Get God out of public life
Published December 11, 2004

Sometimes I get nostalgic for the good old days, back when the country was founded. Back then, God and religion were considered something to be kept out of government at all costs. Back then, Thomas Jefferson could say, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” Back then, Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) could say, “In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled.” Can you even imagine that such a time existed?

Today the talk is all about how god—and specifically the Christian God—was and is central to the United States, that this country was, in fact, founded on Christian principals. It is true that the Founding Fathers were god-fearing men, but they did not found a Christian nation. They weren’t even Christians themselves! James Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution (and another President), wrote, “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

The clearest and probably most referenced support for the idea of the United States being founded on principals of liberty, not Christianity, comes from the Treaty of Tripoli. Written in 1796 (during the end of Washington’s presidency) and signed into law the following year (by President John Adams), the treaty contains a clause that begins, “As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” and continues by establishing that there were at the time no religious grounds barring friendship between the Muslims of Tripoli and America.

One last quotation, and it’s a good one. In “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,” John Adams writes: “Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded . . . , it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, . . . ; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses . . . Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery. . . .”

I think our Founding Fathers would be deeply offended by the position of religion in our current society, and its creeping influence in so many of our everyday activities. I think they would have the same reaction as I did, the other day, when I saw the display of a Nativity scene on public property, specifically Meadville’s Diamond Park: they would find it an objectionable display of public support for Christian religion, going counter to the central tenants of the founding of this country.

As it turns out, this display is not put up, nor maintained, by the city—a quick call to the parks department confirmed that. But even if one of the local churches is behind the crèche scene, its presence on public property is objectionable.

I know I may get a flood of mail about this, but I am arguing not from a perspective of political correctness, or because I hate Christians, or because I feel that the park should also display a Menorah and symbols of various other major religions. I speak out because I think that people do not understand the atmosphere of intimidation and disrespect this sort of display creates. How can people who have grown up as Christians in a town full of Christians, in a state peopled by a Christian majority understand?

The Jews and Muslims and atheists and other non-Christians who live in Meadville understand that the people who put up that nativity scene do not have an overt desire to persecute them. But their comfort lies in the knowledge that the government of this country—and by extension of this county—guarantees them the right to life and liberty and the freedom to worship or not worship in any way they please. When that same government endorses a religion to which they do not adhere, that comfort is taken away; that security is suddenly at risk.

I do not for a moment believe that the majority of Crawford County’s residents want to persecute non-Christians living here, but ignorance is no excuse. We have enough other opportunity to show our support for the religion or other organization to which we subscribe; churches and homes all around here will be decorated for the Christmas season, and that is fine. What is not is the use of public land for such displays. The nativity scene should be taken down.