Is America’s religious soul shrinking because secularism squeezes it? Late this past year, officials at the Air Force Academy announced that cadets no longer were required to recite “so help me God” when pledging their annual honor oath. Is this another instance of God’s eviction from our secular national landscape?
Secularism is a world-view in which God doesn’t matter. The French scientist Laplace showed Napoleon a model of the universe. The Emperor responded, “I see no place for God in this mock-up.” That God no longer counts and the universe runs without Him show secularism’s clout.
The Pew Research Center’s October 2012 poll on religious preference revealed that “nones” — those having nothing to do with Christian churches — total 20 percent of U.S. population, an increase from 16 percent in 2008. With this demographic surge, American Protestants now rank as a minority (48 percent) in what was once Christian America.
Critics point out how secularism corrodes sacred mores of traditional marriage. They reject expanding civil rights for citizens who don’t define marriage as a compact between a man and a woman. Roman Catholic bishops and evangelical Protestant leaders warn that America’s soul shrinks because secularism coils like a boa constrictor around it.
At our country’s founding, atheist Thomas Paine conceded that some sacred values needed preservation, lest national foundations crumble. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” wrote a Hebrew poet (Psalm 24:1). Such Judeo-Christian ethics in which God permeates life’s segments shaped the nation’s soul.
Founding fathers believed the U.S. benefits from a strong biblical moral base in order to flourish.
Benjamin Rush (1745-1853), a Philadelphia physician who brokered a compact between former enemies John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, spoke for almost all the founding fathers. He declared Christianity functioned as sacred glue, keeping our fledgling nation from splintering. Christian faith, announced Rush, cultivated a “strong ground of republicanism (the U.S. Republic). Many of its (Christianity’s) concepts have for their objects republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and economy in government.”
Jefferson acted like the original “none.” He cultivated faith in God but kept church affiliation at arm’s length. He characterized himself as a “sect of one.” Still, Jefferson didn’t reject Christian “virtue” (morality) as essential for our nation’s soul. Without it, the Republic wouldn’t endure.
‘PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS’
Today, we associate happiness with positive vibes. Jefferson, however, linked it to a sturdy will that presses for a happy, moral society. When he wrote of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wasn’t thinking of personal contentment.
Pursuit of happiness inspired patriots to transform the national soul into what’s decent, admirable and trustworthy.
Historian Jon Meacham in his Time magazine essay “Free to be Happy,” describes happiness as a sacred reality that’s much bigger than mental bliss. “Given the Aristotelian insight that man is a social creature whose life finds meaning in his relation to other human beings, Jeffersonian eudaimonia — the Greek word for happiness — evokes virtue, good conduct and generous citizenship.
“As Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. once wrote, this broad ancient understanding of happiness informed the thinking of patriots such as James Wilson (“the happiness of the society is the first law of government”) and John Adams (“the happiness of society is the end of government”). Once the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed in the summer of 1776, the pursuit of happiness — the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole was crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual — became part of the fabric (at first brittle to be sure, but steadily stronger) of a young nation” (Time magazine, July 8-15).
America still needs a strong moral base to shape its national soul. What’s radically changed, however, is that today’s morality isn’t exclusively rooted in the Bible. Now, religious diversity supplants scriptural moral uniformity. Protestant Christianity’s clout in the public square has dramatically waned.
Nor do an increasing number of Americans equate spirituality with church membership or obeying ecclesiastical edicts. Institutionalized Christianity’s authority is less respected by more citizens.
This doesn’t mean that secularism has destroyed America’s moral compass. An atheist may practice as strong a morality, rooted in conscience or common sense, as did Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King.
What’s changed since the 1960s? Today, our republic pursues happiness, standing on a moral foundation formed from diverse moral sources. Religious diversity replaces uniformity. Individual spiritual expression trumps church tradition. Christianity now makes room at the nation’s table for other faiths or no faith at all.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.