The news from Texas about its state history curriculum fascinates, what with the state school board’s controversial additions, removals, or modifications. Most seem intended to airbrush the portrait of a country attractive in the main, despite blemishes and scars. American has not always been right or done right, but it has always struggled and is still struggling, to correct its faults and flaws, and to cleave more closely to its stated ideals. We have much work still to do. “We shall overcome” is perhaps the most American theme of our history, and this history, not some touch-up for conservative political comfort, correctness, or crusade, should inspire resolve as well as pride in Americans.
One part of the proposed revision of the Texas history curriculum suggests that not all Americans are pleased with some of the fundamental provisions of our government. Some school board members want state history textbooks to assert that America is a Christian nation. If the board approves this revision, its decision will influence not only children in Texas, but also children elsewhere, and adults everywhere. For it will distort history with a slanted doctrine decreed by politicians serving the purposes of parochial political and religious indoctrination, not deliver a more balanced account determined by historians making sense of our struggles to define and perfect ourselves.
Whatever it might mean, this notion that America is Christian nation runs athwart the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. It begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” I address the second phrase by saying your “free exercise” ends where mine begins. After a brief digression, I address the first phrase because an official state decree that “America is a Christian nation” would be an “establishment of religion.”
A friend sent me a film about the growing “persecution” of Christians in Great Britain, what with Muslims and homosexuals numerous and ubiquitous. It says that the same “persecution” is coming to America. The film urges that a decree that a country is Christian can stop this persecution. He meant to arouse my sympathy for their plight and to alarm me about our future plight. I responded with neither sympathy nor alarm. Despite their history of persecuting each other, not to mention Jews, Muslims and others, Christians do not have it coming, but, then, it is not coming.
Apparently, “America-is-a-Christian-Nation” advocates believe that labels protect people and make them better. But Brits were not safer and did not behave better as a people or a polity when they were uniformly Christian and officially Anglican. Christians have not become endangered or behaved worse as their dominance has dwindled. And Christianity will not die out if the Church of England is disestablished. Christianity in England is not under attack; instead, enlightened Brits, many Christian, seek to curtail its hegemony out of respect for people different from them.
American advocates are responding to similar demographic changes with the same intolerance. Teaching all students that America is a “Christian nation” implies that non-Christians are not part of a “Christian nation,” thus not “Americans.”
Whatever their religious beliefs or practice, our Founders approved a prohibition of any establishment of religion. They knew—their history was not airbrushed—about the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, and between Anglicans and Puritans, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. They wanted to spare American a virulent, sectarian cause of abuse and bloodshed.
We can amend the Constitution and permit such a declaration if we want, but what would be the implications of doing so? Defining Christianity? Testing Christian allegiance? Preferring some denominations? Denying Catholics public office? Outlawing Mormonism? Arresting Unitarians? Rounding up Jews and corralling them in ghettos? Crusading against and deporting Muslims? Feeling good and godly about it all?
Advocates elide such questions to secure an ersatz agreement sure to degenerate into controversy and conflict. Given sectarian differences, even people who think themselves Christian might wonder if others agree. Get’s scary, doesn’t it?
I think that Christianity—or, perhaps something else entirely, the message of Jesus—is about love (enemies included), charity, and the Golden Rule. Sadly, advocates of America-is-a-Christian-nation manifest none of the above toward others and outsiders: non-Christians, homosexuals, immigrants—any stranger at the gate. They are more into wearing the label than into living the love, and it shows, and it repels people of all faiths. I suspect that many who regard Christianity unfavorably do so because advocates acting in its name and in disregard of their conduct set a bad example and give the religion a bad reputation.
This “America-is-a-Christian-nation” stuff is another undemocratic, unpatriotic impulse to betray the country. It contributes nothing to anyone’s spiritual life and moral conduct, or the nation’s political and economic well-being. It is a subterfuge certainly insidious and potentially dangerous. Instead, we should affirm America as a nation with “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”