Church and State Separation
The issue of church and state separation marks one of the most important divisions in American political life. It has an impact on short term policy, but also carries profound implications for the nature and destiny of the country. One side of the debate sees the US as a society of people who freely choose to follow whatever religion they want, or lack thereof, and should be protected by an impartial state. The other views the country as not just having a Judeo-Christian heritage, but actually occupying a unique spiritual place in the world, and enjoying a special relationship with God not unlike that enjoyed by the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.
Obviously, these two worldviews are incompatible and irreconcilable. Although they can persist for a time without coming into direct conflict, ultimately only one can triumph. For most of American history, including the founding of the colonies, what may be called the "Providential" narrative has enjoyed ascendancy and legitimacy. However, in recent decades, the secular narrative has been encroaching and has made significant headway.
The secularization of the US has occurred through two primary paths. First, there is the legal path, in which federal, state and local laws increasingly accommodate a society with a greater diversity of moral values and religious experience. Seven states now recognize homosexual marriage or civil unions in some way, with more debating similar legislation--an unthinkable phenomenon in earlier times speaking to a moral sensibility fantastically foreign to previous generations of Americans.
The landmark Roe v Wade case of 1973, which legalized abortion across the country, is another major piece of the secularization pie, of which conservative Christians are acutely aware. The teaching of evolution has withered countless legal attacks from religiously-motivated creationists, while going on the legal offensive itself, and come out stronger every time. All of these kinds of legal changes speak to the progress that a secular mentality has made in the US.
Second, there is the cultural path, in which American social values have loosened and become more tolerant. Even many staunchly conservative people today would have been considered "liberals" in previous eras.
Insofar as the modern American Christian or conservative--who may very well accept the providential narrative--believes that young women should be allowed to wear miniskirts in public, believes that pornography should not be made illegal, that homosexual sex should not be punishable by law, or that the entire city of Las Vegas should exist, that staunch conservative is a staunch liberal by the standards of early 20th century (or earlier) America.
Despite all of this secular progress, the US remains a country where many people buy into the providential narrative. One wonders if the US retains its special "chosen" status when it accepts homosexuality, sex and violence in the media, or an increasingly distant relationship between church and state. Eventually, the providential narrative must wither and die out if the US continues on its historical trajectory of granting more freedom, more recognition, greater tolerance and greater neutrality (and therefore secularism) in the public sphere.
America today is a basically secular society composed of basically secular people, who nonetheless largely convince themselves they follow traditional Christian values. When Americans begin to realize that they really are secular, except in name, and recognize that their secular status has not had a negative social outcome, but rather has enhanced their society and made it more free and more creative and more prosperous, the final piece of the secular puzzle will be in place. Americans, by embracing and affirming secularism instead of pointlessly fighting it, will then realize significant cultural and economic prosperity.
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