The American Consensus: Civic, Not Religious

Oliver “Buzz” Thomas

“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I was sitting in an auditorium in Greeneville, Tennessee, listening to two Sudanese boys, whom my wife and I had helped through college, recite the pledge and take the oath of citizenship. Our Sudanese friends were Christian, but standing alongside them were Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and who knows what else. All different. All about to become American citizens.

Two days later I was reading a prominent atheist’s tirade against all things religious when I was reminded what a unique country we are and what a tall order being a good citizen really is.

On one extreme stand the “Theocrats”—those religious firebrands of the far right. The problem with Theocrats, of course, is that each one thinks he’s Theo. If they’re harping about prayer in schools, you can bet it’s their prayers and not yours. These are some of the same people who think that the earth is no older than your Great Aunt Edna and that hurricanes, tsunamis, HIV, and even 9/11 are instruments of God’s wrath—never mind if a majority of the victims happen to be innocent children or the elderly. I think these red-faced believers are wrong, but they’re our neighbors, and they’re just as American as we are.

On the other extreme stand the religious “nones.” I don’t mean the women in black habits but the people who, when the pollsters ask them their religious preference, reply, “None.” They’re Americans, too. They also happen to be one of the fastest-growing segments of our population, and two of their own, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have been on the New York Times best-seller list.

Therein lies America’s challenge. We have a big group on the far right and a big group on the far left with both groups planning to stick around. How, then, do we live together with such deep differences? Better still, how do we remain “one nation, indivisible”? Is there any real hope for finding common ground?

Religiously? No. Thousands of different religious groups make their home in America, and the country’s largest group—we Christians—has hundreds of subsets. Even our subsets have subsets. Consider for a moment that Gore and Gingrich are both Baptists. So are the two Jesses—Helms and Jackson.

There is not and never will be a religious consensus in America. It’s one of a dozen good reasons why we should never return to the practice of teacher-led prayers in our public schools. The first and most intractable question would always be: Whose prayer? As I once heard Republican Senator Mark Hatfield put it, “I don’t have the time to write all those prayers, and I don’t trust anyone else to!”

If there is no religious consensus in America, then what? Are we, like much of the rest of the world, left to flounder in our diversity with no hope of finding common ground?

Before we throw up our hands and move to a gated community, let’s do as colonial patriot George Mason once admonished his fellow Virginians during times of trouble and return to “fundamental principles.” What exactly does it mean to be an American other than the fact that most of us were born here? Is it simply that we drink Coke, wear Levis, and shop at the Gap, or is there more to it than that?

At one time, for example, in order to be part of established colonial Virginia society, you had to be several things: white, male, land-owning, and Protestant—Anglican, to be more precise. It was that way in most of the colonies, though New Englanders chose to establish the Congregational Church. And, although we have moved beyond much of our parochial past, many Americans still carry around with them these notions of what it once meant to be fully American.

Being American, of course, has nothing to do with our gender, economic status, skin color, where we go to church or even if we go to church. Being American is about the principles and ideals set forth in our framing documents—namely, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. When naturalized citizens swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, that’s what they’re talking about. America was the first nation to be founded not upon bloodline or kinship but upon principles and ideals.

Don’t get me wrong. Our “tribes” are important to us. It matters whether we are Baptists or Buddhists, male or female, Democrat or Republican. But as Catholic Theologian John Courtney Murray once reminded us, the Constitution does not begin, “We the tribe.” We are more than a tribe. Much more. We are a people. A pluralistic polyglot of races, religions, and creeds committed to a common set of rights and responsibilities. Freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press. Due process. Equal protection under the law. Not whether or how we choose to worship.

In a word, the American consensus is civic, not religious. Within this civic framework, there is indeed a common vision for the common good. When it comes to religion, that vision means that persons of all faiths, or no faith, will be treated with fairness and respect. In our public schools it also means teaching about religions fairly and impartially while respecting the First Amendment rights of all students. Minority and majority.

Are we up to the task? Honestly, I’m not sure, but the civic framework set forth in our framing documents has served us well thus far. Admittedly, it takes a lot of work. The words on those hallowed pages do us very little good unless they are etched in the hearts and minds of our citizens. And that is a challenge for a nation as diverse as ours. We must begin living by a new Golden Rule—a “civic” Golden Rule, as scholar Os Guinness calls it. It goes like this: My rights are best protected by protecting your rights. That means Jews standing up for the rights of fundamentalist Christians and vice versa. It also means that the way we debate our differences is almost as important as the differences themselves.

If this sounds like the beginnings of a good resolution for a new century, I think you’re right. Perhaps I’ll take my own advice and stop calling them Theocrats.

Oliver “Buzz” Thomas is a constitutional lawyer, Baptist minister, executive director of the Niswonger Foundation in Greeneville, Tenn., and author of a new book, 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job) (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).