What part of ‘secular nation’ do we not understand?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

While American soldiers fight to establish a secular democracy abroad, many Americans want to create a Christian nation at home.

Consider the findings of “State of the First Amendment 2007,” a national survey released this week by the First Amendment Center. Significant numbers of Americans express support for government sponsorship of the majority religion, especially in public schools:

  • 58% want teacher-led prayers in schools.
  • 43% endorse school holiday programs that are entirely Christian and devotional.
  • 50% would allow public school teachers to teach the Bible as a “factual text” in history classes.

Despite the fact that all of the above are unconstitutional under current law, many people see nothing wrong — and much right — with school officials privileging or even endorsing the Christian faith.

Transpose the location (or substitute another religion) and the result would surely be very different. Would Americans support the creation of an Iraqi state where the majority Shiites imposed their prayers, religious celebrations, and scriptures on all Iraqi schoolchildren? Not likely.

On the contrary, we send young Americans to fight for an Iraq where people of all faiths will be protected from state-imposed religion. Why? Because we understand that (however quixotic the quest) only a secular democracy in Iraq with no established faith will guarantee religious freedom — and end sectarian strife.

Closer to home, however, many Americans seem to think our Framers had another idea. According to the First Amendment poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) agree that our nation’s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation. Even more striking, 55% believe that the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation.

Now, it’s true that many (but not all) of our founders were Christians. And it’s true that the Protestant majority dominated the nation’s institutions for much of our early history. But the U.S. Constitution nowhere mentions God or Christianity, an omission that was widely criticized in 1787.

In fact, the only mention of religion in the body of the Constitution (before the addition of the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment) is the “no religious test” for public office provision of Article VI. By ensuring that people of all faiths or none could hold office, the founders made clear their intention to found a secular republic committed to full religious freedom.

Of course, people define “Christian nation” in various ways — ranging from a nation that reflects Christian virtues to a nation where the government promotes the Christian faith. But under any definition, the Constitution in no way establishes or creates a Christian nation.

Some might argue that teacher-led prayers or Nativity pageants in public schools are a far cry from the dangers of a Shiite (or Sunni) theocracy in Iraq. Perhaps. But the lesson of history is that when a majority uses the government to promote the majority religion, conflict and oppression inevitably follow.

That brings me to the most disturbing finding of the First Amendment Center poll: 28% of Americans believe that “freedom to worship as one chooses” was never meant to apply to religious groups that the majority of the people consider “extreme or on the fringe.”

At various times in our history, that would have meant no religious freedom for Baptists, Roman Catholics or Mormons. Today it would deny liberty to any number of small or unpopular religious groups.

Fortunately, our founders understood that the great danger of majority rule is majority denial of fundamental human rights. That’s why they wisely put some rights — religious liberty first among them — beyond the reach of majority vote.

The United States is not now and never has been a Christian nation in any official or legal sense of the term. It is precisely because we live in a secular democracy with First Amendment protections that Christians — and people of all faiths — have more freedom to practice their religion here than anywhere else on Earth.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.