Religion still rules in God's country

The Herald updates Gareth Morgan's motorcycle trip through the American heartland. This week he ventures into Mormon country, where fundamentalist beliefs are the norm

We're riding across Utah, one of America's most devout states.

Even for those who are believers of some sort, Utah seems a little over the top. For others, like me, who think it's all gobbledygook anyway, this place is just totally wacko.

Headlining right now is Warren Jeffs, a Latter Day Saints breakaway polygamist, whose sect is threatening a Jonestown-type mass suicide if their leader is brought to justice.

With the revival of fundamentalist Christianity in the US, what better time or place to be thinking about the role of religion, the State and the individual than while riding past some of the most wondrous scenery in the world, all within a precinct of religious excess.

The southern end of the Rocky Mountains certainly has more than its fair share of photo opportunities - maybe it is "God's country" - although for me, scenery can become tiresome after a few weeks.

In the US constitution, religion and government are deemed separate. After all, many of the first European settlers were fugitives from Old Europe's institutions of religious feudalism.

New England was settled by the Pilgrim Fathers who arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and there were very strict Calvinist rules enforced by these yeomen or middle-class emigrants from England. They dominated New England society. Being whipped for non-attendance at church was common. Three creeds dominated puritan life: fear of God, love of liberty, and hatred of tyranny.

Demonstrating that all these things are relative, the Puritans by any measure today were totalitarians. Yet they were definitely more liberal than the rulers of Old Europe, whose yoke they had escaped.

The inevitability of the American Revolution of 1775-1783, which ended England's practice of taxing the colonists while giving them no say in who their rulers were, began the separation of church from state as the Declaration of Independence illustrates:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In this document, the dominance of religious authority started to wane and "fear" of God was no longer prominent among the values of Americans.

It was the third US President, Thomas Jefferson, a libertarian, who is generally regarded as hard-coding separation of state from religion and church into the US constitution. As per Amendment 1: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It was Jefferson who stated that, "religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God". So there it is - anyone is free to practice whatever religion they get off on, but no law shall be passed to favour any particular variant.

Over the years, this has been pretty strictly enforced within the US, with all secular schools not being permitted to have Bible classes or prayers or any other symbolism or rituals of religious pursuit tainting the neutrality of education.

Neutrality hasn't been totally achieved of course; "In God We Trust" has adorned US currency since 1864, when the Civil War put the willies up the Unionists and they looked for some sort of concise rallying call.

Of late, there's been a flurry of revivalism of the religious foundations of US society. Endless petitions since 1995 to Congress to allow preachers into schools, for happy-clappy bonding classes to be part of the curriculum, have yet to succeed, but there is definite religious creep back into the secular institutions of American democracy.

Thanks to recent court activism, this fundamentalist Christian revival in America now sees creation able to be taught in junior school before the high school evolution curriculum can pollute young minds.

Thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Bible classes are being held in the classroom (by the same teacher who has the kids all day) straight after the bell rings for end of school.

Right in this town where we are today, Moab, Utah, the local school has surrendered its right to refuse some Christian mystic running his "Good News" club for students in the classroom right after school ends, since he threatened to use a Christian activist lobby, the American Centre of Law and Justice, to fight for the right.

As the school president commented, "We're a very small district. We don't have the funds to go all the way to the Supreme Court."

It's pathetic, really. If you take the libertarian view - as I do - that religion is your own business, don't ram it down the throats of us that think it's just another human frailty. It's another sign that the US is on a slide back toward the intolerant conservatism that its founding fathers escaped.

That El Presidente, reformed drunkard and born-again George Dubya, can declare he is doing God's work as he blunders around Iraq totally out of his depth, could only happen in a democracy that excuses it because the Christian God is on their leader's side. Nuts!

* Latest travel blogs and photos from the Backblocks America road trip are on World by Bike

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