Morality in America: Secular or Religious?

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America wants to be and believes that it is a moral nation, at
least as moral as flawed humans know how to make it, but we are in the midst of
a tug of war to decide if our morality will be secular or religious. It is
unclear why we are even having this argument. The Constitution and our
forefathers clearly come down on the side of religious freedom for American
citizens and they have left enough written documentation to convince most of us
that the founders of our nation felt that the best way to insure religious
freedom is to separate government and religion. This would seem to negate the
formation of a Theocracy.

However, some in present-day politics are trying to walk back
our traditional understanding of what our founders intended while claiming that
they can channel the actual intentions of those who wrote our founding
documents. They argue that America harbored only sects of Christianity in Colonial
times and that, if our forefathers had been faced with Muslims, or Buddhists,
or other global religions that have found a home in modern day America, then
they might have written about religion and government in a different way, or
they might have made America a Christian nation. But wishing it, or even
positing it as a logical conclusion, does not make it so. I would like to think
that our founders were far-sighted and wise, but think the 3/5 rule which
turned some people into objects, and think about the blatant elitism of our
forefathers, which suggest that they were products of their times, perhaps
overseers rather than seers.

Examining the differences between secular morality and what
advocates mean when they long for religious morality might help inform of us of
which way we would like to go. The right wing Conservatives, with a
preponderance of Evangelical Christians offer us some insight into religious
morality. We get an impression of an Old Testament sensibility, a return to the
rules as laid down in Leviticus. We have the Ten Commandments, of course, but
when we turn them into very literal rules for our nation they would change
America a great deal. I won’t go through them one by one.

The Commandment we are most caught up in right now is Thou
shalt not commit murder. Here is the Pro Life argument in a nutshell. How will
we ever get around the moral argument about whether or not the killing of an
unborn baby, whether it is a mere blob of cells, a possibility of life, or
whether it has taken fetal form and resembles a child is murder or whether that
Christian concept is not the business of our government. We know women have
aborted unwanted children since the beginnings of time and at great risk.
Sometimes the timing of a pregnancy is so wrong or the circumstances of the
pregnancy are so repugnant that a woman is almost obsessed with stopping the
pregnancy. Sometimes a woman knows or senses her own life will be in danger if
she gives birth to a child or even shows anyone that she is pregnant. Since
pregnancy falls within the female realm, the decision about aborting a
pregnancy should fall within the female realm and the process should be as safe
as possible and should definitely not involve rooting the fetal cells out with
a stick or a coat hanger. If the GOP truly wants to end abortion then they need
to set up humane systems to help women through to term and to find parents for
the children that are the result of unwanted pregnancies. Until these systems
are in place I don’t see how women will agree to ending legal abortion.

Besides adopting a literal interpretation of the Ten
Commandments, we have those who suggest that we need to heed things that are
often incidentally described in the Bible as the Christian traditions that
pertained at the times when the Bible was written, although quite a few
centuries passed before we had both the new and the old testaments. So we have
those who admonish women to be submissive and to allow their husbands to
control the lives of the family. I’m not sure, given what we now understand
about the way this can lead to domestic abuse of wives or children or both why
we would ever want to take power away from women ever again, or why women would
freely give up their position as equals.

Those on the religious right argue that having women once
again assume a submissive role in relation to their husband would restore the
nuclear family, end crime, end immorality and end sexual and gender
“deviation”, in other words, would put LGBT people back into the closet or put
them in danger of being punished for their “immoral” behavior. And then, they
(these new patriarchs) argue we could end all this political correctness crap
and, in fact, life would be good. Society’s rules would be simple and clear,
and right and wrong would be spelled out according to God and Jesus [or to someone’s
interpretation of acceptable Christian protocols for living a Godly life].

The Bible does not talk about evolution, so we would just bury
centuries of scientific inquiry? Science, in fact, comes up with so many
conclusions that appear to be at odds with the Bible that we can expect that
abandoning scientific pursuits will bring us all closer to the heaven. Will we
punish those who have curiosity built into their psyches? Well we will
certainly have to pass laws against such investigations of our world and decide
how we will punish those who persist. Can you see how this could all get out of
hand very fast? Do you want an America that lives out the dream of the
Puritans? Do we want to measure our government’s laws by any particular
religion? Will we have a democratic government if it is “God” (as interpreted
by man) calling the shots?
 
 

Clearly sticking with secular morality grants us the freedom
to maintain a democracy. But what rules apply to secular morality? That is what
makes it all so difficult to enjoy freedom because a citizen must frequently
judge what will offer maximum freedom to the most people, while doing the least
harm. This is an enormous task. We often get the balance wrong. Here we rely on
the dialectic to set things right. When things go too far in one direction
forces drag events back towards the center.

So take the case of campaign finance, which most of us agree
is totally out of whack with the very foundation of democratic government. Once
our Supremes agreed that corporations were people we gave our elections back to
the very elite who argued for ascendancy at our nation’s founding. We gave our
elections to the wealthy this time, not the landowners, although I’m sure they
all own land (perhaps not in America, though). President Obama’s election
proves that small donors have some power, but the right wing is trying hard to
negate that. Republicans have more milestones on their agenda to turn our
governance over to the wealthy. Now individuals can give as much as they wish.
Republicans manufactured an IRS scandal and raised such a ruckus that no one
can reevaluate the use of 501 C-4’s again. Even the ploy to pass a flat tax
needs to be examined very carefully because it is most likely a political IED.
In fact Republicans would like to simplify our government right to death.

We are trying to make sure that secular morality, that old golden
rule of ‘Do Unto Others as You Would Have Others Do Unto You’ is still a
guiding force in our nation. We are trying to practice a new American
Exceptionalism that relies on diplomacy and a ‘live and let live’ spirit
(whenever possible) rather than the old idea of exceptionalism that says we
must loom over everyone and threaten to beat them into submission because fear
is the only emotion people really understand.

The American experiment to respect each other and to share
power is still an exceptionally idealistic one and, in that sense, our
exceptionalism still lives and, if we were allowed to cooperate with other
world governments to help lift people around the globe and turn the planet into
a safe, stable, and healthy world the morality of that would far outshine any
Puritanical rule of lockstep religious practices and prejudices that could ever
come out of the atavistic longings of the right wing of the Republican Party in
America.
 
By Nancy Brisson