Wednesday, February 17, 2010

So It’s a Christian Country...

2/17/2010--Russell Shorto’s article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine, “How Christian Were the Founders?” tells the story of how a determined group of right-wing Christians on the Texas State Board of Education is changing the way public school textbooks are written all over the country. When Texas adopts curriculum guidelines, the size of the Texas market tends to change the way publishers publish. As Texas goes, so goes your child’s school.

The pressure by this group to remake the country can be informal as well as formal. For example, the phrase “living Constitution” used to be found in a well-known textbook and has now been dropped because of opposition by members of the Board.

One of the groups’ current goals is to tell the story of the founding of the United States as a Christian founding. The phrase recurs, “this is a Christian country” and that history has been suppressed by a secular conspiracy of sorts among textbook publishers.

This kind of history war is familiar from cases interpreting the Establishment Clause. And politics is often about nothing more than the identity claim that the speaker is the true American. So, the fight over our founding can be expected to go on even without a clear current goal of changing policy.

But at one point in the article, Shorto describes what might be the endgame: “To conservative Christians, there is no separation of church and state, and there never was. The concept, they say, is a modern secular fiction. There is no legal justification, therefore, for disallowing crucifixes in government buildings or school prayer.”

If by Christian country the proponents of these views of the founding think that the Supreme Court would allow Congress to rewrite the national motto as “In Christ We Trust”, I can only say that this would take a very great change in the views of every Justice on the Supreme Court, including Antonin Scalia. Scalia wrote in his dissent in Lee v Weisman, the case that banned prayers from high school graduation, that the Establishment Clause does not allow the Government to endorse views on which monotheists disagree, such as the divinity of Christ: “I will further concede that our constitutional tradition, from the Declaration of Independence and the first inaugural address of Washington, quoted earlier, down to the present day, has, with a few aberrations, ruled out of order government-sponsored endorsement of religion-even when no legal coercion is present, and indeed even when no ersatz, “peer-pressure” psycho-coercion is present-where the endorsement is sectarian, in the sense of specifying details upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world are known to differ (for example, the divinity of Christ).”

The question becomes, however, why, if we cannot endorse In Christ We Trust, we can endorse In God We Trust. Justice Scalia would say that the reason is tradition. But if we were founded as a Christian nation, Scalia is acknowledging that the tradition changed to accommodate nonChristians. The reason for that must be our increasing diversity. But that process does not stop. There are ever increasing numbers of nonmonotheists and nonbelievers. The future of the Establishment Clause lies with them. Just what that means, however, is open to debate.

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