By Luiz Coelho
It took several hours and the hardwork of many skilled professionals to install the huge Vermont-granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. The sculpture, which was donated by benefactors, weighed more than five thousand pounds, and the process of installing the monument was so arduous and impressive that it was filmed by professional cameramen. However, despite the difficulties, Chief Justice Roy Stewart Moore was proud to announce to the media on the morning of August 1, 2001, the successful installation of the monument.
This story might sound like an ordinary episode in the history of public administration in the United States. It was not, though. The monument also portrayed, alongside the Judeo-Christian foundations of moral living, quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ National Anthem, and various sayings of the Founding Fathers. Many were in favor of the creation of the monument; however, many were also opposed to its installation in the Supreme Court rotunda, because they felt it overstepped the bounds of separation of Church and State. Several organizations filed suit in the United States District Court, asking for the removal of such a monument. Moore, who was already known for trying to implement prayer before trials and for taking his own portable Ten Commandments tablets to court, used the powers of his Office to resist the removal of the sculpture as long as he could. However, eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court intervened, unanimously overruled Moore, and ordered the removal of the monument. In the end, both the monument and Judge Moore were removed from the building.
Moore’s story is not an isolated case. In several other instances of American public life, the Courts have removed religious symbols, such as crosses, crèches, and ten commandment tablets, from the public square in the last fifty years at least. Prayers in such environments are also heard less frequently. It can be said that in the United States, religion has been playing a less and less important role in public affairs altogether, even though conservative Christians are still seen in prominent circles both in society and the government.
Some see this trend as a direct attack against “traditional American values”, and – at least their perception of – the society that the forefathers of the United States worked to create. They often cite how peaceful and prosperous life was in the past, when “the Christian God” had a place of public honor among Americans. Many would argue, also, that freedom of religion has always been guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, and that religious minorities have always had the right to build houses of worship. Are these views and arguments valid? Was religious freedom so evident in the past? Or, was it plainly masqueraded by a certain majority who belonged to one kind of faith only, and who created a set of structures to secure it? How worse, or better, are we now?
Like many people of faith, I dearly welcome the advent of real religious freedom, especially because it frees us to deal with symbols related to the religious life. It might be interesting, then, to see some examples of how public expressions of religion actually have changed in the last fifty years, and if they really helped us achieve more tolerance and full separation between church and state.
It would be inconceivable nowadays to demand anyone to hold to a particular religious viewpoint or to express a belief in God in order to hold a public office. Yet, fifty years ago, it was possible for public organizations to have prerequisites that would limit access to such jobs to people of faith only. For example, in the early sixties, Roy Torcaso was denied his appointment as a Notary Public in Maryland because he refused to declare a belief in God. Article 37 of Maryland’s Declaration of Rights stated that a declaration of belief in the existence of God was necessary for any office, profit or trust in that state. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1961, and the Justices unanimously found Maryland’s requirement a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. That decision established a legal precedent which created a paradigm shift in the role of faith in the public square. From then on, an acknowledgement of a given religious belief ceased to be a prerequisite for public jobs in every part of the country.
Another example of changing attitudes toward the place of religion in the public square during the last fifty years can be seen in the public schools. The elderly can still recall that it was not uncommon to say prayers, sing religious hymns or even have obligatory religious services in public schools. A series of court rulings, however, has changed the possibility of such practices today. These rulings were the results of complaints by citizens, such as a group of parents of students in New Hyde Park, New York, who complained in 1966 that a public prayer to “Almighty God” was against their beliefs. The case, which became known as Engel v. Vitale, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that government-directed prayers in public schools are a violation of the Establishment cause. Since that ruling, it has become more and more difficult to hear prayers said in public schools, and subsequent attempts to allow them have been defeated in court. Prayers in educational institutions are confined nowadays, to chaplaincies, religious clubs or associations of common-minded people. But, in no case may a person be obliged to participate in public prayers in school.
Such lawsuits and governmental measures have not appeared out of nowhere. They reflect, in fact, a very noticeable paradigm shift on the American religious scene. When the British allowed European settlers to establish colonies in these lands, most of them belonged to Christian religious groups, often Protestant denominations, although some Jewish settlers found a home here as well. With an increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this profile changed to include more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Judeo-Christian religious ideology was still the norm, however, and it is reasonable to say that fifty years ago the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians, or believers in God. This pattern started to change when immigration from non-Christian countries began to increase.
In their American Religious Identification Survey, researchers at the City University of New York discovered that from 1990 to 2001, the number of people in the United States ,who have a religion other than Christianity increased from 5.8 million to 8.7 million. Such a number, albeit still small, reflects a sizeable minority, which practically did not exist years ago.
Much more significant than the increase in non-Christians is the increase of people who identify as atheist and agnostic. Non-religious people were usually a very small and intellectual minority in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, they compose about fourteen percent of the American population, as pointed out in the aforementioned study, after having more than doubled in size from fourteen million people to practically thirty million people between 1990 and 2001. Together with non-Christians, they compose practically twenty percent of the American population – a percentage that is growing, according to the study.
The gradual secularization of the public square is merely a response to a more religiously diverse society. It is now impossible to ignore non-Christians and those who profess no faith at all. The removal of religious symbols, sometimes under serious protest, is the most neutral answer to a truly pluralistic society, rooted in the freedom of religion articulated in the United States Constitution and several other historical documents of this country.
It has to be said, though, that not only has the percentage of those who identify with a specific religion changed, but the profile of the typical religious American has also changed. In The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict, Robert Ellwood argues that religious traditions in the 1950s were largely intensified by socio-political conditions. He believes that religious organizations used to provide a very important framework upon which families built their lives in the postwar period. Routine religion was part of what was perceived as normalcy, and after all the chaos of previous decades, people needed normalcy. Religion was also seen as the amalgama of American families – especially at a time many families were marked by the loss of beloved relatives. Finally, being religious was a sign of anti-communism; and, the cold war, with all of its implications, was often portrayed as a kind of Armageddon in many households. Back then, religion was completely intertwined with the way society was organized.
However, throughout the last fifty years, a series of movements in American society, such as the sexual revolution, women empowerment, the end of the cold war and fast communications, have drastically changed what Americans might call “family”. What is perceived as a familial arrangement in today’s society does not always correspond to the vision our grandparents shared. There are manifold types of families in our times and a direct genetic link between relatives does not exist in all of them. Families now include both heterosexual and homosexual partners, stepchildren, adopted children, remarried spouses, half-siblings, close friends and a myriad of other groups of people which would take pages to define. Religion, under this new context, is not necessaily the glue that holds families together. Common Sunday after-church luncheons have given way to cell phone calls or even e-mails. And with the rise of the so-called “religious right” in the government, the merger between religion and politics à la the cold war is not viewed favorably in more liberal circles.
Such conclusions are often misinterpreted as the final defeat of religion in the United States. Yet, it can be said that religious freedom was probably never more celebrated and protected in U. S. History as it is in our contemporary, pluralistic society today. The largely-Christian/largely-familial religious environment of the fifties posed a much greater threat to freedom of faith. People were often forced, by social conventions, to follow the same religion (and in many cases, the same denomination) as their parents and grandparents. Marriages often took place within such religious circles, regardles of the true beliefs of the participants. The scenario, nowadays, is markedly different. The latest survey by the Pew Forum of Religious and Public Life reveals an astonishing piece of information: nearly half of American adults leave the faith tradition of their upbringing, either to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether. Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches have lost members to newer Christian groups. Those who lack faith, are increasingly comfortable in leaving religious organizations they once belonged to for primarily social reasons. Yet once people find a religion that fulfills their needs, they are moe likely to adhere to it faithfully, and to try to engage in all the possibilities that it provides. Religion is to our generation, therefore, is much more a matter of personal choice than it was fifty years ago.
When the religious spectrum was monolithic, public manifestations of the majority faith were not bothersome to most people. Now, in a much more varied religious climate, it seems logical not to encourage any particular brand of faith in a public space. Thus, the much-criticized secularization of public places is actually an important step toward protecting religious freedom, and creating a more diverse and equaitalbe society. It helps reinforce the values enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and respects people’s rights to choose whether to have a faith or be part of a religious institution. It also protects newer churches and religious groups from state-sponsored propaganda of older ones. And, as long as religions have the right to worship in their houses of prayer and act according to their beliefs, their rights are protected. The ongoing changes are definitely for the common good.
Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”