Opinion Columns & Blogs

John M. House: Are we better off now than in the past?

The First Amendment to our Constitution may very well be our most important guarantee of freedom. Prohibiting Congress from making a law that respects “an establishment of religion” as well as providing for the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and “redress of grievances” provides quite a combination of freedoms. To me the foundation of American core values is incorporated in this first amendment.

Yet I wonder sometimes if in trying to provide these freedoms for everyone our government has not then placed itself in the position of punishing the very citizens it should be protecting. I know the balance is an important one, but could it be that the attempt to achieve some sort of balance has in actuality hurt the nation in the long run?

I agree that the government should not impose any religious beliefs on any person. I think the First Amendment makes this clear. However, I don’t think it was intended to remove all acknowledgement of a Supreme Being from the lexicon or activities of governmental action. Courts may have interpreted the words in that manner because of a belief that the Constitution is a living document, but do the words really go that far? After all, we still have military chaplains and military chapels. Prayers have opened many government activities over the years. However, we do not allow prayer in schools as done when I was a child. An Army regulation forbids a military color guard at a religious service. Busing basic trainees off post to social events sponsored by churches is no longer allowed since the ACLU threatened a lawsuit. Recently a Veterans Affairs official in Texas refused to allow a reference to God to be made by volunteers acting for the national cemetery when speaking with families of deceased service members.

Have we really made the country a better place to live by trying to divorce ourselves from religion and religious activities?

I know the argument exists that by allowing a mixing of government activities and religion there is a risk of an appearance of an endorsement of a particular religion. But then I look around at society today and ask: Are we really better off as a group by this level of separation? Are we really a better people because the government will not help churches to host soldiers when those soldiers are a long way from home? Are we better off as a nation because the government does not support churches when they want to combine a religious and patriotic event?

By restricting such activities, I’m sure it’s just a little clearer that as a nation we aren’t favoring any specific religious group. Nonetheless, I can’t help but ponder whether in the end such policies help our country.

None of these restrictions is due to government organizations in the local area. Whether right or wrong, best or not best, such issues are decided in Washington through legislative actions as executed by the executive branch and judged constitutional by the court system. These limitations have been growing for many years, so none of this started yesterday.

Yet when I look around I wonder whether we have strayed from the values that made our nation the envy of the world and the strongest power for good the planet has seen. I’m not arguing that we’ve always made the right decision, but no other nation has done the good that we’ve done. Will we always be able to be this example? Or has our shift away from some of the values that I know were around when I was a child actually set up conditions to limit our progress as a people and a nation state in the future?

I hope I’m worrying about nothing. Maybe enough people who don’t believe in religious activities will be so motivated by a desire to serve that they will fill the ranks of charitable organizations, the military, law enforcement, and all of the other social and security support functions necessary to improve society and help others. I sure hope that happens and soon.