Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Mistake

Since I moved to America in the early 1990s, I have heard it said so often that America is a christian nation. The oft-repeated statement, not only by common citizens but also by others in prominent positions of influence, overrode the geography and civics lessons of my junior school days where I had read about the American constitution and its secular nature. It came back to me only in a slightly embarrassing way.

When I was in England for my post-doc, a bunch of us friends used to go for lunch together and we would end up talking about all kinds of things. The conversation turned to religion and from there on to the separation of church and state. I knew that India was a secular country but I stated that the USA was a christian country. I expected the UK to be secular since it seemed like I heard a message of religious freedom often. As my Scots friend, Craig, had to remind me, in the UK the Monarch is the head of the Church of England. However, the UK still functions more or less like a secular state (since practicing christians are on the decline in the country and there aren't as many foaming-at-the-mouth born-again-christians as in the US). Craig also had to correct me about the fact that he thought the US was a secular country. I couldn't reconcile what he was saying with everything I had experienced since moving to the USA. But he was right. The USA is indeed a secular country but anyone living here at this time in history may get the mistaken impression that we do indeed live in Jesus-land (a little to the right of la-la-land). And I was no exception. Americans can be overtly religious in their convictions. However, this nation's founders were not, as many claim, religious and they certainly did not intend to form a christian nation.

Pan to the present times. Recently, for the first time ever a hindu clergyman was invited to offer the morning prayers at the Senate (why a government institution even needs prayer to get down to its business in a secular country is one question I haven't been able to answer satisfactorily for myself- I will have to wait till I meet my first senator). The prayer generated protests from the galleries and three people had to be removed before the prayer commenced. They felt that the hindu prayer was an abomination to the one true god and as christians and patriots, it was their duty to stop it. This country is being overrun by religious fundamentalists who blur the line between church and state with all kinds of equivocations such as confounding nationalism with religious duties (protecting the country, and more recently the environment too, in the name of Christ), health care issues with those of murder (look at abortion and stem cell research) and education with those of personal belief systems (teaching science is seen as an attack on christianity) . This is a slippery slope and one which takes the country back to a more savage state of development.

Religion should, at best, serve as a personal salve for those who can't get by with belief in self and reality. It cannot and should not be imposed upon others and a state should certainly not take moral lessons on policy and treatment of citizens from any holey book. We have some examples of places where the religio-moral principles from old texts have been used as law. We can see how inhumane such laws are in regions of the world where the sharia is applied. And yet, many in the USA, who would decry the atrocities of another religion continue to prevaricate and hold up an archaic text as their ultimate guide. They also perhaps believe that those who wrote the constitution of this nation held this text in the same regard (which they may well have) and used it as a guide for the document they wrote (which they did not). The constitution of the USA is a document of much sophistication and superior to the bible in that it is a living document, i.e., one that can be amended. It was my mistake to let the loud voices dripping with religion drown out the centrality of this document to the American polity.

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