The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

What brand of Christian nation?

Russell I. Gregory

Whenever I hear that the United States is a Christian nation, especially from people who appear to elevate a Christian nation over a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist nation, I'm not completely sure what they mean.

Do they really mean we try to live by the standards Jesus set up? But then would we be abysmal failures or pig-headed hypocrites? Does it mean the Constantinian style of Christianity, that is, our national leadership saw a huge cross with the inscription "In this sign you should conquer;" or, perhaps they saw an oil derrick with the same words. In that case, they see Christianity as a synonym of imperialistic conquest.

If one calls us a Christian nation, which brand are we talking about -- Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Baptist, Happy Hands Praise Temple, or one of thousands of others? I guess it could be that popular type of civil religion that claims that whatever one, like President Bush or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, chooses to think and do, God Almighty backs him up with surefire shock and awe or, as we called it in World War II, blitzkrieg.

I don't know if we are truly Christian, but I do know that there are two documents that serve as our two-part "scripture," our political authority, our national canon -- the Constitution with its amendments and the Declaration of Independence. Being a religion professor with a strong interest in the Hebrew Bible, I like to think of the Constitution as our Torah, our instructions concerning good and just government. The Declaration of Independence acts as prophecy for me, though it is not devoid of ideas on good government.

Now, I understand the Declaration was written by a deist, a man who believed that God created an orderly world with everything needed and then God sat down in a rocking chair and let the creation continue on its own. Part of what was built in, as many philosophers who influenced Thomas Jefferson claimed, were self-evident truths, first of all that "all [and I drop the generic 'men'] are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator [he did not specify the Christian God] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I, like others, remain dissatisfied with the last right; why not pursuit of justice or a decent livelihood (notably in our times to counter an economic system that values profits over meaningful employment and livelihood)? As I understand Jefferson's perspective, these are not just rights for Americans, these are indelibly inscribed in nature for all; he is accessing them for his purpose in this document. By extension, all people over the world have these rights, and whenever governments, their own or an imperialistic government "becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and establish a new Government...." Eventually the declaration mentions a list of specific abuses for which ties with England were severed.

As I look at the military and economic treatment of other nations by the United States, I think that many groups around the world and in this country, ought to revise the declaration, to bring it up to date, e.g., add their list of abuses, and say it in one voice on July 4, 2006, if they can wait that long.

"When in the course of human events it becomes necesary ... we hold these truths to be self-evident that all are created equal, ... to prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world." Let the declaration be heard and let the revolution -- peaceful, though, I hope -- begin.

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