My last essay about the United States as a Christian nation provoked a great deal of comment. Some of was nasty name-calling based on historical ignorance; that seemed to me to be un-Christian, but then what do I know? On the other hand, two local Christian scholars and pastors, John Kay and Paul Spalding, provided interesting ideas on the relation between church and state.
They both argued that, unlike countries which have a long history of established churches, religious observance in the United States has flourished in unique ways because it has been free of government control. In no other nation has Christianity developed in such denominational diversity. Without any official Church providing official ways of practicing religion, Americans were much freer to invent (or discover) alternative ways of being Christian, as evidenced by the new churches which spring up in every community. I have not tried to check the reliability of this idea by measuring how many different kinds of churches there are in various countries, but it remains an intriguing theory.
The connection between the freedom to worship as one wishes and freedom from government sponsorship of religion applies beyond Christianity. Jewish worship in America is free from the much more restrictive influence of Orthodox Jews on Israel’s government and society. In Israel, stores are closed on the Sabbath and non-kosher foods may not be imported, even though only a minority of Israelis say they keep the Sabbath. Conservative and Reform rabbis cannot lead religious ceremonies and any marriages, divorces, and conversions they perform are not valid. Israel is a very free country, but the role played by a religiously conservative minority in government places restrictions on the freedoms of all Israelis.
The separation of church and state in the United States has allowed all religions to flourish free of state-enforced rules. One of the results is that no religion represents a majority of Americans. Although most Americans identify as Christian, there is a tremendous variety of Christian practice. The views of those who demand a “Christian nation” do not even represent all Christians.
Those conservative Christians who demand that various levels of government offer more support to religion, meaning their form of Christianity, are at the same time vociferous critics of government for interfering too much in the lives of Americans. This seems contradictory to me. A government which makes monuments out of the Ten Commandments or which legislates fundamentalist Christian beliefs about homosexuality is a big step closer to requiring that all citizens practice a particular form of religious observance. I don’t understand why conservatives who support the death penalty would want the government to enshrine “Thou shalt not kill” as a basis for American law.
A recent flap at Southern Illinois University reveals what might happen if conservative Christians manage to remake America into their version of a “Christian nation”. Because one or more students complained that the clock tower was playing only Christmas carols, the administration decided to create a “more inclusive” repertoire of songs. Now right-wing websites across the country are filled with complaints about “the war on Christmas”, as well as vituperative remarks about Jews, Muslims, and those who celebrate Kwanzaa. Every attempt to broaden public seasonal celebrations to include more than Christian practices creates conservative complaints. The “Christian nation” that conservatives have in mind has little room for anyone else.
Even less ideological Christians have difficulty recognizing their own exclusivity. In response to the discussion at SIU, this newspaper quoted Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard: “I don’t see any reason why the city of Jacksonville is going to stop playing Christmas music. I’m sorry if it’s offensive to some individuals; however, it is Christmas and we will play the music. I personally don’t feel it’s offensive.”
Yes, it is Christmas. It is also the season of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The point is not whether Mayor Ezard is offended by the music of his own holiday. When government says, “This religion is ours, and we’re sorry if you are offended, but we aren’t, so stop complaining,” then we have a state religion.
I am not offended by Christmas carols. I will be singing them for the next week. I am offended by people who want to use government to shove their religion down my throat. That is, when they are not complaining that the same government is a liberal socialist conspiracy to take away their freedom.
Jacksonville ILPublished in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier on December 21, 2010