Peter Berger: General’s words emphatically wrong, profoundly dangerous

“Poor Elijah’s Almanack” is written by Peter Berger of Mount Holly, who taught English and history for 30 years.

Retired general Michael Flynn was Donald Trump’s national security adviser for 23 days. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian officials. Trump pardoned Flynn. 

Flynn urged Trump to deploy troops to conduct a “national revote” and “rerun” the election in states Trump lost. Flynn stated publicly that a Myanmar-style coup “should happen” here.

Now Flynn has declared that to be “one nation under God,” the United States must have “one religion under God.” In addition to proclaiming, “We have to have one religion,” Flynn condemned Steven Bannon’s indictment for ignoring a subpoena as an “unbelievable” “crucifixion of our First Amendment.” 

What’s actually unbelievable is that a retired lieutenant general could propose establishing a national religion and rant about the First Amendment but ignore the first clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits establishing a national religion.

Jefferson and Madison endorsed this “wall of separation between Church and State” as a safeguard against the religious “strife” that had “soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” Jefferson described religion as “solely between man and his God.” Madison warned that “coalitions” between government and religion are dangerous and tend to corrupt both.

Twenty years ago, Christian activists were pressing for schools to teach “intelligent design,” an alternative to evolution. The Supreme Court had ruled teaching biblical creationism in public schools unconstitutional because it “significantly entangled” the government in promoting and funding a “religious purpose.” Intelligent design implies the existence of a Creator without actually mentioning God, but a federal judge found that the central purpose of intelligent design advocates remained to “promote religion” and specific Christian views, and issued a similar ruling against teaching it.

Darwin isn’t a secular rebuttal to the first verse of Genesis. That’s why his book is titled “On the Origin of Species,” not the origin of the origin. Evolution doesn’t disprove the existence of God.

At the same time, while worshippers can reject Darwin in their hearts and pews, Darwinism can’t be legally suppressed as heresy. Part of the First Amendment’s point is that religious heresy isn’t a chargeable offense in the United States. 

The only heresy in a public school science class is bad science. And most scientists, not just most atheist scientists, endorse Darwin’s conclusions. His theory may conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis, but that doesn’t make it bad science. It doesn’t even necessarily make it bad religion.

Evolution doesn’t deal with the source of the primordial soup, the cause of the big bang, or the breath of God. Neither should science classes. They also shouldn’t teach Bishop Ussher’s 17th-century creationist calculation that the universe is 6,024 years old — not because he was a bishop, but because it’s bad science.

Public schools are an instrument of government. Requiring schools to alter what they teach or do to satisfy any group’s religious convictions is constitutionally wrong. No religion deserves equal school time for its doctrines because no religion is entitled to any time. Evolution should be taught in terms of what it explains. Parents and churches, not schools, should deal with what it doesn’t explain.

Across the divide, secular activists argue that all references to God should be purged from government discourse and documents. Courts, however, have rejected challenges to the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance’s “under God” on the grounds that the pledge’s primary purpose is patriotic, not religious. Court decisions have also noted that reciting the pledge in school has been voluntary since 1943. “Under God” wasn’t added until 1954.

Courts have similarly found the religious character of “In God We Trust” isn’t significant or intrusive enough to render our national motto unconstitutional.

We can’t edit the Declaration of Independence. That’s where our revolution rests on “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the “Creator” endows us with rights, and the founders appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world.”

We’d also need to gut Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which invokes the purposes of “the Almighty,” the “providence of God,” and the “judgments of the Lord.” We’d need to strike his sublime conclusion: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…”

The Supreme Court’s 1962 ban prohibiting classroom prayer still provokes heated debate, but it reflects that key distinction between government-sponsored activities whose primary, significant, entangling purpose is to promote religious beliefs or practices, and activities where religion is incidental or a matter of historical record. Prayer is an explicitly and entirely religious exercise. That’s why the court excluded classroom prayer.

Our founders weren’t antagonistic toward religion. Washington viewed it as “indispensable.” Jefferson lamented his contemporaries’ religious ignorance as a dangerous “chasm.” But they agreed it was even more dangerous to license public officials to “dictate modes or principles of religious instruction.”

My assurance of religious freedom rests on my commitment to religious freedom for everybody else. If I allow you to lose yours, losing mine isn’t far behind.

Religious freedom isn’t a matter of censoring occasional references to God. At the other extreme, it can’t be used to justify proselytizing under government auspices. Religious liberty is about worshipping freely without fear that we’ll lose our rights, our homes, or our lives because of what we believe. The more we yield to fervor and cater to hypersensitivity, the more we’ll degrade the protection and endanger the rights the First Amendment was framed to guarantee.

Madison conceded it isn’t always easy “to trace the line of separation” between religion and government. Excessive zeal at either extreme just inflames the other. Our rights were never meant to be understood or enjoyed in the absence of common sense and tolerant restraint.

The First Amendment grants two protections that touch religion. One guarantees my right to freely exercise my conscientious religious beliefs. The other prohibits the government from designating an established national religion.

On these two points, the First Amendment is emphatically clear, which means Flynn is emphatically wrong, and his words profoundly dangerous.

Words become deeds. A general strikes the first clause of the First Amendment. School board members propose burning books. Talk of secession and civil war passes American lips.

We are inches away from what we say.


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