselves, for instance, that John Winthrop compared those who fled religious persecution in England by coming to the New World with the exodus of the Jews from Pharaoh's Egypt. Or that Thomas Jefferson's foundation for declaring that "all men are created equal" comes from the Book of Genesis. Or that the separation of powers in the Constitution is based on the Augustinian supposition that evil and avarice must be countered with institutional checks and balances.
The Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, are filled with direct and indirect references to Original Sin, including the belief that "if men were angels" institutional sanctions on human behavior would be unnecessary. The founding of the new nation was premised upon a belief in God's will and in his righteous judgment. Examples of political motives being informed by religious ideas abound in our history.
Secularists who deny these antecedents undermine the unique history of the United States. "We the people" are religious to our historical core, and those who want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance or deny religiosity in our public events eviscerate the national heritage.
It seems to me that American history shows a foundational unity that transcends the present fragmentation to which Douthat accurately refers. Most significantly, a reliance on the religious ideas that led to the birth of the Union could serve to unify our diverse population. The key would be an effort to educate Americans about their religious past, specifically the biblical ideals that helped our forefathers establish the distinctive system of government we have.
Our Declaration of Independence refers to God-given inalienable rights. Since they are God-given, they cannot be removed by governments or by those intent on dictatorial authority. Students may read the words in the Declaration, but do they understand and imbibe the lesson?
That is our challenge: to educate Americans about the civic dimension of religious ideas. A foundation for freedom and democracy can be found in our history, as can the desire for unity, for the indivisible nation, that Lincoln fought to preserve. Our historical past can be harnessed as a vehicle for coming together through an understanding of our religious heritage. Yes, we are divided now, in part because our history is like a forgotten dream, but that might change if we recall the gifts that God gave the new nation. As Edmund Burke wrote: "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors." •
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