America: A Religion of Respect (September 2001)

Despite fervent claims to the contrary, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. Since the inception of American democracy, our government has resisted religious intolerance by maintaining the clear separation of church and state. The notion that the United States should affiliate with a specific religious denomination defies America’s traditions of equal protection, freedom of belief, and individualism. As the Religious Right and proponents of school prayer encourage church/state lines to blur, we must clarify those lines and reinforce the framers’ intent of secular government.

The religious wars that plagued Europe and their own religious diversity deterred America’s forefathers from endorsing any particular form of Christianity. Freedom of religion was inescapable; already, the United States reflected deep religious diversity. The Puritans who had initially populated New England to escape religious persecution were joined by Catholics in Maryland, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Anglicans in Virginia, and even a sprinkling of Jews. Thus, America’s founders opted to establish a government free from religious ties. Their secular objective became evident in the passage of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The First Amendment expressly grants freedom of religion by setting up “a wall of separation between church and state.” The free exercise clause of the Constitution guarantees Americans’ right to practice–or not practice–the religion of their choice. Additionally, the establishment clause of the First Amendment outrightly forbids Congress from establishing a religion. The argument that America is a Christian nation plainly collapses at this point. By refusing itself the power of a nationally-instituted religion, America’s government stands impartial on the issue of faith.

Despite the adoption of a secular Constitution, threats to the separation of church and state continue to emerge. The most vocal opponent of the establishment clause, the Religious Right, continues to allege that America was founded as a Christian country. By infiltrating both the media and politics, this fundamentalist Christian group has generated a strong, devoted following. The growth of the Religious Right suggests the need for increased protection of state/church separation.

For instance, in order to supposedly restore moral character, the Religious Right sought passage of a resolution by the United States Congress encouraging citizens to pray and fast in recognition of God. Frighteningly, the resolution–which had more than 40 cosponsors–was rejected in the House by a slim margin: 275-140, only nine votes shy of the two-thirds majority necessary.

By cultivating political myths, such as the dangerous “New World Order,” the Religious Right inspires followers to confuse morality and Christianity. It presents the separation of church and state as underlying contemporary social and moral problems. Yet these problems have been present to some degree even in theocracies. As the Religious Right expands to dominate numerous radio and television networks, newspaper publications, and politics (leader Pat Robertson even ran for President), the danger to separation of church and state has intensified.

The intrusion of prayer into public schools, prompted by Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has sparked national debate. As lawmakers wrestle with the subject of public school prayer, the importance of protecting church/state separation again surfaces. Schools already permit voluntary prayer, and moments of silence have even been established by numerous school boards to encourage spiritual commitment. Parochial schools provide an option for parents intent on raising their children with a religious education. But the introduction of compulsory prayer in public schools would seriously undermine the existence of secular government.

Because of conflicting religious views (Muslims consider the depiction of God and idolatry sacrilegious while some Christians use images of Christ in their rituals; Buddhists depend upon specific references to the Buddha by name in their religious practices while Jews never write out God’s name, referring instead to “the holy one;” and atheists reject the idea of God altogether), the state would be forced to regulate the kind of religious messages used by schools. In other words, government would judge religion, a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution. It is unfair, and certainly undemocratic, to impose this burden on the state. Publicly-financed education in the United States is, and always should be, secular in control and content.

In the words of the Constitution, America’s forefathers divined an impartial government free from religious ties, a government championing the freedom of choice. We cannot allow rumblings of opposition from the Religious Right and school prayer advocates to skew their remarkable vision. By rejecting preferences or alliances, the United States government has adhered to its own Constitutionally-ordained dogma . . . and in the process, fostered a special kind of religion: a religion of respect. By equally respecting Americans of all faiths or no faith, our government functions with an integrity unmatched by any of the world’s theocracies. Perhaps the religion of respect is the most sacred course, after all.

“As a newly graduated senior of Herndon High School, Class of 2001, I’m anxiously anticipating the start of college. Leaving my hometown will be an eye-opening experience . . . I have lived here since age eight, and know little of my new destination–Charlottesville, VA–where I will attend the University of Virginia this fall. I have always had a deep interest in theater, much to my parents’ and younger sister’s delight. Over the years, they have loyally supported my professional and school theatrical endeavors. I plan to major in theater, and possibly English, at UVA.”


Freedom From Religion Foundation