Religious Freedom Keeps America From State-Enforced Beliefs
In our secular society, Christianity has become an interest group vying for influence in the marketplace of ideas. It is no longer taken for granted that it is a Christian country.
Consider a recent case before the Supreme Court of the United States, implicating a Christian group which wanted to raise its flag in front of the town hall of Boston. The court wonders if this would be an endorsement of Christianity by the city or if the flag is simply the private expression of Christian citizens.
If the Christian group wins the case, its victory will only mean that the group has the right to express its religious beliefs in a public forum. They must take turns with LGBT rights advocates, BLM protesters and other groups who want to fly their flags. Nobody here claims that the State should reserve a privileged place for Christian symbols and beliefs.
American secularism is based on the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause” prevents government entities from endorsing a religion. Its “free speech clause” allows citizens to express their own religious (or non-religious) beliefs.
Clarity on this is important, given the changing religious identification of American citizens and the threat of religious violence. Our system allows people of various religious and non-religious beliefs to coexist peacefully. And it prevents the government from oppressing religious minorities.
Some people still maintain that America is a Christian nation. A recent report on NPR quoted a pastor from a “patriotic church” in Tennessee, who said, “You know why there are churches everywhere and not mosques? Because we are a Christian nation.
But the First Amendment and our changing demographics point in another direction. In one report published at the end of 2021, the Pew Research Center indicates that the Christian population has continued to decline. Only 63% of Americans identify as Christian. Non-Christian religions (Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) represent an additional 6% of the population. And even among the faithful, religious belief is often lukewarm. Less than half of Americans say they pray daily. Only about 40% say religion is very important in their lives.
The fastest growing group in our country is the “none” group, those who answer “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. The “nones” have nearly doubled since 2007, when Pew started tracking the data. Almost one in three Americans (29%) is “none”. This includes some atheists (4%) and agnostics (5%). But many non-religious simply do not identify with traditional religious categories.
It is true that at one time in our history, Christianity was the dominant religion. But even this assertion needs to be qualified. Many founders had unorthodox views. George Washington rarely attended church. When he went there, he refused to take communion. Thomas Jefferson admired Jesus, but was skeptical of Bible miracles. John Adams claimed that the Christian view of the trinity was absurd. And America is home to alternative Christian religions such as Mormonism, Adventism, and Christian Science.
Critics will also say, as Frederick Douglass fact, that a nation founded on slavery could hardly be called “Christian”. Douglass opposed “corrupt, slavery, woman whipping, crib plundering, partial and hypocritical Christendom of this land”. He said, “I see no reason, except the most deceptive, to call the religion of this land Christianity.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton said something similar. She believed that Christianity contributed to the oppression of women. She worked with a team of feminists at the end of the 19and century to rewrite the Bible. The result was “The Woman’s Bible” who thoroughly revised the patriarchal and misogynistic texts of the Bible.
And so on. We disagree on what Christianity means. A growing number of us no longer identify as Christians. And Christian groups must compete for time on the mast with other interest groups.
This is the reality of our secular system, operating under the First Amendment. Under our Constitution, religious freedom is valued while the government is prevented from endorsing a specific religion. In this country, we are free to discuss the meaning of the Bible. We are also free to gather around the mast and discuss the history and role of religion in our public life.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of the Fresno State Center for Ethics. Contact him: [email protected]