Friday, January 23, 2009

Religion and the US: The World Weighs In

I awoke this morning to the BBC's World Have Your Say. a call-in radio program on BBC World's live Web feed. Unlike the American examples of this genre, which tend to be either politically slanted propaganda-fests or lame sports discussions, The Beeb's show actually features dialogues on important topics and is hosted by relatively unbiased moderators.

This morning's debate was on the question: "Is America a Christian country?" The spark for the discussion was a recent Obama speech that said America was a nation that held Christians, Muslims, Jews and nonbelievers, and the fact that after a slightly botched swearing-in on Election Day, Obama and Chief Justice Roberts had repeated the ceremony without a Bible at the White House.

I couldn't help but weigh in on that one. My comments, along with those of many others worldwide, can be seen at Some of the other comments are quite fascinating, not just for their opinions, but for what they show about how the rest of the world sees us.

America is a country in which Christianity is the most widespread religion. But the Constitution strictly forbids the establishment of a state religion and guarantees freedom of worship. To say that the founding fathers were unanimously, or even predominantly, Christian--at least, the brand of Christianity that modern Christian Conservatives tend to embrace--would be simply false. Many of the most prominent of our country's founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, would probably best be described loosely as Deists--practitioners of a philosophy that saw the will of God in nature as much as the Bible, and that tended to view Jesus as a mortal teacher, not God Incarnate. Some of the founders, including Thomas Paine, were atheists.

To say that the nation was founded on Christian principles is also questionable, though I believe that the constitutional guarantees in the Bill of Rights are very much in keeping with the ideals of a certain ancient Jewish rabbi who spoke of loving one's enemies and refused to cast the first stone. But Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism all look askance at stealing, lying, adultery, etc.; all idealize the reverence for life and the fair treatment of one's neighbors. Christianity has no monopoly on the morals that stand at the center of our laws.

Living in Hawai'i, with its large Buddhist minority, I have to take offense at the idea that non-Christians are any less patriotic than Christians. Many have proven their loyalty with their blood in America's wars (and by the way, people being sworn into the military are not required to put their hand on a Bible). Anyone who's worked an election night here can see that non-Christians vote (and serve as poll-workers). To insist that Buddhists, atheists and other "non-believers" pledge allegiance to "one nation under God" is ridiculous.

I'd like to suggest a more appropriate pledge:

"I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the ideals at the heart of its laws: one nation, indivisible, with liberty, equality, opportunity and justice for all."

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