Calls for national religion threaten our freedoms

Thanks to the First Amendment, the United States is arguably the most religiously diverse — and most religiously free — society on earth.

But not all Americans welcome the new religious America.

Consider the flap in Idaho this week when a session of the state Senate started with a Hindu prayer.

Several lawmakers boycotted the invocation because, as one explained, “Hindu (sic) is a false faith with false gods.” Apparently the protesting senators want government to define whose faith is genuine and whose god is real.

And then consider the recent proposals in Tennessee and Mississippi to make the Bible the official state book — symbolic gestures, perhaps, but clearly intended to affirm America as a Christian nation.

Proclamations by politicians promoting one religion over others — restoring the “good old days” when Protestant Christianity dominated American culture and politics — are apparently popular with many voters.

A whopping 57 percent of Republicans, for example, would support “establishing Christianity as the national religion,” according to a poll released last month by Public Policy Polling.

We don’t have poll results targeting Democratic voters. But we do know from a 2013 survey conducted by the First Amendment Center that a majority of Americans — 51 percent — believe that the U.S. Constitution already establishes a Christian nation.

Is it possible that so many Americans are unaware that the First Amendment’s Establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) separates church (mosque, synagogue, temple) from state?

Or, more disturbingly, does a majority of Americans favor repealing the First Amendment’s prohibition of state religion?

Either way, declining support for “no establishment” means it’s time to beat the drum for the American arrangement in religious freedom that keeps government from taking sides in religion.

Let’s start with the fact that those who wish to establish Christianity as the national religion must first answer the question “whose Christianity?” After all, the U.S. is home to a bewildering variety of Christian sects — and many of them don’t think the others are truly Christian.

As we are seeing in the Idaho Senate, proponents of state religion, prayers and scriptures invariably have in mind establishing their own religion, prayers and scriptures.

Let’s also remind one another that the First Amendment prohibition on church-state entanglement has been very good for religion in America.

Contrary to culture-war rhetoric about the exclusion of God from the public square, religion thrives everywhere in our society — including, I might add, in our public schools where kids in great numbers are forming religious clubs, praying around the flagpole and sharing their faith with classmates.

It’s true, of course, that “no establishment” has created the conditions for a proliferation of religious groups — and therein lies the rub for proponents of establishing a Christian nation.

Once the marketplace of ideas is open to all, the competition for minds and hearts is fierce — and a religious monopoly is unlikely to prevail.

Re-imposing a monopoly would be no better for us in religion than it would be in economics. An official state religion would destroy the world’s most successful experiment in liberty of conscience — an experiment that enables people of all faiths and no faith to live together peaceably as citizens of one country.

State establishments of religion are now — as they always have been — a leading cause of oppression, violence and war. To escape the persecution of established religion was, after all, why many came here from Europe in the first place.

Back in Idaho, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, a Republican and a Mormon, got it right when he permitted the Hindu prayer. As he told The Spokesman Review, “In my mind, you either believe in religious freedom or you don’t. … We have had Jewish prayers, many denominations of Christian prayers.”

Then Sen. Hill added a history lesson that every American of every faith should keep in mind before repealing the First Amendment:

“There was a time in Idaho history when Mormons were not allowed to pray in the Legislature — nor were they allowed to hold office or vote because Mormons were not considered Christians. I think we’ve come a long way since then.”

In other words, we have all been a religious minority at some time and in some place. If we give up on “no establishment,” we give up on religious freedom.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email:

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