I was going to title this
One Nation, Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for AllOnly this isn't how the Pledge of Allegiance, itself a creation of the 1890s, has ended since 1954. This makes an op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled One Nation Under God? look ominous, and the premise of the article certainly is. The writer, Molly Worthen, who teaches history at a very VERY respectable state university, operates from the premise that
The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.And that's a BAD thing?
Some parsing is thus necessary, especially since I want to make extra sure that I'm not misreading this, which is very possible in my current state of mind. Follow me below the great orange ornament to see how this works, especially the weekend before Christmas.
We start with a condemnation of people who in Judaism are referred to as "High Holiday Jews" only in this case it's the Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, which she refers to as “Chreasters” with "a vague relationship to the Christian God. Dismissive, sure, but that's not the real problem. It's the increasing number of people who say they have no religious affliation at all, a subject that WayBeyondSoccerMom wrote about in October.
And the problem with "None"?
Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population.Well, sure. An expansion of civil rights vs an insistence that religious activists should be able to act on their bigotry. And an erosion of public support for the bigots.
We are asked to understand what exactly the religious activists think happened to make the Christian consensus which they believe ALWAYS existed in this country (um, NO!) disappear. Who are her authorities on this? Bryan Fischer and David Barton. To her credit, Worthen asks whether this story of "decline into godliness" is accurate, but she explains why it isn't by explaining that the "nones" have always been with us even when the world was under the sway of the Vatican. The medieval period was rife with religious indifference (well, of course, Rome) and not even Lutheran reform changed that in Europe.
But, of course, American exceptionalism, so we have Tocqueville, who visited the United States at the peak of the Second Great Awakening, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. The problem is
Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility. “I like the fact that we’re getting more ‘nones’ because it helps Christians realize that they’re different,” Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian at Duke Divinity School, said when I asked for his thoughts on the Pew poll. “That’s a crucial development. America produces people that say, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ ”Oy. My head is beginning to hurt. IMMEDIATELY this leads to Robert Putnam and Bowling Alone and a suggestion that this "none-ness" (I'll ignore the fact that she uses the phrase "theological mushiness" to describe it - she has particular contempt for the phrase "spiritual but not religious") is a slap in the face to institutional authority, specifically to the institutional authority of evangelical Protestantism. You see, the referees of American society have always been Protestant ministers.
But someone or some groups have mugged the referees and taken away their whistles. How do we know? Because people
openly accept extramarital sex, homosexuality and other outrages to traditional Christian moralityit's a threat to America's civil religion. You of course remember that in the 1830s and 1840s America's Protestant Referees did SO well in achieving consensus that we had a Civil War to settle their argument about slavery. Worthen reminds us that the First Amendment was used to enforce Protestant orthodoxy during the 19th Century through the defense of reading the Protestant Bible in public school classrooms. But.
Conservative Christian activists hold those sectarian foundations more dearly than they admit, and they are challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to frame access to contraception and same-sex marriage as civil rights immune to the veto of “private” conscience. Alan Sears, president of the legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sees an unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the harsh fines facing employers who refuse to cover contraception in their insurance programs.It's their mortal souls, you understand. First Amendment? Only for us, thank you. Not for you godless "Chreasters" or for anyone LESS devout than you, and gay people don't count.
So this is how she concludes her discussion:
These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Mr. Sears sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. We are left groping for something far messier: an evolving, this-worldly, compromise.Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. Isn't this something we're supposed to be celebrating? Isn't this really what the writers of the Constitution intended? I guess that whenever we have a question of hegemony, people get confused and bend over backward not to offend the preservers of it (like Messrs. Fischer and Barton.) It's all very confusing.
Let the referees melt. I think we'll do fine policing ourselves while expanding everyone's civil rights. Merry Christmas, all, even if you don't observe it.
6:24 PM: I was going to provide more explanation for the five commenters who thought I misread this. I decided not to. First, ever heard of reader-response theory? Of course two people can have different readings of anything, especially when whatever it is is presented as an opinion piece, because we all bring baggage to any text we read. Second, I stated my biases in reading this op-ed piece pretty clearly. I didn't ask any of you who thought it was thoroughly benign to do the same, but none of you did. Consider what your positions are based on.