For my write-up today on Circle of Life: Traditional Teachings of Native American Elders, I'll use as my starting-point something that James David Audlin says on page 134:
the chiefs of the Hodenasaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) responded to the
'Founding Fathers'' request for advice, they said the newcomers' idea of
freedom of religion was just fine but the idea of separation of church
and state would only lead to difficulty. For the original peoples, no
such separation is possible. The individual or nation is always at the
center of all things and the Creator; this attitude helps these people
to see all things as living, sacred and filled with the presence of G-d,
and all Creation as numinous."
I enjoyed Audlin's discussion of
how certain Native American tribes view the Creator: that the Creator is
a parent of creation and communicates to people through visions,
dreams, and nature (i.e., we learn about God's omniscience from the
eagle, which soars the highest and sees the farthest, and we learn about
wisdom and devotion to family from the bear).
Can one believe that God is present in all of life, while still being committed to the separation of church from state?
I believe so, in a sense. Joseph did not try to cram the worship of
the Israelite God down the Egyptians' throats, but he still represented
God by ruling justly and wisely. God is not even mentioned in the Book
of Esther, and yet God still appears to be present. A pastor
once told me that the lesson of the absence of God's name from the Book
of Esther is that you don't have to explicitly mention God to represent
him, for you can represent God by being a loving person or a good
worker, and God can be at work, even when God's name is absent.
wouldn't it be better to mention God explicitly than to beat around the
bush? When God is not explicitly mentioned and people are simply doing
good deeds, why would anyone's mind turn to God? It's like people's
knowledge of God is incomplete: they see good deeds, but they are not
told about the God who is the author of those good deeds and exemplifies
them. They are looking at God through a veil. Consequently, I
can sympathize somewhat with the Native Americans whom Audlin
discusses: Why not just cut to the chase and allow the authorities to
explicitly honor God, without feeling a need to keep religion separate
from official society?
That may work in a Native American
tribe, where there is probably consensus about religion (or such is my
impression). In the early days of America, however, that was not the
case, at least not as much. Granted, most white Americans were
Christians, but there were different denominations, and there were
certain Founding Fathers who would most likely fail the tests of
Christian orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The roots of white America
were in Europe, which had experienced a number of bloody religious wars,
and there emerged a belief that, for the peace of society and out of
respect for people's consciences, the government should be neutral about
religion, and people should be free to practice whatever religion they
wish. Was the United States consistent on this? Not really. There was
still a national (and sometimes even official) respect for the
Christian religion, and Thomas Jefferson supported state money going to
missionaries to the Native Americans. The religious right is
not always pulling its narrative out of the clear blue sky! But there
was still some fear in the early days of the United States that the
government, by embracing a religion, would seek to shove that religion
down people's throats and thereby violate people's consciences.
That's why James Madison opposed Congress having a chaplain, and it may
have been why John Quincy Adams swore on a law-book rather than the
In a society that has different religions and belief-systems, perhaps separation of church and state is the way to go.
But that does not bracket God from the government, for God still
exists, as do God's principles of love, compassion, justice, mercy, and
wisdom. When it comes to the state and state-funded entities, God in
the United States may need to be represented anonymously: leaders can
stand for God's principles, and they as individuals can pray to God for
his blessing and guidance of America, but they cannot try to impose
Christianity on people.
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