By Marvin Frankel
High among the 'blessings of liberty' for which American colonists dared the Atlantic and then adopted the Constitution was the ideal of religious liberty. With some lapses and wrong turns that go with the human condition, our approach to the ideal has been close - close enough to be gratifying even for nonchauvinist Americans.
The first 16 words of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the beginning of the Bill of Rights, are these:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The fact that they come first need not signify their firstness in importance. It is enough for present, or any, purposes that the words embody values at the heart of the understandings on which Americans of diverse religious views live at peace with one another.
While the majority of Americans may identify themselves as 'Christian,' we are not a 'Christian nation' any more than we are a 'white nation' merely because the majority of people in this country are, using the slovenly description of skin color, considered 'white.'
Some have attempted to beautify the arrogant error of labeling us a 'Christian nation' by calling us 'Judeo-Christian.' This only compounds the problem. Again, it is not a matter of numbers. If it were, 'Islamo-Christian' would soon work better should American Muslims outnumber American Jews and continue gaining rapidly on Christians.
Apart from numbers, the hyphenated adjective is used only to trivialize the differences and to obliterate history by a phony homogenization. The hyphen is scarcely large enough to conceal, and should cause no one to overlook, that more Jews than are now alive have been killed by Christians for the sin of being Jews. This is not to doubt that the regime of deadly enmity should have given way long ago to a widened effort by Jews and Christians to forgive and even to love one another. It is only to say that the route to that consummation is not charted by labels that serve as camouflage.
The broader point remains that no label, however embracive it might sound, fairly describes the 'religion' of America because there is by constitutional definition no American religion.
Among the realities of life in the United States is the fact that religions so numerous and varied (one encyclopedia counted 1,347 in 1987) reside together in relative peace. This phenomenon is not fairly explained on the grounds that nobody cares very much. Millions, probably a majority of us, care very deeply about our religion. But the commitment to religious freedom, thus far at least, runs no less deeply than our commitment to religion. And the First Amendment serves vitally to keep that commitment strong.
The essence of the wall of separation of church and state that our founding fathers so carefully constructed meant, above everything else, that the new democracy was to refrain from giving money to support any church or all churches. James Madison, in his campaigns that led to the First Amendment, made it plain that the barrier was to remain absolute and total.
Madison's position was brilliantly sound when the great majority of all Americans were Protestant Christians. And its brilliance and wisdom has not abated as the number of religions in this country have multiplied. Roman Catholics at the moment, while far from a majority, are the largest single denomination. There is no telling, however, how long that will last. Islam is the fastest growing religion. Immigration is changing the unmelted mix of diverse Americans.
It would take a special combination of childishness and bravado to predict with confidence what we will look like 100 years hence. The best we can do now for our successors, then, is to leave them with the kind of framework for living together in religious peace that has held together so well for the first 200 years.