TOPICS > Politics

Essay: Secular Nation

July 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Even before the attacks of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden had taunted America, branding us a nation of “crusaders and Jews.” Bin Laden’s hectoring was rhetorical, intended to incite Muslims to jihad, but he also intended to mock the great experiment of American civilization: How people of different religions, or no religion, can live together within a secular discretion.

( Praying in Arabic )

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I will tell you frankly: I am a religious man and as much as anyone, I am moved by, approving of, even envious at the sight of Muslims at prayer, the crowd praying as one in the great public square. That which is communal in religion yearns for public expression.

PRIEST: We ask this through Christ, our lord.

PEOPLE: Amen.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I have known the pleasure of a community of faith. In California, in Sacramento, a sacred name on the state capitol, I attended Catholic schools until I left home for college. The people I knew best were Catholic. It was a small world that nevertheless instilled a sense of the universal. But I have lived my entire life within a democracy and according to the principle of the absolute separation of church from state.

I’ve grown to cherish and to depend upon the secular institutions of America and the protections they offer, the libraries, the courts, the civic assemblies. What Osama bin Laden did was to frame America religiously. Imagine our incredulity. America had always presented itself among other nations as secular.

Now, perhaps, it is useful, perhaps even necessary that we try to see ourselves through our adversaries’ eyes: A Christian nation supporting a Jewish state occupying a Muslim country. As a nation, we have never fought a religious war. We have fought kings and dictators and political ideologies, and we fought over land. Today, we are challenged by antagonists who pit us in theological opposition to themselves.

After Sept. 11, President Bush visited with Muslim clerics. Immediately, the secular impulse, the inclusive impulse, the refutation of bin Laden’s taunt: Americans are Muslims, as well. But after Sept. 11, the president began to couch the war against terrorism in theological terms as a battle between “the forces of good” and “the forces of evil.” And he spoke of American policy as proximate to the will of “the Almighty.”

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: When John Kennedy ran for president, it was necessary for him to reassure an audience of protestant ministers– and, thus, the nation– that he would not be controlled by the Vatican.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. For no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act. And no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Four decades later, the most dynamic political force in America is the Protestant right, which seeks to lessen the gap between the political assembly and the pulpit. As much as any Muslim cleric, the Reverend Jerry Falwell and the Reverend Pat Robertson are political leaders and religious leaders. And now, one of the most important political alliances in America unites right-wing Protestants and orthodox Jews.

For theological reasons, both support the state of Israel. Roman Catholic bishops clearly are galvanized by the efficacy of the protestant right. Some American bishops are prepared to use the sacraments as political tools against Catholic politicians who take public positions that are at variance with church teaching.

America is not the country Osama bin Laden imagines, which makes it all the more shocking that some Americans are challenging the premise of a secular state. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, they are describing America in religious terms, ironically, as bin Laden did, rather than the America Thomas Jefferson imagined: The secular nation my grammar school civics teacher, a Catholic nun, taught me to honor and love.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.