Q. In the current health insurance national debate, I am often taken aback in disbelief when I hear comments that obviously reflect attitudes of total nonchalance regarding the chronically ill, the aged and the unborn. Often, the discussion about treatments has more to do with expenditures of monies than about the dignity of each and every person. Isnt America about respecting life and the individual? How did so many people (apparently) appear from nowhere, only to show contempt for the religious values, such as the right to life, upon which our nation was founded?
A. That America rests on respect for religious values such as reverence for every human life can be readily learned from authentic American history. One of the very best popular surveys of the subject is Sydney E. Ahlstroms two-volume A Religious History of the American People (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1975). Professor Ahlstrom taught in the History Department of Yale University. In the words of one academic review: "No previous religious history of America has achieved [such] fine balance of scope and proportion It is so massive, thorough and comprehensive that it is a fitting conclusion to an honorable tradition. Historians, present and future, will have to come to grips with it, but from its perspective it will be difficult to improve upon."
To me, Dr. Ahlstroms work is still the standard; it is difficult to understand how anyone who wants to inform himself about Americas history can avoid reading through it. Which is not overstating the case, since the work is really an "easy read," as they say.
Thus, Americans ought to know that the original colonies in the northeast and central Atlantic areas were largely founded as places of refuge for freedom of religion. This was the principal motive for the founding of Connecticut, for example, as well as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and, of course, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
California and the great Southwest were steeped in religious tradition from the start. The names of cities such as San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles (originally Nuestra Senora de los Angeles), Santa Barbara, Carmel, all in California, testify to the extraordinary labor of Franciscan missionaries. As Dr. Ahlstrom wrote: "The missions were the most important institutions of Old California, undergirding both its social and economic life." (ibid., Vol. 1, p. 80)
And what about New Mexico (Santa Fe) and Arizona (Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest, is forever associated with its history). Also, Texas, first called San Francisco de los Tejas, began with a Spanish mission; later, San Antonio (the Alamo) became the most famous mission there.
And wasnt the very first permanent colony in what would become the United States of America named for one of the Churchs greatest saints: St. Augustine, Fla., founded in 1565?
All of the above references clearly, yet simply, point to the religious framework of America from its beginning. And life, reverence for each and every person, is a core value of the Judaeo-Christian view of human existence.
Alexis de Tocquevilles writings, especially his Democracy in America (1835), is one of the most reliable and eloquent witnesses to the religious composition of America. (Dr. Ahlstrom relies on de Tocqueville, of course, as a principal primary source.) In de Tocquevilles own words:
"Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country."
Also: "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but nevertheless it must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion, for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizen or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation, and to every rank of society."