Editor’s Note: Christianity is not mentioned in the Constitution and the First Amendment makes clear the Founders’ insistence that the U.S. government remain neutral on religion, but many on the Right insist that America was always and must remain a “Christian nation.”

This political movement – especially at a time when more and more Americans are not identifying themselves as Christian – creates another political flashpoint in the days and years ahead, as the Rev. Howard Bess observes in this guest essay:

The coming storm is driven by three key forces: the growing religious diversity in America, the claim by some conservative Christians that the United States must be “a Christian nation,” and the First Amendment’s insistence that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In discussion of the First Amendment, phrases like separation of church and state and the wall of separation are frequently used. However, my friends at the Baptist Joint Committee, a watchdog group in Washington dedicated to the maintenance of separation of church and state, more often speak of neutrality.

In this view, federal, state and local governments must remain neutral in matters related to religion. Government must not do anything that promotes religion or that inhibits the free practice of religion. That interpretation of the First Amendment may seem plain and simple, but not to everyone.

There is a large minority of Americans who believe that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation. They believe Christianity ought to be a privileged religion and reject what seems to be the clear meaning of the First Amendment, government neutrality on matters of religion.

The history is that the framers of the U.S. Constitution represented a wide variety of religious opinions, ranging from Christian fundamentalists to deists and atheists. The common ground that they found was neutrality.

But what does neutrality mean in the 21st century?

In the past decade, two government actions and a controversy brought the issue of neutrality to public attention.

The first was the effort by some in government to provide vouchers to students to enable them to attend private schools, most of which are religion based. Many of us believe this is a clear violation of the neutrality standard.

The second was the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships by President George W. Bush who used it to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to church and quasi-church organizations. President Barack Obama has worked for two years to clean up the program, with the goal of protecting the neutrality standard, though his effort remains a work in progress.

The public controversy that thrust the neutrality issue into the spotlight was the proposed Islamic center a few blocks from 9/11’s Ground Zero in New York City. Last year as the furor raged against the plan, proponents of religious neutrality often were shouted down.

These three events suggest that Americans are revisiting the First Amendment principles during a time of demographic and religious changes.

How will the First Amendment fare in what has long been a Christian-majority country at a time when the most significant religious movement is away from Christianity?

For most of American history, religious diversity was among the various Christian sects. That is no longer true. Seventeen percent of Americans now identify themselves as having no religion at all, and this non-religious population is very sensitive to any privilege given to religion.

The Muslim population in the U.S. is expected to double over the next decade. Mosques are being built all over the country. Hindus have become more numerous and are finding voice when they experience discrimination or are marginalized in our public institutions.
 
We are moving into an era in which these religious (and non-religious) minorities will no longer be silent. They embrace their First Amendment rights and expect to be treated with equality.

While some Christian fundamentalists resist these changes, diversity has long been an American strength, and the First Amendment has been the protector of the principle of religious freedom and tolerance.

In the days ahead, the school voucher issue is likely to be a flashpoint. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner in January introduced legislation that would provide funds for vouchers for children to use in private schools in Washington D.C., including religion-based schools.

The Baptist Joint Committee and other defenders of separation of church and state see vouchers as a violation of the First Amendment – as well as bad for public schools, bad for private schools, and a step backwards from religious liberty and government neutrality.

For the record, I read every edition of “Report from the Capital,” the BJC’s magazine, and closely follow the work of this small but powerful lobby headed by J. Brent Walker, a graduate of Stetson University School of Law and Southern Baptist Seminary. 

Walker is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and is an ordained Baptist minister who teaches classes at Georgetown University Law Center and at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.
 
The information and opinions in this essay are greatly dependent on my reading of “Report from the Capital.” While I have not used direct quotes, my dependence on BJC and Brent Walker needs to be acknowledged.    

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.             

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