As you read these words, either Barack Obama or John McCain is preparing to assume office as the next president of the United States. This editorial was written prior to the election, so we were uncertain of the outcome when it was drafted. What we do know, however, is that we’re going to be busy one way or the other.
Part of that is because of the ongoing activity of the Religious Right, a well-funded, well-organized political movement that will keep pushing its narrow vision for this country regardless of who is sitting in the White House or which party controls Congress. If the atmosphere in Washington is not favorable to these groups, you can count on them to turn their focus on the states and on local governments.
Aside from the Religious Right, we have deep cause for concern about the future of church-state separation in America because, to be blunt, too many Americans just don’t know what is at stake. A recent survey on religious liberty issues by the First Amendment Center indicates that supporters of the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state have their work cut out for them.
In this survey, 55 percent of respondents told pollsters they believe that “The U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation.” Only 39 percent disagreed.
An old adage says that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion but not his or her own facts. That is worth remembering in this case. No matter what people may believe, the U.S. Constitution simply does not mandate that we are a Christian nation. In fact, the words “Christian” and “Christianity” appear nowhere in that document. Instead, the Constitution’s First Amendment states that the government may make no law respecting an establishment of religion, thus mandating the separation of church and state.
Sadly, we’ve come to a point where many people are unaware of the words in our country’s foundational document. How did this happen? It’s not as if the Constitution is some secret or hidden thing. Indeed, with the rise of the World Wide Web, it’s only a mouse click away. Any American can read it – and they should.
But apparently, many people don’t bother. Instead, they are swayed by misinformation and propaganda spread by TV and radio preachers and their pseudo-historian allies who argue the “Christian nation” line. Numerous mainstream historians have debunked this view, yet it persists.
The poll found other troubling results. Only 54 percent agreed that freedom of worship should apply to all groups, even if their views are considered “extreme or fringe” – a 15 point drop since 1997. A slight majority – 55 percent – agreed that people should be permitted to say things in public that might offend religious groups.
The nation will face certain challenges relating to separation of church and state no matter who is occupying the White House: Can “faith-based” initiatives be enacted in a way that respects the Constitution? Is it a good idea for the government to promote religious codes or symbols? How should we react when legislative proposals are put forth to divert public funds to private religious education?
It is difficult for people to deliberate and debate these ideas and others if they lack the proper constitutional context. It is next to impossible if they believe the Constitution says things that it does not.
What is the answer? There’s not an easy one.
To begin with, we need better civics education in our public schools. It seems our young people aren’t spending enough time studying the actual text of the Constitution. But looking at the document is just a start. Our schools also need coursework that explains why the text says what it does, augmented by the writings of key Founders.
This material should be interwoven into history classes so students understand that America’s version of religious liberty didn’t just spring up overnight. It was a hard-fought concept, one that some people opposed. Like any great idea, it was implemented only after a struggle. Students who understand this battle will appreciate why it is important to the freedoms we enjoy today.
Our Founders intended for a robust exchange of ideas, including religious ones, in a free and open society. While they did not wish to see any religion endorsed by government, they supported the right of the people to hash out these ideas and come to their own conclusions.
Americans have enjoyed that liberty for more than 215 years. The result has been a diverse nation, a place where citizens adhere to many faiths and none and feel free to contend for their ideas. No other nation enjoys this much religious freedom.
We would not have it if our Founding Fathers had established a “Christian nation” instead of separation of church and state. We would not have it if they had approved laws giving religion some sort of official or protected status.
The Founders bequeathed us much. Advocates of church-state separation have a lot of work to do to make sure we continue to enjoy those freedoms.