America before Religious Freedom: Until the Separation of Church and State, the Colonies Were a Hotbed of Persecution

By Shipler, David K. | Moment, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview
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America before Religious Freedom: Until the Separation of Church and State, the Colonies Were a Hotbed of Persecution


Shipler, David K., Moment


If opinion polls on religion and politics are accurate, the American public reached a turning point last March, in the heat of the Republican primaries. For the first time in the 12 years that the Pew Research Center has been surveying attitudes, a plurality-38 percent--said that politicians talked too much about faith and prayer, exceeding the 30 percent who thought they talked too little. Until now, the figures had been reversed. The "too-little" camp reached a high of 41 percent in 2003. And this year, only 25 percent--down from 60 percent in 2001--felt that political leaders were expressing religious faith in just the right amount.

Does this indicate a growing distaste for candidates who mix religion into government? Let's not get ecstatic quite yet. The First Amendment still sits uncomfortably on a good number of citizens, especially white evangelical Protestants. The poll results continue a trend that was probably accelerated by a backlash against Rick Santorum, who a month earlier had announced his desire to "throw up" after watching a recording of John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign declaration: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."

Of course, Kennedy was working to overcome a broad anti-Catholic bias; he had to reassure voters that his membership in a hierarchical church would not subject him, as president, to orders from the Pope. It is a perverse tribute to our advancing tolerance that Santorum, also a Catholic, felt no sting of prejudice and felt free to vomit at the founding principle of church-state separation.

Santorum is an aberration, but his constituency is embedded in the Republican landscape. Fifty-five percent of his backers told the Pew pollsters that there was "too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders." Romney supporters split the other way, with 24 percent saying there was too little and 33 percent saying too much.

Still, Romney has not exactly been a beacon of pluralism. Despite benefiting from millions from pro-Israel donors, most notably Sheldon Adelson, Romney sometimes sounds as if he were running for Preacher-in-Chief of a country made up entirely of Christians, with no Jews, no Hindus or Buddhists, and certainly no Muslims or non-religious citizens among the people he seeks to lead.

Speaking last May at that bastion of religious absolutism, Liberty University, Romney paid lip service to the "Judeo-Christian tradition" as central to the country's global leadership, but then proceeded to ignore every religion practiced by non-Christian Americans. "There is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action," Romney declared. How illuminating it might have been for those young adults, having just been schooled in the exclusivity of Christian virtue, to hear a presidential candidate open their minds to the country's rich, robust religious diversity.

It was diversity at the founding that protected the new United States from church-state fusion.

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