If you have never heard of Dennis Prager then I envy you. The man is something of a self-proclaimed prophet of the American national religion he and other conservative thinkers have been trying to create for decades. A religion that claims as its mean tenants that the nation has always been uniformly Judeo-Christian in its values, that popular religion determines public destiny and policy, and that the founders had a vision of a religiously inspired Republic. Right. He is the type of person who will tell you with a straight face that the deist founders of the American Republic would approve of the increasing Judeo-Christianizing if the nation they helped to create. This is a man who has said without any hint of irony that “more harm was done in the 20th century by faceless bureaucrats than tyrant dictators”. He is also well known for attacking Congressman Keith Ellison for DARING to take his oath of office on a Qu’ran (while also neglecting the fact that not all of the US Presidents even used ANY book to swear on at all). By doing this Ellison was affirming and celebrating all the beliefs and tenants of the American founding ideology that Prager so revered, but this fact seemed to not to register in the eminent American political scholar.
Advocating a kind of religious test by cultural fiat Prager said of the matter in a 2006 article:
“Forgive me, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison’s favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress (emphasis is my own)”.
While denouncing the scourges of “multi-culturalism”, “secularism”, and one may suppose “personal preference-ism” Prager seemed to forget that the constitution he reveres as something akin to a sacred document has something to say about religious qualification for office. Namely, it says that there will be none, and believe me when I say that there is no caveat set aside just in case most Americans really really want one. Then again there may be some deep nuances and hidden meaning to the phrase “no religious test shall ever be required” that is apparent only to those gifted with the special “real American” decoder ring that Mr. Prager seems to think he possesses.
Prager implies that at some hallowed point in the American past we the people came to together and decided that the Bible was the founding book of the American Republican experiment, and that those who do not believe what the majority believe are violating some unwritten rule against celebrating ones’ own beliefs as opposed to the nations beliefs. This is a strange and idiosyncratic view of a nation that was in fact founded by religious extremists fleeing a government that had tried to establish the supposed beliefs of the majority as the basis for the secular government. Prager loves to celebrate the fact that America is a “melting pot” and that people from all over the world have come to make up the fabric of this country. What he seems to want everyone to forget however is that a melting pot does not take all the ingredients and reform them into the original elements of the cultural “stew”. In fact with every new person and culture added America became more and more like the vision of the future envisioned by the founders, and less like the reality of world in which these white, privileged, land and slave owning men lived.
Prager makes the hilarious mistake of focusing on the only aspect of the founding times that was NOT homogenous and unified: the religion of the various colonists. Far from being united in some form of Christian brotherhood, the colonies and their inhabitants saw their denominations as very different, and even in some cases mutually exclusive. If you went to a Catholic Church in colonial Baltimore and asked the preacher to read from the King James Bible, being laughed out of the building would be the least of your concerns. Or ask a Quaker politician to take his oath of office on a Catholic bible. I can assure you he would not claim that this was HIS holy book. At the time of the signing of the Declaration, up until the ratification of the Constitution, religious harmony was the last thing you would find in the United States. In fact the nation had never really been more heterogeneous in the religious make-up of its people and leaders: the continental congress was made up of Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, deists and perhaps even atheists. The idea that these people, the people who still may have had relatives or forebears who had memories of religious persecution in the “old country” would actively advocate for a uniform American theology is laughable.
What is not quite so funny is the fact that Prager not only wants you to believe that this is exactly what the founders advocated, but that to say otherwise is actually an affront to the American system itself. Prager and his ilk often cite the example of George Washington using a Bible when he took his oath of office as a reason for the continued need for religion in secular government matters. What is often neglected is that fact that far from being a cultural consensus, Washington did this after consulting with friends and organizers of the inauguration and the decision even surprised some of his fellow government officials with this spontaneous and very individual demonstration of religious conviction. Nowhere in the constitution or in any subsequent laws is there any requirement that an elected representative must take his oath on anything at all let alone a Bible.
Perhaps Prager also believes that every elected office holder must therefore take the oath on the exact kind of Bible used by Washington? If that were the case then everyone would have to use a 18th century illustrated Bible from a Masonic Lodge. So, which is it: has America as a whole decided that its politicians must use a bible to swear their oath, or is it a matter of tradition celebrating the more individualistic decision of Washington and his handlers? Prager and his fellow true believers cannot seem to decide which story to follow. The funny thing is, Prager seems confused about a lot of things relating to his argument. On a 2001 episode of Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” Prager says that he does not share the cultural values of secularism, yet a few seconds later says “secularism is good for government”. For a man who believes that cultural tradition and consensus should drive how our government and representatives should operate and be sanctified this is a strange position to take. Which is it: is secularism a bad cultural influence that should be shunned in favor of shared Judeo-Christian values, or is it as the founding fathers and founding governmental documents see it that “secularism is good for government?” How can he have it both ways? He can’t so his position depends on the sort of relativism that he derides and condemns in other political and cultural areas of thought and practice.
The political philosophy that Prager and his ilk represent often seems to conflate the highly varied and shifting personal views of a handful of founding thinkers with their concrete and proscribed views on government and policy. Most often these people quote Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Franklin, all of whom had incredibly nuanced and sometime contradictory views on the nature of religion in personal and public life, but who in the end did their best to put their own opinions aside in order to found a secular government and nation based on “We the people” and not on “We who have be created in the image of God”. With his belief that the founders were close to prescient and omniscient in their ability to create governmental systems and ideas Prager must certainly recognize that these men would surely have not neglected to mention the creator and his creed in the document. This was of course the document that established the very order that he praises as so perfect and powerful.
Why would a group of religiously inspired men keep God out of the founding document of the nation that helped to create? Perhaps because these men saw what Prager fails to see: whatever the personal beliefs and motivations of the individuals who made up the body that helped to create the nation, that nation must be kept as a neutral and secular system that has the best opportunity to represent the people of a society that was constantly shifting and changing in regards to its beliefs and creeds. It was the very recognition OF the “multi-cultural” nature of the society that led the founders to use language that both respected those differences (the abolition of religious tests, the first amendment, the lack of God in the constitution) while at the same time attempting to unify the society under a set of secular values (the bill of rights, the use of “We The People”, the republican nature of government). Prager, and those who support his point of view and echo it, seem to be completely in denial about the very nature of what a secular Republic actually consists of! This is not surprising when we remember that the beliefs and ideas of Prager and his ilk represent just the type of universal religious persecution and philosophical myopia that the founders meant to avoid and combat with their flawed, but in many ways brilliant, document.