American Mythology: The separation of church and state

BY GARRY GRUNDY

WHILE AMERICA MAY NOT proclaim to have a national religion, it certainly nurtures and has sought to preserve a national mythology. Guidelines for this utterly nuanced national religion might be found in the lyrics of “America the Beautiful,” or in the soaring words of Malcolm X or Abraham Lincoln. A religious history replete with martyrs, saints and sinners – it’s no wonder that (according to a Fox News poll) 92% of Americans believe in God; 85% in heaven; and 82% in miracles.

But like most New Englanders, front-runner John Kerry doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve. Neither does orthodox Jewish Senator Joe Lieberman – in real life, a moderate New England politician – Joe has no doubt down-played his Jewish heritage in this particular election in exchange for a more mealy-mouthed secularism. Oddly enough, this tactic differs little from the Job-less, Gen-Xers that make up the disenfranchised Dean wing of the ailing and soul-less Democratic Party.

Nonetheless, there is an important distinction between the many New Englanders running for president and the most viable Southerner running for president.

“I’m from the South. And like most folks from the South, I went to church every Sunday.” This is how General Wesley Clark began his winter campaign through the swing-state of Arizona, a state with strong connections to the American mythology.

“We read from the Bible and prayed every morning before school. And to think in hindsight,” Clark continued apologetically, “that there were people of different faiths in the classroom there while we prayed… to think how insensitive we were; we must be sensitive to the faiths of other people in this country. We need to protect the separation of church and state.”

Swing states will certainly be critical to the Clark campaign. It turns out that while Howard Dean and John Kerry were hustling for corn-nuts in Hampshire and Iowa, Wesley Clark made Phoenix and Tucson primary winter destinations. Not a bad tactic for a man interested in taking Arizona out of Dubya’s red column of states and returning it to the blue. And if you’re talking about jobs and war in this part of the country, religion can’t be too far behind

Citing his favorite Biblical passage, Clark told the capacity Phoenix crowd: “My favorite passage comes from chapter 12 of Mark: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God, the things that are God’s.'”

Such profundity and comfort with the Word has sparked concern over Clark’s own religious upbringing. We know that Clark was raised a Baptist, then converted to Catholicism during the Vietnam War – and currently attends a Presbyterian church. When asked during a debate in New Hampshire how he could “reconcile [his support of abortion] with Catholic doctrine,” Clark astutely replied, “I reconcile it with my own beliefs. And I do believe in the right of conscience… I understand what the Catholic doctrine is. But I have freedom of conscience. And I believe what I believe.”

Speaking in opposition to President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative program, General Clark displays an uncanny understanding of this tenuous relationship between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. Clark’s response to the Bush plan and the personal attack on his faith show his sensitivity to the plurality of faiths he has already embraced, and lets the electorate know where this president will stand on preserving that oft-confused and delicate balance between Caesar and God.

The Ninth Circuit decision to remove the “under God” from the pledge sits on a trajectory that is hopelessly at odds with the electorate. This bizarro bifurcation further undermines Clark’s desert sermon by taking away that which many perceive to be God’s. Such a hallowing-out transforms once-rote American rituals into something unrecognizable to a plurality of its citizenry, requiring Americans to renounce the mythology that has conferred so many generations with drive, purpose and good blessing.

What young man or woman is going to lay down his life for a country that recognizes no God but the S&P 500?

Does that mean we remove all religious references from the public domain? Does that mean that even rote expressions like “In God We Trust” and “God Bless America” will meet the same fate as the pledge? All because we haven’t found the right words to explain this nation’s relationship with the Divine and its plurality of faiths?

God may own the church; and Caesar may own the state; but Clark offers all Americans part ownership of an American mythology where freedom of conscience and individual choice reign supreme, and not the coercive whims of pontiffs, mullahs or an American president.

Garry Grundy’s column appears bi-weekly.

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