Today is Sunday. First day of the week on most people’s calendars. For many in the United States it is a day to go to church in order to commune with their God, confess their sins, and see their fellow believers. It has been regarded in the Western world as a day of rest, with the interpretation of what that “rest” should entail changing over the years. In fact, much of what it means to be a Christian has changed in the past few centuries. And it is on the verge of changing again.
From the first days of Jamestown, there has been disagreements on the role of faith in American life and amount of influence that Christian dogma should have over non-ecclesiastic life. By 1789, the writers of the Constitution had seen a number of faiths pop up, and many adherents wanted to establish their own New Jerusalem on American soil. Fortunately, the founding fathers decided that they wanted to protect the right of the people to worship who they wanted the way they saw fit (or not worship if they so chose). It is no accident that the first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution mentions this right, even before the freedom of speech.
In the intervening 224 years, a tug of war has taken place between those who would see America become a theocracy (in a gross misinterpretation of John Winthrop’s “City on a hill” sermon from 1630) and those who believe that the nation should be welcome to all faiths (or those of no faith). There have been Great Awakenings and ebbs in faith. People have used the Bible to justify slavery, prohibition, and the subjugation of women. Even so, there have been battles to counter these movements of oppression; many of those who have served on the front lines for these fights for freedom have believed in the same God as those who were on the other side. It may be said that the abolitionists, “wets”, and feminists were “agents of Satan” in the eyes of the zealots of their age, but in our time we see that they fought on the side of justice and liberty.
This past week saw another moment where Christian fundamentalism was pushed back a bit by reason. In separate 5-4 decisions, the Supreme Court decided that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and that California’s infamous Proposition 8 should not stand. Of course the fundamentalists cried “foul”. They predicted that America was fading into an immoral cesspool. They predicted that God would bring His judgment on the nation. They signed pledges swearing that they would ignore the decision, and tried to block California courts from resuming the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And they have been unsuccessful so far. It should be noted, however, that quite a few Christians have spoken out in favor of marriage equality, both in churches (Unitarian Universalists and United Church of Christ) and through advocacy groups (Christians for Change, Standing on the Side of Love, Sojourners).
Even with this sea change in policy, there are those who will insist that America is a Christian nation (or at least their interpretation of it), and will point to the numerous Ten Commandments monuments on public property as “proof” of their convictions. However, it appears that those monuments (which incidentally were first erected as part of a publicity campaign for The Ten Commandments film in 1956) are about to have company.
This week, American Atheists erected a monument to atheism next to a Ten Commandments monument located in Starke, FL. There had been controversy over the TC monument because of its perceived endorsement of Christianity. A judge hearing a recent suit brought by American Atheists said that they should erect their own monument if they wanted their views represented. This is in fact what they did.
The monument is planned to be one of fifty that AA will erect in every state of the union, and spokespersons for the group have said they are encouraging people of other faiths to do the same, in order to demonstrate that Christians have no monopoly on public monuments. Will this lead to greater understanding among Christians, Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Jedi? It remains to be seen, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.