Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard about the “separation of church and state” that is supposed to exist in our county, like buzzwords imprinted on my mind since elementary school. As a religious minority, I’ve always taken immense pride living in a country that respects all religious faiths and doesn’t press one religion on its citizens.
But on Inauguration Day, I watched President Obama place his hands on two Bibles and ask God to help him preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. He declared our freedom to be a gift from God. He said we must see each other and ourselves as equals as God sees us and that we must protect the planet that was commanded to our care by God.
Obama certainly isn’t the first president to seek and see God’s involvement in the country’s affairs. Abraham Lincoln considered the American Civil War as God’s punishment for America’s enslavement of millions. Harry Truman saw America’s fight against communism as a fight against “a tyranny led by a small group who have abandoned their faith in God,” and President Eisenhower believed that democracy “makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief.”
That’s the problem with buzzwords like “separation of church and state.” They imply a simplicity to issues that are anything but. They imply that we live in a world of black and white when we actually spend almost all of our lives in various grey areas.
On one hand, we are a religious nation. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that over 80 percent of Americans consider themselves religious and 73 percent consider themselves Christians. It’s only natural that our public life is going to reflect the values of such overwhelming majorities.
On the other hand, the number of people that don’t associate with an organized religion is growing rapidly, especially among younger Americans. The same Pew Research Center study showed that almost 20 percent of Americans consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or religiously unaffiliated, known collectively as “nones.”
The tricky part, the grey area if you will, is finding a balance that satisfies our predominantly religious population and the growing number of unaffiliated Americans, while also respecting the religious restrictions of the First Amendment.
For example, should we establish regular school-sponsored prayer in public schools? Wouldn’t exposing children to Christian values like fidelity, charity, and forgiveness through daily prayer in school help raise the best possible people and citizens?
I strongly believe that we need to be raising more morally conscious students, but I don’t think putting prayer into public schools is the answer. Our national moral crisis goes much deeper than a simple lack of piety, and it’s going to take more than giving kids the chance to pray in school to fix it.
There is nothing wrong with schools trying to raise the moral character of their students. Teachers, administrators, and coaches are in a unique position to act as moral role models for their students, and they should be encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity.
But when all kids – whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheistic, Agnostic, or simply have no clue – are required to attend school, it’s unfair to force them to either pray or be seen as outcasts by their classmates.
However, there’s no reason that students shouldn’t be encouraged to make faith a part of their school lives. My high school had large populations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and all three faiths had thriving student organizations that allowed their members to discuss their beliefs with their classmates. These types of organizations made it possible for religion to be a part of students’ school days without putting non-believing or non-practicing students in an awkward situation.
In an ideal world, these groups would do more than just bring students of the same faith together. They could open their doors to people of all faiths, believers and non-believers alike. Not only would this increase our knowledge and appreciation of each other and our differing beliefs, it would allow students to learn the valuable lessons that faith and religion have to offer.
The presence of God in President Obama’s inaugural address doesn’t bother me. If his faith in God spurs him to seek answers for our country’s problems, I’m all for it. The task we all must undertake is how to benefit from this natural presence of religion while at the same time safeguarding our legacy as a country founded on religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for all.