A Prayer for Our Republic

American democracy is an idea.

It is not established by immutable law. It is not a guaranteed by the relentless forces of nature. Should we fail at our democratic enterprise, there is no outside force that will compel us back on the road to a just and free society. There will be no humanitarian intervention from the U.N., no NATO armies attempting regime change here. If our democratic republic fails, it will be because we will have allowed it to, and we will have no recourse thereafter.  No, our democracy is not guaranteed, it is sustained only by our common commitment to that democratic idea.

The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, a congressional staffer, a lobbyist, and two Capitol police officers is a symptom of a deep problem in our political life, that goes right to the heart of whether our democracy can be sustained. For while it is not the first act of political violence that we have seen in our 241 years as a nation, it takes place against a broader backdrop of incivility, hyper-partisanship, and divisive political discourse that makes me wonder wither this is a harbinger of things to come.

If it is not to be a portent of the complete breakdown of our democracy, then that will only be because we will have recommitted ourselves to the fundamental values and virtues of our republic. The first and foremost among those values is that we are one people—all of us.

Our first national motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, one. It serves as an all too important reminder that we have a common destiny, a common life together. It is a motto we need to reclaim. Continue reading

A Christian Country or a Country of Christians?

I teach a course in which the central thesis is that but for the Western religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), the Western world would not look the way that it does today. There is much in our culture—fundamental respect for human rights, affirmation of the dignity of human life, an emphasis on common humanity and equality before God and the law—that would not necessarily have existed had the dominant religious influences been Norse or Greek paganism. And so, there is some truth to the claim that our nation was founded based on religious principles, even if those principles were of the more implicit kind noted above than explicit ones.

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The U.S. and Christian flags fly not quite side-by-side.

But there is an oft-repeated refrain that America was founded as a “Christian country” and there is happiness in some quarters over the belief that it is “returning” to that intended state. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether the Founders intended to erect a Christian state (they didn’t) or whether a state that privileged one religion over another would violate our fundamental democratic precepts (it would). Let’s look simply at the question of what do we mean when we say “a Christian country” and whether such a thing is even possible. Continue reading

The War on Christmas (2015 Starbucks Edition)

So. Apparently, we’re still at war. Not the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or against ISIL. We’re still at war over Christmas. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters are reprising their now decade-long campaign, protesting what they suspect are signs of a great liberal plot to eradicate Christmas—and then Christianity—from the public square. They point to the fact that a number of major retailers continue to greet patrons with the words “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This year, the great enemy is Starbucks, who for reasons that can only be considered anti-Christian, apparently, have neglected to include any iconography on their holiday coffee cup.

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Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that red is a Christmas color. Let us leave aside the fact that “Happy Holidays” is a greeting that has been around for decades, and is usually assumed to be shorthand for “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Let us also leave aside for the time being the fact that prior to December 25th, no one should be wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas”—(it’s still Advent before that). Let us skip for now the fact that in the last decade some of the largest mega-churches did not have services on Christmas Day, even when Christmas day fell on a Sunday (Sunday happens to be the most important day of the Christian calendar) to little or no criticism from the loudest voices objecting to the “War.”

The greater issue is that if there is actually a War on Christmas, it was lost decades ago. Continue reading