Religion in America.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This was the text of the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, enacted in 1791. This was one of the most remarkable events in history. All over the world at that time, religion served as the sole source of morality and was taken to be the only legitimate foundation for a civilized society. In such circumstances, for a country to codify the above principle as a constitutional backbone was unbelievable, to say the least.
The founding fathers came from different shades of the religious spectrum. There were non-religious people (Jefferson) as well as moderately pious (Washington, Adams, Hamilton and Madison). But one thing they all agreed on was the essential requirement of a republic: irreligiosity of the state.
This wisdom of two centuries ago is now in short supply. At least, that is the impression one gets from the current politics of the US. There was always a thought, usually on the fringes, in the American society which did not accept that a rigorous foundation of a civilized society can be nonreligious. This thought appears to be becoming mainstream. It reached a high in the current administration.
These trends are analyzed in this article of Steven Pinker. The specific subject of the article is a report released by the President's Council on Bioethics. This council was "charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called 'therapeutic cloning' that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs". The council's 555-page report introduced a narrow religious angle into these issues and elevated a vaguely defined concept of "human dignity" as a litmus test for deciding on them. Needless to say, many of the conclusions fit the agenda of the religious wing of the Republican party. The article reveals the close ties between Bush administration and the intellectuals behind the report.
This is, of course, one of many disquieting aspects of George Bush's presidency. There are some welcome indications that the sway of the religious right on GOP is on the decline. However, the question remains:
How did the United States, the world's scientific powerhouse, reach a point at which it grapples with the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century biomedicine using Bible stories, Catholic doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegory?