Community Columns

What is the place of religion in our country's politics?

My father was a pilot in the Air Force during World War II. He flew B-29s, and I grew up hearing stories of amazing young men and their love and commitment to this country. The camaraderie among these men was strong, and after the war, his 40th Division continued to gather for reunions.

My father died in 2005, leaving a legacy of distinguished service. But perhaps more importantly, he left a family with an intense appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, the freedoms that so many through the generations have died to preserve.

John Dewey said, "Democracy must be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife."

I believe one of the primary purposes of public education is to transmit to each new generation the ideas, history and traditions that created and have sustained our country. Understanding what uniquely unites us as Americans is critical to our survival as a free nation. This is, after all, an ongoing experiment in liberty.

Now in its sixth year, the American Heritage Scholarship Series provides a tremendous opportunity to focus on our rich history and culture. Initiated by The Bee in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the program seeks to increase our understanding of what it means to be an American. Students and community members are invited to a free lecture, after which students can participate in a merit-based essay competition that offers $10,000 in college scholarships.

Over the years, students have explored topics such as freedom of the press, the Patriot Act and the role of the courts. This year they will tackle religion and politics and address the question, "To what extent should religion influence politics in the United States?"

The topic is timely. As we become more diverse as a nation, and continue to advance rapidly as a global economy, our understanding of other cultures and historical backgrounds is even more crucial to our decision-making. We not only need to understand the complexities of religion and politics in a free democracy, we need to be familiar with the religious and political principles of the subtly and overtly religious states around the world.

Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero is this year's guest presenter. He contends that religious literacy is needed in order to be an effective citizen.

Religion and politics is a complex issue. Jon Meacham, in his book, "American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation," puts forth the idea that religious tolerance, along with the separation of church and state, is "perhaps the most brilliant American success." It's finding the balance in the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of religion while also protecting the free exercise of it, that gets complicated. I'm looking forward to reading some of the essays our students generate.

While our world continues to expand exponentially, and the need to more fully understand other cultures grows, it is even more important that our children fully comprehend our uniqueness as Americans.

I was recently invited to attend a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery honoring the war heroes from my father's 40th Division. Once 400 strong, their numbers have declined to a little more than 40, and they will meet one last time next year in St. Louis. They are passionate about our country and asked that we not let their legacy, nor the legacy of any other patriots -- past, present or future -- lose its importance in American history. They know that freedom is not a birthright, but rather a gift from previous generations.

Tom Changnon is Stanislaus County superintendent of schools.