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U.S. Constitution and religion: We do not have a Christian state nor do we have an atheist nation


I read recently that a new poll released by the First Amendment Center indicated that fully 55 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution established a Christian nation. Surely anyone who has taken a basic civics course should know that the constitution did no such thing.

Fifty years ago Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, the eminent American political philosopher, made the observation that the genius of our constitution was that it declared a truce in confessional (religious) wars, promising that the federal government would take no sides when it came to religion.

But at the same time the constitution certainly did not establish an atheist nation that opposed religion. As Father Murray pointed out, if this were the case, the First Amendment, by virtue of having prohibited a state religion, would have in practice setup a secular state without any reference to religion. But as we review the writings of our founding fathers, it is clear that they never envisioned a nation in which religious faith would be banned from the public square.

Separation of Church and state is not in the Constitution

Modern die-hard secularists do not like to admit that the constitution does not require absolute separation of Church and state, which it clearly does not. But at the same time, those who are trying to counter the secular drive to force religion out of public discourse by declaring the United States a Christian nation do not have the support of our constitution for their position.

When we review current literature and comments made in the public media, it is obvious that modern secularists grudgingly tolerate religion as purely a private affair. They do not mind people attending churches or synagogues or mosques on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. But on Mondays they do not want these people dragging their religious ideas and prejudices into our universities or boardrooms or political processes. It is quite American, they maintain, to promote secular ideologies and to oppose traditional religious values that thwart personal freedom - but it is quite un-American to suggest that morality is dependent on religious values, and that people are accountable to a Supreme Being. This is blatant intolerance in the name of tolerance.

The framers of the constitution would be aghast at this kind of interpretation of their thinking and writing.

Secular and religious interpretations of the First Amendment

In the middle of the last century, Father Murray warned us about a purely secular interpretation of the constitution. He said that "we have to abandon the poetry of those who would make religion out of freedom-of-religion and a dogma out of separation of Church and state." Current politically-correct positions proposed by secularists on our campuses and in our media attempt to replace our traditional moral values with their own. They want their secular creed to replace our religious creeds. And in the name of freedom, as they interpret it, they want to curtail the freedom of religious people to express themselves in public life and to have an impact on political decision-making. For secularists, intolerance is anything that opposes their agendas and tolerance is anything that supports their agendas. But insistence on rule by an elite minority is hardly a democratic process.

We should not allow these modern secularists to use the constitution to support this kind of intolerance in the name of separation of Church and state. The non-establishment of one faith over others in the First Amendment does not mean that religion was to have no place in American life. On the other hand, while we claim that we are a nation under God, we are not a nation created by God. Those who maintain that we need to reclaim America for God, or that we should return to our Judeo-Christian roots, cannot use the constitution for their reference point. We were certainly not founded as a Christian theocracy. The American proposition was not in the beginning nor is it now based on either theocratic or secularist principles. As Father Murray pointed out, we have to look at the prose, at the language of the constitution itself and recognize that "it is ordinary legal prose having nothing to do with doctrinaire theories." Religious people and secularists cannot use the constitution to settle their differences.

While we are not, certainly, a nation of atheists, and our religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, we are also not "the last best hope for man on Earth." That role belongs to God and to those who strive to live with the freedom that belongs to the sons and daughters of God everywhere in the world.

Maintaining level playing field

While we are certainly not a Christian nation as guaranteed by our constitution, we also are not a secular nation as guaranteed by our constitution. Religious people need to tolerate secularists with their limited agendas, and secularists have to be able to tolerate religious people whose agendas are never going to go away. The constitution supports all our freedoms within the limits of a human document written by men. We need to treasure our constitution that allows religious and secular people to have a level playing field, and we have to make sure that it remains level.

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