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Belief in the Constitution
Religion professor emeritus Ronald B. Flowers told students and faculty at the annual Phi Beta Kappa awards banquet in May that religion and politics shouldn't mix.
When the TCU mission statement was being formulated by a committee under the leadership of former chancellor Michael Ferrari, I thought it was truncated, incomplete. I thought it ought to more explicitly reflect the religious heritage of this historically church-related university. I told him so.
He responded that the statement needed to be brief, ought to be short enough to be on a coffee cup. I wondered why that was such a big deal, although if he were here tonight I would confess that in preparing these remarks I read the statement off a cup.
But, more substantively, he said that the themes of ethical leadership and responsible citizenship presuppose the religious heritage that has contributed so much to the ethos of this institution. I still thought the statement ought to be more explicit on the point, but I conceded that he was right.
I want to spell out for you tonight what I see to be the relationship between religion and ethical leadership and responsible citizenship. I have done most of my research and publication in the area of church-state relations. I am neither a political scientist nor a lawyer. I realize that one of the most distinctive characteristics of religion in this country is the separation of church and state and its corollary, religious freedom.
These characteristics are derived from the first two clauses of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
I have become persuaded by the work of many other scholars and by the Constitution itself that the founders of this nation wanted to create a government of limited reach. That is, they wanted the government they were creating not to be intrusive into the lives of Americans.
They realized that the principal characteristic of government is power. They also understood that power is easily abused, that governments can be brutal to their citizens. They were students of history. They knew from the lessons of history that individuals and even groups can be crushed by government power, especially if that power is administered in an erratic or tyrannical way.
In this new nation they were creating, they wanted to avoid those results by forestalling the beginning. So they wrote a Constitution creating a government characterized by checks and balances, by the separation of powers, in order to prevent any branch of government or the government itself from becoming too powerful. Then, more to the point of civil rights, they wrote the Bill of Rights, which gave specificity to the concept of a limited government and the liberties of citizens.
Consequently, Americans enjoy many rights.
Limited government and a broad array of civil rights -- this is the basis of ethical leadership and responsible citizenship. That is, Americans are called upon not only to enjoy those rights, but to make sure they endure generation after generation. Our founders created this system with the long view in mind. They said that eloquently in the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (emphasis added)
That means that every generation, this generation, needs to labor to keep the heritage alive. That means that all of us here tonight, TCU professors, active and emeritus, friends and family of graduating students, and most especially the graduating students, must live consistently with the principles of responsible citizenship and ethical leadership, and encourage others to do so.
Why do I say "most especially the graduating students"? Simply because you are the youngest among us. You have the bulk of your professional lives and your lives as citizens stretching out before you. You have the greatest opportunity -- and thus the greatest responsibility -- to keep the vision of the founders alive.
Many people believe that our culture is deteriorating rapidly. Plenty of evidence seems to support their claim. A large number of people in our society believe the answer to all this is to infuse religious values into society. Specifically, they want to recover the values of the founders who created this to be a Christian nation.
The idea that the authors of the Constitution designed this to be a Christian nation is not novel. It has appeared before in our history. But in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it has taken on a fervor that I think is unique in our national consciousness.
The belief is incorrect.
The founders did not intend this to be a Christian nation. Although many of them were men of faith, the lessons of history told them that to combine the zeal of religious faith with the power of government would be harmful to the citizens of this new nation.
The silence of the Constitution is the best indicator that they did not intend to create a Christian nation. The Constitution does not mention God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. It contains the word "religion" only twice, in Article 6, which exempts government office holders from a religious test; and in the First Amendment. They did not establish Christianity as America's official religion. But they did create a system that gave Christianity, in all its permutations, and every other religion, the maximum freedom to exist and flourish. The Constitution is extremely religion-friendly, even though it gives official sanction to no religion.
The political convictions of the men who struggled to ratify a godless Constitution were not products of personal godlessness. Far from it. Almost everyone who participated in the debates about the Constitution shared a concern about the health of religion.
Many of the men who championed the godless Constitution stayed aloof from dogmatic forms of Christian faith, but most of them believed in a God who rewarded good and punished evil in an afterlife. They respected the moral teachings of Christ and hoped that they would prosper among Americans and in the churches.
Many of the Christian nation advocates point to the Declaration of Independence as evidence of the founders' religious intent. The Declaration makes two of my points very well. It mentions God four times, although it does not use any explicitly Christian language. It refers to God as "Nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge of the World," and "divine Providence."
But these references to God make all the more noticeable the silence of the Constitution on the same subject. The founders were quite willing to invoke God, but not the Christian religion, when making their case against the abuses of England. But they were not willing to invoke God or the Christian religion when articulating in the Constitution the laws by which Americans should live. The Constitution is the law of the land, the Declaration of Independence is not. Consequently, America is not a Christian nation, but a nation whose government is designed to let religion thrive according to the energies of believers.
However, the Declaration of Independence does reflect the minds of the founders on the issue of human rights or civil liberties. Both the Declaration and the Constitution are explicit on that subject. And that leads us to directly consider the issue of ethical leadership and responsible citizenship.
The Declaration's most famous phrase is: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. This is a theological statement!
Sociologist Robert Bellah calls it the "superstructure" of the American "political regime." It affirms the existence of God, and claims that God is responsible for the existence of all human beings. Not only did God create human beings, but God gave them rights.
The rights are defined broadly: equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is to say, inherent in God's creation is a moral order in which moral principles can be identified as rights due to all humans.
Furthermore, he said the rights are "unalienable." They are birthright rights; they cannot legitimately be taken away by anyone. This leads then to Jefferson's point; God has given these rights to humans and it is the duty of the state to make them real in the lives of its citizens.
Although the rights are inherently the possessions of every human, nonetheless they require some mechanism to actualize them. That is the role of the state -- to actualize the rights and protect them. The concrete expression of trying to actualize those rights in the American experience was the writing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The point here is that there is a moral content to the system of government in the United States, what one might call civil ethics. If the government does not allow its citizens to enjoy those rights, then it is acting contrary to the will of God, that is, the unrighteous nation or government leader thus violates the moral laws built into nature. The nation stands under the judgment of God.
In addition, we, as a nation and as individuals, live under a transcendent point of reference: we are finite. To say that humans are finite is to include their nations, their laws and governments. This concept of the finitude of the nation and its leaders is built into the American system.
A principal role of the churches and other religious institutions of the nation is to remind our leaders that they too, are mortal, not God.
I am arguing here that there are really two transcendent points of reference in America's civil religion:
1. The idea of the limitation of human beings, including political leaders, and
2. The concept of unalienable rights, civic ethics. These two ideas have direct relevance to religious institutions.
The role of religious institutions should be to challenge the government to be true to its own moral heritage, to admonish the government to actualize the unalienable rights in the lives of all citizens.
By educating constituencies and by speaking out on public issues, religious institutions and religious individuals can contribute to the creation of a moral and humane society by both referring back to the moral code of the Declaration of Independence and saying to the government and any national figure, "You, too, are finite."
The nation's actions can and should be evaluated in relation to the will of God, thus correcting the problem of religious nationalism.
Among the most basic of the civil liberties is religious freedom, the principles of no government promotion and financing of religion and government protection of the free exercise of religion.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1779 that "Almighty God has made the mind free." He went on to explain that because God was all-powerful, God could have compelled all people to believe the same way. But God chose not to do that. God made humans as rational beings who could respond to the Divine on the basis of reason, according to their best intellectual understanding.
Jefferson knew full well that everyone did not respond to the Divine in the same way; some not at all. But that was consistent with God's creation. He went on to assert that if God recognized human freedom in religion, governments should do the same. That is the foundation of the American concept of separation of church and state, with its associated right of religious freedom.
Many people, particularly Christian nation advocates, argue that the separation of church and state is hostile to religion. It is not. Remember that the concept has two parts, no establishment and free exercise.
The no establishment principle means that the government must stay out of the affairs of religion as much as possible. It also means that religion should not utilize government to get its way with the people. The free exercise principle means that so long as their behavior is lawful, religious people and institutions are free to practice religion as they choose.
These concepts, far from being unfriendly to religion, guarantee that religion has the chance to be a vibrant and meaningful force in American society. Religious people and institutions have the right to be religious as their consciences dictate. They also have the right to make their voices heard.
I have argued that religious institutions should make their voices heard in challenging the government to be faithful to its own ethical standards. The same responsibility lies with religious individuals.
However, it is likely that some in this room tonight are not religious. No matter. As citizens of the nation, we all have the responsibility to pursue the public good as well as our individual fortunes. We have the responsibility to make sure the state is doing right by its citizens, particularly the poor and powerless, by implementing those rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
We need to challenge our leaders, and each other, to be accountable. To do less would be unfaithful to the legacy left to us by the founders of our nation. To that end we at TCU have attempted "to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community." We hope you will see your education as a tool to fulfill that mission.
You people, either long-time members of Phi Beta Kappa or new inductees, are the best of the best. To whom much has been given, from whom much will be expected.
Ronald B. Flowers, John F. Weatherly Professor of Religion Emeritus, continues to write and teach in the area of church-state relationships and is on the Editorial Council of the Journal of Church and State. He was recipient of the TCU Honors Faculty Recognition Award (1976) and the Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching (1998). He was chair of the Religion Department 1990-1999.
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