Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Defending God in the Public Square

In a short editorial in Human Events former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, lays out the five challenges Americans must meet in order to win the future and preserve the greatness of our nation.

1) Confronting a world in which America's enemies, including the irreconcilable wing of Islam and rogue dictatorships, could acquire and use nuclear or biological weapons

2) Defending God in the public square

3) Protecting America's unique civilization

4)Competing in the global economy in an era of the economic rise of China and India, which will require transformations in litigation, education, taxation, regulation, and environmental, energy and health policies for America to continue to be the most successful economy in the world

5) Promoting active, healthy aging so more people can live longer, which will require dramatic transformation in pensions, Social Security and health care.

An interesting list. Number one and number four are undeniably vital. Number five is important. Number three can be easily misinterpreted as an anti-immigrant sentiment but, knowing Newt’s general worldview, I’m guessing that it’s actually a pro-freedom statement—making it worthy of the list too.

And number two is…well…controversial to say the least. Newt has never been a big player in the religious right, so it’s interesting that he’s placed “Defending God in the public square” as second only to confronting our enemies. Agree or disagree with Newt, he’s certainly one of our nation’s most engaged “big idea” men and isn’t one to waste a spot on such a list with a throwaway idea. Then again, Gingrich plays politics like the devil plays the fiddle—he knows religion is a powerful factor in the Republican’s dominance. He knows the value of keeping them on board.

But let’s pretend he’s not just pandering and really believes that “defending God in the public square” is vitally important to preserving our nation’s greatness. Why would he contend such a thing? Well, I think it’s because we as a nation have been turning increasingly secular over the last 50 years and are in danger of forgetting that the separation of church and state does not mean we must enforce a separation of church and public life.

Some people like to point to the rise of the Christian Right (better referred to as Christianists) and of false-issues like the “war on Christmas” as proof that we are living in a time of impending theocracy. But that’s just not the case. The Christian Right and their issues (real and invented) are a reaction to the realization that what we are living in is a time of impending hyper-secularism. And while I and many others (possibly Newt himself) regularly and even deeply disagree with the means and rhetoric of the Christianists, we are not particularly pleased with efforts of groups like the ACLU to wipe America clean of public displays of religion.

And before anyone accidentally or willfully misinterprets my position, I am not calling for the Ten Commandments to be posted in courthouses and creationism to be taught in our schools. What I seek is a nation where we as a people do not get offended when confronted with the religious beliefs and passions of those whose faith seems odd to us. Nor should we get offended when our own religious beliefs and passions are scorned and mocked by others.

When Gingrich says the future of our nation is reliant on “defending God in the public square” what I think he means is that freedom of religion, all religion, is one of the founding principles of this nation. In our zeal to keep church and state separate, we should be careful not to separate faith from our national character and public life. A man’s religion is not contained in his church or synagogue or mosque or temple—it’s part of his whole life. And America lets him live that religion. Even in the public square. Most importantly, in the public square.

I don’t think we’re in any danger of banishing religion, but I think we are in danger of forgetting its importance. That, I imagine, is Gingrich’s greater point. Although, with that man, you never quite know.

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