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One Nation Under Gods

Monotheism may be humankind's most influential invention. Yet it has arguably done as much harm as good.
 
 
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On May 3, the President and his Solicitor General formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and overturn a lower court decision that denies schoolchildren the right to use the words "one nation under God" when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

The vast majority of Americans support the President's intercession. They believe the controversial phrase simply affirms that we are a religious people. That's not quite true. Several of the world's most popular religions -- Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism -- are godless religions.

Indeed, the Cambodian teachers' union recently demanded their government intervene to remove the word "God" from new high school social studies textbooks. Buddhism, the teachers argued, is the state religion according to the Cambodian Constitution. Buddhism does not endorse a supernatural being. Therefore the phrase in the textbook's first chapter encouraging students to "put the interests of God above all others" is unconstitutional.

And then, of course, there is the devilishly difficult question of whom exactly we are praying to when we pray to "God." During the Gulf War Saddam Hussein added the words, "Allah Akbar" (God is Great) to the Iraqi flag. Americans pledging allegiance to their flag and Iraqis pledging allegiance to their flag both did so in God's name.

This God thing is getting out of hand. Here's my solution: Describe ourselves as "one nation under Gods." That would allow Americans to continue to affirm our religious spirit while at the same time making clear that we do not believe that those who pray to other gods are inferior.

Monotheism may be humankind's most influential invention. Yet it has arguably done as much harm as good. Former President Jimmy Carter, an exceedingly religious man, recently described the slippery slope of monotheism to a college audience. First you believe in god. Then you believe that yours is the only true god. It is but a short step to believing that other religions worship a false god. And but one more short step to forcibly interceding to save their souls.

As sociologist Rodney Stark, author of "One True God" has observed, "[A] great deal of history...has been made on behalf of One True God."

Before we had monotheism, we had polytheism. By all accounts, paganism was tolerant of all religions. When ancient Rome was ruled by pagans one could worship Jupiter or Jesus or a multitude of other gods without interference. Stark finds surprisingly little effort to persecute Christians. Origen, a church leader writing in the third century, observed that those who died for their faith were few and easily numbered.

In his monumental book, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Edward Gibbon describes the Roman attitude toward religion at the height of the Empire's prosperity. The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus tolerance produced not only mutual indulgence but even religious accord.

When Rome adopted Christianity as a state religion the era of religious tolerance ended.

Paganism was banished from public life. In April 356 Constantius II issued an edict that sanctioned death for persons convicted of worshipping false idols. The learned pagan aristocrat Symmachus pled for tolerance. "Since I am born free, allow me to enjoy my domestic institutions." Saint Ambrose, archbishop of Milan responded that Christianity alone was the doctrine of truth. Symmachus was forced into exile.

The tenets of the Ten Commandments guide all major monotheist religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam. The very first Commandment declares, "Thou shalt worship no God but me." To which God somewhat ominously adds, "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God."

A jealous God indeed. Twelve days after the World Trade Center tragedy New York City held an ecumenical prayer service at Yankee Stadium. Eighteen pastors brought charges against Reverend David H. Benke for participatiing. He was suspended as President of the Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a position equivalent to a bishop for the New York metropolitan area. His offense? He broke the first commandment by worshiping together with "pagans." In his complaint, Reverend Joel Baseley, pastor of the Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Dearborn, Michigan wrote, "Instead of keeping God's name sacred and separate from every other name, it was made common as it was dragged to the level of Allah."

In his recently published book, "The Name," Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the legendary evangelist Billy Graham insists, "The God of Islam is not the God of the Christian faith. ...the two are different as lightness and darkness." Does the President believe this? We don't know. We do know that George Bush wakes up every day at 5:30am to read the Bible. We do know, according to the BBC, that employees who do not attend White House daily prayer breakfasts can be reprimanded. We do know that Franklin Graham gave the invocation at the President's Inaugural. And that, after a storm of criticism for Graham's remarks about Islam, the President invited him to host an important prayer service at the Pentagon.

The one true god arrogance sometimes gets downright bizarre. For the past decade, the evangelical Christian Reverend William Keller has stood on the steps of Muncie Indiana's City Hall on National Prayer Day, the first Thursday in May, to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. This year a Unitarian minister wanted to offer an ecumenical "meditation on leadership." A Jewish rabbinical fellow wanted to speak as well. Keller turned them down. "I don't believe in other gods," he announced.

Even more disconcerting, this city of 70,000 responded to the ensuing controversy by allowing Reverend Keller to speak alone at noon. A second service was held on the steps of City Hall at 5pm. By one estimate one third of the city's residents supported Keller.

Christian religions, of course, do not have a monopoly on condemning false gods. Islam also follows the Ten Commandments, paying special attention to the provision against making "graven images."

In February 2001 the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar condemned two 1,600-year-old statues of Buddha as "idolatrous" and "gods of the infidels." The statues were destroyed. The Afghan Taliban, a weekly newspaper editorialized, "There is no doubt that if the verses of the holy Koran and the Ahadiths sayings of Prophet Muhammad are studied carefully, it will be found that polytheism, the objects of false worship and manifestations of ignorance have been condemned more than anything else."

After describing the religious persecutions of the early centuries of the first millennium, Rodney Stark observes, "Only much later -- and only after much horror and terror -- did the 'religious pluralism' and 'religious competition' of distant antiquity reemerge in the surprising setting of the New World, where the very notion of an established church had been rejected by the Founding Fathers. Today, America has embraced an attitude of tolerance -- religious civility."

We can demonstrate our continuing commitment to religious civility by adding an S to the word "God" in our Pledge of Allegiance and on our currency and other state symbols.

It'll take a while to get used to the idea that we should respect other people's religions as much as our own. The change will come gradually. I was heartened by recently reading a possible harbinger of things to come in, of all places, the sports pages of the New York Times.

In February Regina Jacobs became the first woman to break four minutes in the indoor 1500 meters. "I knew it was possible, but you never know," said Jacobs. "You have to set it up and hope that the running gods are smiling on you."

You go girl.

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.