Religion's role in US bicentennial

IS there room for the input of religion in the United States Constitution's bicentennial celebration? The answer is - emphatically yes! But with an important caveat:

This participation should not be denominational, doctrinaire, or dogmatic. It should extol religious freedom - for all. And it might focus on the First Amendment's provision of free exercise - guaranteeing individuals the right to privately and publicly hold religious beliefs and to practice these precepts in daily life.

A Protestant theologian and scholar, Martin Marty, writing in a recent issue of The Christian Century, says that ``at first glance the Constitution is a disappointing document to commemorate religiously.''

Professor Marty points out that the Founding Fathers seldom quoted the Bible or used ``God-talk.'' Further, the original Constitution contains little discussion of religion, he says, with limited references to Sunday, to the ``Year of Our Lord,'' and to prohibition of religious tests for office.

``And yet,'' the religious scholar stresses, ``[religious] congregations have much at stake in the Constitution.'' And they can bring ``fresh voices'' to the public forum in discussions about liberty and freedom.

Specifically, Marty suggests a host of congregation-related bicentennial celebrations - ranging from ministerial keynotes on the Constitution to historical talks from religious and legal specialists, and panels on First Amendment rights.

Further, he would encourage interdenominational discussions, especially those that might unite church and synagogue in an analysis of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Such activities would doubtless be bolstered by a thorough reading of the Constitution and some related contemporary works discussing how religion enters into the web of American political thought. Of note might be Leonard Levy's ``The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment'' (Macmillan, 1986) and William Lee Miller's ``The First Liberty: Religion and the American Public'' (Knopf, 1986).

To set the stage, it might be helpful to dispel some misconceptions about the subject. Among them, that:

The lack of frequent references to religion in the Constitution and the absence of a stated commitment to non-secular values indicate that the framers were not religious or were even Godless. Quite the contrary. There is evidence that the Founding Fathers - almost to a man - believed in God and held strong spiritual convictions. They were determined, however, that no one group's views would predominate over another in the public sector.

The First Amendment's edict that ``Congress shall make no law respecting the establishing of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof'' served to lock religion out of government and perpetuate a society that would reject Deity. Again, the so-called ``establishment'' and ``free exercise'' clauses are meant not to discourage religion but to discourage religious discrimination, bias, and bigotry.

Current court decisions reinforcing the Jeffersonian view of separation of church and state isolate spiritual values from the schoolhouse and the city square. Here again, judges have based most of their rulings in recent years on guidelines that would avoid state endorsement of religion, the governmental preference of one church group over others, and excessive entanglement of the secular and nonsecular.

Legal interpretation is subject to dispute and challenge. And this is as it should be. Public debate - sometimes heated - has resulted of late over volatile issues such as classroom prayer and government financing of parochial schools.

Further, there are challenges to the teaching of Darwinian theories of material origin to the exclusion of biblical accounts of creation. And there are also efforts to bring more of a religious dimension to materials in public school textbooks.

In these debates, one group of religionists is often pitted against another. And civil libertarians generally take issue with conservative political lobbies.

This discussion is healthy. It can importantly help shape public policy. The religious community has a right, actually a duty, to participate.

The outcome, however, must be greater religious freedom - not domination or restriction; a tolerance and respect for diverse views (even those that reject a traditional belief in God); and adherence to a system that has survived 200 years because it is dedicated to liberty and justice for those of all faiths.

A Thursday column

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