Many Americans are saying that America should be a Christian nation. I wonder exactly what they mean.
Do they mean a Christian nation like the ones from which the Puritans and most of our early settlers fled? In those countries, the King was also the head of their state Church. All citizens had to worship in the prescribed manner or face persecution, jail, or even death. Our founders created a new nation without a king and without a state church, the first nation in which the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
Do they mean a Christian nation like that demanded by the Ku Klux Klan during the decades when the Klan was a powerful force in American politics? Klansmen called themselves defenders of the Christian faith, but they meant only a narrow form of Protestantism, which used violence to exclude Catholics, Jews, blacks, and other non-whites.
Do they mean a Christian nation like the one I grew up in, in which Jews and blacks were excluded from living in many communities, excluded from belonging to important social organizations, excluded from attending or teaching at the best universities? Or do they mean a more tolerant version, where we can go everywhere and do everything, as long as we are quiet when an organizational meeting or a government function begins with a Christian prayer?
Do they mean a Christian nation in which laws are created out of a narrow interpretation of certain Biblical passages, which many other Christians dispute? Many who claim that America is a Christian nation then go on to demand that laws about the teaching of science, the legality of contraception, and the treatment of homosexuals be determined by their version of Christianity.
Do they mean a Christian nation “where we are tolerant”, as Sarah Palin said on Bill O’Reilly’s show earlier this year? I don’t want to live where I am tolerated. I want to live where my religion or lack of it makes no difference, where public money is not spent on promoting Christian beliefs and practices, while the rest of us watch from the outside. And there are a lot of us: one of every four Americans is not a Christian, including over 6 million Jews, over 2 million Muslims, and millions of others.
Those who claim that the Christian nation in their minds is based on the founders’ ideas are silent about how much more Christianity has been added to America since our founding. “In God we trust” was first added to currency in the 1860s, and our pennies and nickels did not say that until the 20th century. The words “under God” were only added to the Pledge of Allegiance by an act of Congress in 1954.
Conservatives who promote more Christianity in public life also appear to believe that America has been going in the wrong direction for many years. Do they mean the decline in the proportion of the adult population who identify themselves as Christian, from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008? Barely more than half of Americans tell pollsters that they attend religious services more than once a year. Now that there are relatively fewer Christians, should the nation be more Christian?
I don’t want to live in any version of a “Christian nation”. I want to live in the United States, in which religious ideas are a private matter, in which my government plays no role in my spiritual life, and denominational beliefs play no role in government. The 18th-century founders were not able to fully divorce their politics from religion, but they went further than anyone else had gone before. In many ways, such as race, their vision was clouded by traditional prejudices. Since then we have created a more perfect union, although not yet perfect. Perfection will be closer when whites no longer insist on retaining the privileges they have built up over centuries of supremacy, and when Christians stop saying that they specially represent America.
A few nights ago I attended a wonderful Christmas concert in the chapel at Illinois College. The music was beautiful and inspiring, like the soaring building itself. The freedoms to create and perform all kinds of religious music, to sing religious songs with our neighbors, are just as beautiful. Those freedoms are only guaranteed as long as America is a nation in which religion is a personal choice, not a public prescription.