Is the United States a Christian nation or a nation of religious freedom and tolerance? Are we implicitly the United Christian States of America in the same way as the Islamic Republic of Iran? Some Christians seem to think so and have been conducting an unrelenting campaign to make it so.
Consider the not so very subtle comments by the not so subtle Paul Harvey: “Life, liberty or your pursuit of happiness will not be endangered because someone says a 30-second prayer before a football game…. But it’s a Christian prayer, some will argue…. If I went to a football game in Jerusalem, I would expect to hear a Jewish prayer. If I went to a soccer game in Baghdad, I would expect to hear a Muslim prayer…. And I wouldn’t be offended. It wouldn’t bother me one bit.
When in Rome…..” In short, Mr. Harvey wants us to believe that we are a Christian nation rather than a nation with a majority of Christians and are thus justified in incorporating Christianity into our official public acts. But Israel was explicitly established as a religious state and look at the trouble that has caused them and the rest of the world. And though I have not attended a soccer game in Baghdad, I doubt that I would hear a Muslim prayer at one, though prayer rooms are set aside in most buildings for those who wish to pray when called. America has made a different choice. Our constitution tries to protect us from our government and from each other by limiting what our government can do and what a majority of citizens may decide. The separation of church and state is an instrument of that protection.
The prohibition against discrimination in law and public matters on the basis of sex and race is another such protection (after the 14th amendment). Discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation has not explicitly achieved that status but social attitudes have moved a long way in that direction. I found it interesting that in the Vice Presidential debate, where both candidates expressed the same views against “gay marriage”, Sarah Palin stated that she accepted the right of people to choose their sexual orientation. This is a significant advance over anti gay views widely held a generation or two ago but unfortunately still reflects the mistaken view that we can chose to be gay or straight. According to the Anchorage Daily News of Aug 6, 2006, “Palin… said she doesn’t know if people choose to be gay.” Too bad, she should know better.
The narrow adoption of Proposition 8 in California to eliminate the right of same–sex couples to marry provides an example of the mixing of church and state that might not have occurred to you. The problem arises (aside from ignorance and bigotry) because the set of legal rights and obligations bestowed by the state in “civil unions” goes by the same name, “marriage,” as the status bestowed by religious groups. The Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Sunni, Buddhist, etc. churches (even the Mormon Church) should be free to define marriage, and who they wish to marry, in whatever manner they think appropriate. At least that is the American perspective. But the state must abide by the words and spirit of its constitution. It may not (or at least should not) discriminate against gay and lesbian couples in granting the marriage contract. And we seem on our way to getting there. What stands in the way is mixing the roles of church and state. Let’s keep them separate as provided in our constitution, not withstanding that the majority of our citizens are Christians of one sort or another.