Removing the Shackles of Religion by Edmond Lau (September 2001)

By Edmond Lau

Thirteen years of Catholic indoctrination have neither elucidated the truth about God and about heaven and hell, nor budged me from my state of agnosticism. Grasping these spiritual matters provides enough trouble for me, yet priests and nuns assert the existence of Purgatory and Limbo and the cleansing powers of baptism as if these claims would somehow be more believable than the rest. The lack of definitive knowledge that members of the Catholic Church actually possess concerning the nature of God doesn’t ameliorate the situation either. When questioned about the source of their Catholic faith, believers point to the divinely inspired writings of the bible that supposedly embody the words of God. When asked how they know that the bible contains God’s words, they respond that this assumption constitutes a part of their Catholic faith.

The circular reasoning and meaningless confusion remind me of how fortunate I am to live in America–a country where such Christian instruction exists primarily within parochial schools and private religious institutions and does not fully permeate to other realms of society. In our land of the free, freedom of religion remains as fundamental a tenet as any other democratic principle. An examination of American history indeed manifests that America was not founded as a Christian nation and that a separation of church and state must continue to be preserved in order to maintain the legitimacy of the democratic principles for which our country stands.

Myriad believers of the Christian foundation of America point to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Bay or the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s bible commonwealth as proof that the first European settlers did maintain a Christian outlook. In reality, however, only a few of the original colonies shared the spread of Christianity as a reason for establishment. On the other hand, Europeans founded Jamestown for its promise of gold and tobacco, the Carolinas for sugar and rice, Georgia for a buffer colony to protect the English colonists against the vengeful Spaniards of Florida and the hostile French of Louisiana, New York for fur and fishing, New Jersey for grain, and Delaware for its rich fur trade. Thus, to purport that the original settlers founded a Christian America ignores the fact that the majority of the first thirteen colonies did not possess any religious, let alone Christian, purpose. Furthermore, the actual founding fathers of America did not even arrive until over a century later.

As for the founding fathers, proponents of a Christian America claim that the religious nature of the Declaration of Independence, such as its inclusion of the phrases “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence,” prove that the founders’ intention for a Christian America did exist. On face value, these facts may seem to suggest a religious foundation of a Christian nature. However, analyzing this proposition within its proper socio-historical context of the American Revolution reveals a different truth.

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, only a third of the Americans–the Patriots–actually supported the revolution; another third–the Loyalists–continued to support the royal crown; the final third remained apathetic to the colonial revolt. Thus, in order to instill a greater sense of unity within American hearts, Thomas Jefferson required a carefully crafted document that appealed to more colonists. Jefferson’s rhetoric regarding divinely endowed natural rights fulfilled that purpose by aiding the American patriots in gaining a sense of moral superiority over the crown, portraying the king as someone who had unjustly usurped the colonists’ inalienable rights. The religious undertone, which exists only in the beginning of the document, served as a provisional political tool and nothing else. In fact, the greater part of the Declaration of Independence called for a redress of grievances and listed specific complaints against King George III, signifying that the Deist Thomas Jefferson indeed wrote the document based on political motivations, not on a religious motivation to create a Christian America.

Not only do these colonial myths of the Religious Right crumble based on the actual context surrounding them, but the secular nature of the Constitution further debunks their fallacies. If the Declaration of Independence had in fact attempted to serve as a precursor to a religious constitution, then it blatantly failed. The United States Constitution, as ratified in 1789, provides no explicit mention of God or Christianity. Furthermore, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that James Madison authored in 1791 even states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By definition, the Constitution, as the “Supreme Law of the Land” (according to Article VI Clause 2), does not and cannot favor Christianity or any other religion. In other words, America’s own founding document affirms this country’s secularity and denies any affiliation with Christianity.

Even though this line of reasoning dates back over two centuries ago, the principles set forth by the free-exercise and the establishment clauses of the First Amendment must not stop at the doors of modern society. Even though today’s culture may call for an individual’s religious and spiritual affairs to become increasingly intertwined with his personal affairs, a wall of separation must be preserved between church and state. The establishment clause especially endeavors to prevent the formation of or even the incipient roots of a national religion, as a national religion would definitely infringe upon the religious and personal freedoms of other American citizens who may not share in the mainstream beliefs. Any preferential treatment of a religious group, such as a favored bias towards the growing number of American Christians, would jeopardize the basic religious freedom that each and every citizen should be allowed to share. Even in a democratic nation ruled by the majority, the constitutional rights of the minority must be preserved or else justice everywhere will perish.

Recent initiatives in America’s public schools, such as the teaching of creationism and the advocacy of prayer during sports competitions, graduation ceremonies, and regular classes, regardless of whether the prayer is nonsectarian, voluntary, or restricted to bible readings, threaten to efface the separation of church and state necessary for a secular and free America. The Supreme Court has ruled correctly that such religiously inspired actions are unconstitutional and must stop at the schoolhouse gate. Other issues, such as the posting of the Ten Commandments inside judicial courtrooms, impart reminders that the wall of separation between church and state must be erected beyond the realm of public schools as well. Thus, formulating stricter tests, such as the three-prong test developed in the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, to check permissible laws becomes progressively important if the state is to remain unfettered from the shackles of religion.

To contend against a Christian America does not mean that individual Americans should be denied the right to be or to become Christian, however, for that would contradict the very essence of religious freedom. What it does signify, though, is that Christian principles should not be imposed upon the unwilling. Thus, even as our nation becomes ever more populated by American Christians, we must work to ensure that our country does not become a nationally Christian America.

I have just graduated from Saint Ignatius College Preparatory, San Francisco, and will attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. I intend to double major in electrical engineering and computer science. My high school interests and activities include serving as the Vice President and the Secretary of the Speech and Debate Team, participating in the Service Club, volunteering as a teaching assistant at Day School Summerbridge, writing for the school’s literary magazine The Quill, and partaking in my school’s Asian Students Coalition, Biology Club, and California Scholarship Federation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation