Belief in God is obviously not a legal requirement for U.S. citizenship. Yet, as we observed in the first editorial in this series, citizenship has meanings that are deeper and more subtle than legal permission to live in this country. For many Americans, one important aspect of citizenship in this broader sense is loyalty to “one nation under God” — the God of the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, they believe that the institutions of government should acknowledge that fact. The result is that nonbelievers and adherents of minority faiths sometimes are made to feel like second-class citizens.
In Mississippi there is currently a campaign to amend the state constitution to acknowledge the state’s “identity as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state, in terms of the majority of her population, character, culture, history, and heritage, from 1817 to the present; accordingly, the Holy Bible is acknowledged as a foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues; and, accordingly, prayer is acknowledged as a respected, meaningful, and valuable custom of her citizens.” (Bizarrely, the text says the amendment “shall not be construed to transgress either the national or the state constitution’s Bill of Rights.”)
The commingling of citizenship and Christianity isn’t confined to the Bible Belt. In May, the Supreme Court upheld a New York town’s practice of opening its public meetings with invocations that overwhelmingly were offered by Christian clergy members who frequently prayed in Jesus’ name. The notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation also underlies claims, fanned by talk show hosts and other non-serious hysterics, about a secularist “war on Christmas” and the continued complaints about Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that ended the practice of beginning public school classes with prayers and Bible readings.
Even some Americans who reject the notion of America as a Christian nation identify this country with “Judeo-Christian principles” and applaud politicians who do the same. Many agree with the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” — and not just any Supreme Being. There were protests when the Washington National Cathedral, recently hosted a Muslim prayer service. Those who attempt to delegitimize President Obama whisper that he is a secret Muslim, as if Islam were somehow un-American. And if being a Muslim is bad in some peoples’ eyes, being an atheist is worse. In a 2012 Gallup poll, 40% of respondents said they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim for president; 43% said they wouldn’t support an atheist.
It might seem paradoxical that so many Americans consider religious faith — and sometimes a particular faith — as a necessary component of American identity. After all, the Constitution says that there shall be “no religious test” for holding public office, and the 1st Amendment prohibits Congress from legislating an “establishment of religion,” a stricture that the Supreme Court has extended to state governments. Thomas Jefferson famously referred to a “wall of separation” between church and state, and the metaphor is among the most recognizable in American life.
That wall, it’s true, has always been a porous one. Some breaches are less objectionable than others. Scholars have a term for the sort of pro forma religious language that is customary in presidential addresses and state funerals: “ceremonial deism.” But there are also attempts to equate Americanness with specific faiths, such as the campaign in Mississippi and the rash of bills in statehouses targeting the phantom menace of sharia law infiltrating the judicial system.
We believe that entanglement of religion and government runs the risk of marginalizing citizens who don’t share the religion of the majority. That is especially a concern at a time of growing religious diversity and an increase in the number of Americans who tell pollsters they aren’t affiliated with any religion. In a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 19.6% of adults said they were “religiously unaffiliated.”
So what should be done to solidify Jefferson’s wall — other than rejecting initiatives such as the one in Mississippi? At a minimum, officials should resist identifying patriotism with any particular religion. It’s gratifying that official chaplains in the U.S. Congress, although they are Christian clergymen, in general have chosen not to offer distinctively Christian prayers. To his credit, Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has reached out to Muslims as well as to Jews and Christians. The White House is now the scene of an annual Iftar dinner marking the end of Ramadan.
But equal treatment for organized religions, while it avoids the evil of “establishing” a single faith, can still carry the message that those with no religious beliefs at all are second-class citizens. That is why this page has opposed even nonsectarian prayers at meetings of local government bodies. Political leaders, especially those who frequently engage in religious language, should acknowledge that there is no religious test for being a good American. Obama did just that in his first inaugural address when he said that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.” We’d like to see more public officials recognize that reality; one way of doing that is to include nonreligious speakers in solemn public events. (That wasn’t done when public officials, including Obama, came together last year to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, despite a request that the speakers include a representative from the Secular Coalition for America.)
Organized religion undeniably plays an important and often constructive role in the lives of many Americans. Religious figures have been instrumental in political causes from abolitionism to the civil rights movement. No one should seek to banish them from political debate. But we reject the notion that religious faith in general or adherence to a particular creed is an essential attribute of being American. The only creed to which a citizen of this country should have to pay homage is the Constitution.
This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at latimes.com/citizenship and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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