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U.S. a Christian nation? Not exactly

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published March 6, 2005


The American Civil Liberties Union and its allies, God bless them everyone, are fighting to uphold the First Amendment's "establishment" clause, which they see threatened by even the mention of the word "God." Last week, they were before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the display of the Ten Commandments on public property in Texas and Kentucky violates the constitutional ban on government establishing a national religion. The justices seemed to be looking for a middle ground between the two extremes in this debate, but I hope they hand down their own commandment: Thou shalt not place the Ten Commandments on government property except in a secular, historical context.

That's not good enough, however, for some secularists. Justice David Souter asked if a display containing only the last five commandments - the ones against killing, stealing, adultery and so on - would pass constitutional muster.

"That is still unconstitutional," replied Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor representing the plaintiff in the Texas case. "It would still be the state of Texas expressing the message that there is a God."

Now I see. It's not just about the establishment clause; it's also about even the suggestion that there is a deity. The Supreme Court is not about to touch that one.

Except for the religious fanatics among us, most Americans believe in the separation of church and state. The problem is that we can't agree on when that line is crossed, and that's when we take our dispute to the courts. I get the impression most of our Supreme Court justices just wish these church-state cases would go away.

The court's broad doctrine on public exercises of faith tries to acknowledge the historical role of religion in American life without endorsing any particular religious beliefs. In 1980, the court outlawed the mandatory display of the commandments in public schools. It said state legislatures can open their sessions with prayer but struck down prayer at public high school graduation. Last year, it dodged having to rule on whether the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance offended the establishment clause.

When it comes to threats to the establishment clause - real or imagined - the ACLU's anti-God squad has its eyes on the sparrow. Some even see Santa and his reindeer as religious symbols that should be banned from the public square.

In their ideal world, "In God We Trust" would be stripped from our currency. The Supreme Court would no longer open its proceedings with the words "God save the United States and this honorable court." The president-elect would not place his hand on a Bible and pledge to uphold the Constitution "so help me God." The Pledge of Allegiance would be revised to strike the words "under God."

I have a question: Would someone tell me exactly what religion is established by the Ten Commandments, which were handed down to Moses long before Jesus Christ came along, and references to God in ceremonial oaths and pledges? Is the God in question a Christian, Jew or Muslim? These three faiths have their own version of the commandments, which, as far as I can tell, are read more than they are practiced.

The ACLU can relax if its main fear is that the United States is in danger of becoming become a Christian nation. I don't see that happening for the simple reason that living according to the teachings of Jesus would radically change our lives, our politics and our priorities. It would require us to share our wealth with the less fortunate, to turn the other cheek, to love and forgive our enemies, to bless the peacemakers and judge not lest we be judged.

If Jesus were around today, preaching charity, love, tolerance and peace, the religious right would pummel him as a dangerous liberal who wants to redistribute our wealth, raise taxes and study war no more. You can bet he wouldn't be invited to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention and that Fox News' Sean Hannity would crucify him in prime time.

Over the centuries Christians have invoked God's name to justify wars, crusades, slavery, Jim Crow segregation and discrimination against women. We've come a long way, but like I said, I don't think the ACLU has to worry about us becoming a Christian nation, at least in practice.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is gailey@sptimes.com