BLS 365: Divided We Stand
“As the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…”
Thus begins the eleventh article of a treaty between the United States and the Islamic Kingdom of Tripoli that was ratified by Congress in 1797. Proponents of a strong reading of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state take this as incontrovertible evidence that the American Republic was founded as a secular—and not Christian—nation. Others disagree, however, and dismiss the treaty as “diplomatic window dressing” and Jefferson’s metaphor as a misinterpretation of the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses. The debate continues to this day: Is America a Christian nation? Was it founded as such? What ideas (and fears) did the founding fathers have about the role of religion in government—and of government in religion? And more to the point: how much influence should religion have in our current discussions of public policy?
This course is an attempt to understand the relationship between religion and democracy in America. Several themes will occupy our thought: the place of religion in the founding of our republic; the notion of America as a secular state and what this means for the practice of religion; the phenomenon of religious pluralism that characterizes our present context; the idea of “privatizing” religion; the role of religion in public discourse; and lastly, the religious threat to politics and the political threat to religion.