Of all the triumphs of the Founding Fathers, the separation of church and state stands alone at the top. It enabled God-fearing men and women to worship -- or not worship -- as they please, and to let their impulses of conscience guide their votes.
The separation of church and state was specifically written into the First Amendment to protect the new nation from establishing a state church or investing a leader with divinity. Religious influences were left to flourish in our politics, but Americans would always be skeptical of established religion. Thomas Jefferson was attacked as an atheist, but John F. Kennedy was required by public opinion to assure Americans that his Catholic faith would not dictate how he would govern. He would take no orders from the pope.
Modernity began with the Enlightenment when science and reason pushed God from the center of the city, epitomized centuries later by Nietzsche's famous declaration that "God is dead." But religious faith remains at the center of culture and society, continuing to influence how we think about politics. Candidates for president cite the influence of religion on their lives, citing faith as a source of inspiration. The Bible is evoked with references we all understand, as both metaphor and truth.
Stylish and fashionable writers attempt to condescend to religious people, with titles such as "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" (by Christopher Hitchens) and "The God Delusion" (by Richard Dawkins), but propagandists for atheism, often sounding as if they're trying to persuade themselves, know they're up against a formidable foe, an enduring faith in God.
One of the most provocative books on religious belief in modern times is "The Secular Age," by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. He recognizes that the religious spirit as it was fused with politics in the 16th century no longer drives Western civilization, but observes that the "desire for eternity" still guides man away from Nietzsche's soullessness. So, too, the discipline bequeathed by religious faith, difficult as that is. Even St. Augustine prayed, "Lord, make me be chaste, but not yet."
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