What Is Sacred?

"Reclaim America as a Christian Nation." That's the banner the religious right is rallying under. Ask its leaders if they're engaged in a holy war and they'll answer, "Of course. It's our duty." They believe America is in an advanced state of moral decay and that it can regain its soul only by reacknowledging Christ's dominion.

Their argument that the country needs to be born again begs important questions: What role can religion play in moral regeneration? What is the proper relationship of religion to the state?

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The Founding Fathers, of course, contemplated both of these questions. It's telling that they didn't argue much about the proper answers. Before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention, they argued heatedly about many other matters--states' rights, property rights, proportional representation, paper money. But you'll search long and hard in the Constitution, and in the debates surrounding it, for God's name or any mention of religion, let alone Christianity. The country's founders were students of the Enlightenment. They felt that freedom of conscience was the most basic of all natural rights.

Although the delegates to the Constitutional Convention proposed limiting certain rights in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, etc., no trade-offs regarding the natural right to choose a religion were seriously considered. This particular freedom was inalienable. Its status was explicitly clarified in the First Amendment, which prohibited Congress from making any "law respecting an establishment of religion." (The only mention of religion in the Constitution proper is at the end of Article VI, which states "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.")

At that time, different colonies were dominated by different religious sects, and the founders understood that battles to establish religious domination could easily reoccur in this new nation. Much of the colonial population had fled Europe precisely to escape such conflicts.

James Madison later observed (explaining why the United States wasn't founded as a Christian nation) that the Old World's mingling of government and religion had proved unfavorable to both. "The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the government in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against trespass on its legal rights by others." In this New World, the last thing anyone wanted was for the government to dictate belief.

It would be un-American to question the belief structure of the religious right if its leaders weren't trying to question this essential foundation of our nation. But since they do want to change the way this country is constituted, citizens should understand what they have in mind for the rest of us. Or rather, what they believe God has in mind.

The religious right is dominated by Protestant fundamentalists whose core belief is that the Bible is the literal, indisputable word of God, and that his most significant words are his first ones, about Creation in Genesis, and his final ones, about the Apocalypse in Revelation. According to the fundamentalists, this last book of the New Testament says that Satan's troops must prevail--literally, all hell must break loose--so that Christ can descend from heaven, destroy all followers of the beast, and start the divine millennium. Only those who have converted will be saved.

About 100 years ago, literal belief in the Creation and the Second Coming became harder to sustain. Science offered proof for evolution and promised technological progress as well. When even devout Christians began to defect into the modern world, the American fundamentalist movement drew a broad line in the sand: Faith would require an overt rejection of rationality. Yet those who re-signed with God would be given a bonus: dispensationalism. This new theology claimed that those who accepted the literal truth of the Bible would be taken up to heaven in a secret rapture with Christ before horrific tribulations were visited upon humanity. Believers wouldn't have to see plagues break out, rivers of blood flow, cities burn. Those in the know would be spared, then returned safely to earth afterwards for eternal life.

Thus, as American fundamentalism went to war against modernism, it incorporated what is perhaps modernism's most noxious feature: a lack of accountability to anything save one's own desires.

To fortify their faith, the devout tried to gather new believers around them. Hard times helped. So did social turbulence. But the harsh tone of most fundamentalists proved to be a turnoff. Consequently, in the last 20 years, fundamentalists have made common cause with evangelicals and charismatics, sects they previously considered heretical. Charismatics in particular were regarded as paganish because of their spontaneous reconnections with Jesus. After all, why would someone who truly be-lieves need God to reiterate in unintelligible "tongues" words that He'd already written?

Certainly many good-hearted, well-intentioned people have joined the Christian Coalition. Doubtless, the group has many more sincere believers than it does cynical political operatives. Hearing the word of God speak to you while you're surrounded by loving supporters must be a soothing, yet energizing experience.

But there's a price for this sense of security as well. All members, however varied their motives and commitment, are asked to support a fundamental division between "Us" and "Them."

"Them" are the secular humanists. And the degenerates. And the meek Christians who countenance "Them."

The belligerence in the religious right's rallying cry--"Reclaim America as a Christian Nation"--isn't accidental. Like its Islamic fundamentalist cousins, the religious right is waging a jihad against the civic state. Among the movement's leaders, civility itself is a tactic, a way of sneaking up on the enemy. Among true believers, efforts to improve public schools, repair cities, install independent judges, or strengthen the social safety net are considered sacrilegious and self-destructive. People who refuse redemption can't--shouldn't--be helped. Attempts at overall planetary improvement forestall the day when the final battle between good and evil will take place at Armageddon.

I visited Armageddon this August. The author of Revelation was referring to Har Megiddo, or the mount of Megiddo. Although there's no mountain at Megiddo, it does sit at a strategic Middle Eastern crossroad, and has for at least 3,500 years been the site of fortified settlements and ferocious battles.

The ruins are located in northern Israel, not far from the Sea of Galilee. In this one spot, archaeologists have excavated the remains of about 25 different civilizations. It's hard to use that word--civilization--without flinching, since the most common settlement pattern seems to have been for invaders to lay waste to the inhabitants, then to move in and quickly reconstruct thicker walls on the rubble.

At one of the lowest levels, you can view the altar where Canaanites made their sacrifices. Higher up are King Solomon's stables. (Although remembered today for his wisdom, Solomon was also known in his time for the extensive chariot force that he used to annex territory.)

The ruins of Megiddo bring to mind questions just as troubling as the biblical Armageddon. For example: Is our urge to build hopelessly intertwined with our desire to destroy? If the instinct to dominate is so central to our nature, how can we govern ourselves? How can we create a moral order?

The United States' founders contemplated these questions as well. As noted, the preamble to the Constitution sets the stage for hemming in a few natural liberties in order to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." In other words, our natural human state can't be fully trusted.

The founders therefore set up a system of checks and balances, one of which did involve religion. Because they thought that self-interest was the prime human motor, they reasoned that diverting individuals to pursue their own economic self-interest was the best way to keep peace. But they also felt that religion provided a balance against economic self-interest, and that a completely free marketplace for religion would cause many different beliefs to prosper. Each faith would enjoy its freely held beliefs and would thereby collectively vitalize the nation's morality. Moreover, because these faiths would so fear the loss of their freedom, their adherents would be good citizens--devoted to democracy but with an intrinsically limited desire to coalesce into tyrannical factions.

Why are Christian sects that formerly derided each other as heretical (Protestants and Catholics, fundamentalists and evangelicals) now willing to join together as a political faction? The personal ambitions of the Christian Coalition's leaders shouldn't be underes-timated, but why are their political efforts enjoying such success?

One reason is that moral entropy in America is frightening enough to inspire unprecedented alliances. Such fears are well-founded: Contemporary America is fragmenting along increasingly selfish lines. Rational ethics seem so unable to instill a sense of right and wrong that they have become equated with immorality itself. "Secular humanism" is the new Antichrist, uniting Christians who used to hurl this epithet at each other because of differing beliefs about, say, the pope.

Godless humanists are an easy scapegoat because, contrary to widespread belief, there are so few of them. In the United States, 94 percent of the population believes in God, a greater percentage than in any other industrialized nation, and apparently far higher than when our nation was founded. As planned, our constitutional framework has stimulated belief.

Paradoxically, the religious right shares an attribute with pure secularism: rigidity in the face of the unknown. Absolutely obeying and absolutely denying are cousins. The founders of great religions encouraged a much more subtle, humane dialogue with the Absolute than fundamentalists advocate. During their transformational experiences, these founders (the Buddha, Moses, Christ, Mohammed) lost their ordinary selves in another realm impossible to describe. When they returned, they spoke of an all-pervasive, all-knowing love. They encouraged others to gain the same insight by becoming more compassionate. What they advocated is more than mere charity. It's a way of being that helps practitioners recognize their humble place in the wondrous scheme of things.

One expression of this vision that I personally find compelling comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who was a forebear of Revelation: "Thus says God: Let not the wise person glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty person glory in his might, let not the rich person glory in his riches. But let him who glories, glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am God, Who does kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says God."

Those who institutionalize their founders' insights often lose touch with compassion. They erect barricades and downplay individual responsibility. They ritualize what's primitive, rather than what's prime, in faith. Literalism is often a sign not that one is becoming more pious, but that one is wandering away from the spirit.

One reason America is so religious is that we've inherited the belief that we are a chosen country. This isn't nec-essarily bad if we choose to be moral--which isn't the same as being moralistic. What's unique about the United States' heritage is not the Christianity of most of its colonists, but rather their faith that freedom of conscience would lead to the greatest good.

The principal architects of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish. The best way to make both government and religion prosper was to establish mutual independence. As Jefferson's autobiography makes clear, the now-famous "wall of separation between Church and State" was intended to protect "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination." Jefferson's efforts to protect this wall constitutionally were probably his proudest accomplishment. He felt that this new country was restoring a God-given right, one that should never have been restricted and one that should never again be threatened.

In his own way, Jefferson was a founder--or, more accurately, a leading prophet--of a great faith. Because his own communion with the Creator was so profound, he wanted as many people as possible to share the experience. His compassion extended from "pagans" to atheists. He wanted to ensure, permanently, that everyone had the greatest freedom to explore moral urgings to their source, unimpeded by bullies in the pulpit or in the statehouse, let alone in the White House.

Any attempt by the religious right to reclaim America as a Christian nation should be declaimed for what it is: a violation of the most sacred American principle.

Go to Adele M. Stan's Power Preying.