Fundamentalist American Christians as a group can no more be trusted to mean “religious liberty” when they say it than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can be trusted to really mean “democratic.” My home state of Georgia, accustomed to over two hundred years of fundamentalist hegemony—two centuries of anti-liberty for blacks, women, and gays—has at this writing seven different bills afoot in its legislature, each purporting to preserve or restore religious liberty.
With precious few exceptions, they have little interest in religious liberty, but a great deal in Christian liberty or, more accurately, fundamentalist Christian liberty. As I’ve argued in this blog, the liberty they mean is not just the freedom to worship whatever and virtually however they please. No, they are so accustomed to having their way that their definition of liberty includes the freedom to tell others what to do (see my post “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion.” Apr. 16, 2014). Historically, that’s a frequent behavior of religions. They act as if there is a religious right to dominate civil affairs—not, as they argue, just to be in the “public square.”
Quite a few of the thought leaders as America’s became a country were deists—quite unchristian. Jews had been here since the 17th century and later a scattering of Hindus and Muslims. These were not considered part of the main body of believers. It is true that the dominant faith when the United States was formed was Christianity. But not all Christianity. Catholicism, the largest creed worldwide, was hardly embraced as part of that Christianity. If present day revisionists wish to pretend that ours is a “Christian nation,” they’ll have to accept that it’s not so much a Christian nation as a “Protestant nation.” Except not all Protestants were welcome either, depending on the colony or state. At various times in various settings, Unitarians and Anglicans were outsiders, and late comers, like Mormons in the 19th century, were not warmly embraced.
Thus it is that to take seriously the ostensible purity of America’s Christian origins, one would have to disavow a great many religious people, even—as I’ve noted—those who had an equal claim on being Christian. Writing a research paper that justifies calling the United States a Christian country would require a lot of asterisks. And that is just with respect to the US demographically. To justify calling it Christian nation in terms of the nature of its government and civil structure requires skullduggery of the magnitude of discredited pseudo-historian David Barton, considered the leader of the Christian nation fantasy.
But even if all the claims of Barton and his followers were to be true, it is a long argument away from demonstrating that the Christianity of the colonial period deserves a special, favored place in 21st century America. It hardly proves, for example, that churches and church leaders should be able to commandeer the public schools to teach their religion for them, to get special tax treatment for their churches and their ministers, or to be accorded a leading role in deciding public morals.
But those comments bring me back to the separation of civil authority and religions. Remember it was Baptists who feared the hazards of being outside the in-group that prompted Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter about what he called a “wall of separation.” It is that same wall that many of today’s fundamentalists (including Baptists) rail against. While Baptists then needed the First Amendment protection, many of them and other fundamentalists now endeavor to install their religion in the halls, lawns, courtrooms, and classrooms of government.
This week a group of Christian leaders here in Georgia complained that their faith and their freedom of religion were being trampled. They cited proof that included a decision by a Carrollton, Georgia school board not to allow a local church to use its stadium for baptizing students (Atlanta Journal Constitution, Feb. 3, 2016, p. B3). “Trampling” is defined by a pretty low bar. Sometimes it seems that Christians have a need to claim martyrdom even when they are in control. The fictional “war on Christmas” is another instance (see my post “To the ramparts . . . atheists are coming for your Christmas trees!” Dec. 9, 2015). Examples abound of the widespread religious expectation that the public square is not so much for broad philosophical exchange, but solely theirs for the taking (see my post “Religion in the public square,” Oct. 20, 2015).
As to the Constitution’s separation of religion and civil authority, apparently among fundamentalist Christians a wall is good when you want it, but a bad idea when you don’t. One of the seven Georgia bills, sponsored by Representative Kevin Tanner, is to protect religious figures from being forced to marry gay couples. No such danger has been shown to exist. (Most pro-gay marriage citizens think the real purpose is to garner cheap favor with fundamentalists, not to protect the pulpit where none is needed.) Last week, in justifying the need for his “pastor protection” bill, Rep. Tanner explained that his intent “is a simple reaffirmation of our bedrock principle of separation of church and state” [italics mine, JC]. I suppose the wall can be denied and used at the same time.
Many religionists along the way have learned the hard lesson that religious freedom for one automatically means being free from others’ freedom of religion. Those who over the ages have inconvenienced, conspired against, and damaged religious people have seldom been atheists, but religious people of another faith (see my post “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” Oct. 8, 2014). They seem not to understand that their freedom requires that others not have as much as they’d like, and vice versa. We have a Constitution to support the delicate balance.
So if America isn’t a Christian nation, nor certainly not a Muslim nation, what kind of nation is it? It is a people’s nation. What I mean by that is as time rolls along the country automatically becomes whatever the people’s values are, as averaged by some credible process. Protecting a stability that protects flexibility is the job of a carefully crafted process. The process is the part that stays stable, while the values of the country take whatever path that “we the people” choose. The process itself may need to be changed, but that is a serious and sober undertaking, like messing with a computer’s operating system rather than just installing a program.
Perhaps Americans do want more religion in government. There are many clamoring for such a merger, the most extreme of whom are the dominionists. But most right wing Christians, who have so thoroughly infused conservative politics, don’t want all the implications the dominionists’ dream would entail. Like Mr. Tanner’s words reveal, they want to dip in and out at will, claiming freedom from governmental power when they want it, but a religionization of governmental action when they don’t (as long it is their religion!). Their flirtation with theocracy demonstrates a shallow recognition of how damaging it would be to the liberty of thought and practice precious to religious and non-religious alike.
A brilliant analysis and excellent piece of writing John, thank you.