Part of the magic of America lies in its having remained religious while Europe went secularist; patriotic when other countries blushed to fly their flags; freely enterprising when others were being strangled in protective red tape. Not perfect, no; making disastrous mistakes, yes. But still a country that could send a chill of excitement up the spine of distant admirers by having currency stamped with In God We Trust, a president who could say, God bless America!, the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses, and, amazingly, a National Day of Prayer. (Note that none of these things excludes any of the three great religions.)
Increasingly, though, the United States seems in danger of collapsing into a featureless, secularist, socialist, European look-alike state where it’s political death to mention God and people can lose their jobs for wearing a Christian cross around their neck, volunteering to pray with a distressed client or expressing the conviction that homosexual behaviour is not good for one’s physical or moral health. It could, in short, become just another boring secular western country.
If that happens it will in no small measure be thanks to unelected officials like Wisconsin judge Barbara Crabb, who ruled last month that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. It amounts, she said, to the government’s using its “authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to pray”, which violates the First Amendment’s alleged “separation of church and state”.
President Obama, recognising that this is not a winner, went ahead anyway and issued proclamation last Friday while his Justice Department appeals the judge’s ruling. “Prayer has been a sustaining way for many Americans of diverse faiths to express their most cherished beliefs, and thus we have long deemed it fitting and proper to publicly recognize the importance of prayer on this day across the Nation,” Obama said in the proclamation.
So it happens that a custom inaugurated by Congress in 1952 and that does not seem to have bothered anyone much since is suddenly under threat because a bunch of unhappy atheists and agnostics went whining to the judge that their feelings were hurt by the call to prayer and thanksgiving. It made them feel like outsiders on the day, they said. The “psychological harm” they suffered gave them standing before the court, she said.
How pathetic. The Freedom From Religion Foundation crowd have made themselves outsiders for reasons of their own (the leaders have an abortion agenda as well) and really it is up to them to make their own fun. They could go on the internet and watch Christopher Hitchens videos all day or re-read his books.
The fact is that the vast majority of Americans are religious, even if only vaguely so. In a USA Today/Gallup poll of 1049 adults last weekend 92 per cent said there is a God and 83 per cent believe this God answers prayers. But perhaps they think a national day of prayer is taking things too far? Nope: of a group of 500 people, 57 per cent favoured the custom, 38 per cent said it didn’t worry them, and only 4.5 per cent opposed it. In another group of 500, 62 per cent went so far as to say that a major goal of the day should be to promote Christian prayer.
All right; so religious faith is now quite diluted amongst the younger generations, many of whom belong to the church of “whatever” — that is, no church/synagogue/mosque at all. But America has withstood the inroads of secularism and relativism much better than Europe and the other Anglo nations, and this has kept it vigorous and interesting. Many of us in the other nations have looked on with envy as Christian and other religious Americans have fought strongly and effectively for respect for unborn life, for marriage and for sexual restraint among young people.
A friend in the US argues that if the media did a better job of portraying the religious and moral seriousness behind these debates, Bin Laden and his mates might have thought twice about getting into a scrape with the American “paper tiger” back in 2001. “They don’t understand Thanksgiving, or prayer before football, or Easter Sunday because the press hides it all from them.”
If the anti-religionists have their way — which, it seems, the judiciary, the press and Congress between them could achieve — they will make America as boring as Britain, or Canada, or New Zealand, where all it is safe to talk about in public is climate change, obesity and the cost of politicians’ perks, and where political leaders would rather die than ask God to bless their country in public.
Today is a good day to pray that God will bless America with more, not less, religious faith and the courage to express it as a nation, no matter how loudly some people complain of their hurt feelings.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.