As we write this in early 1995, the U.S. Congress has a newly elected Republican majority. After the Republicans pass the major legislation promised in their "Contract with America," House Speaker Newt Gingrich has promised to consider a constitutional amendment permitting organized, "voluntary" prayer in public schools. Republicans argue that amending the Constitution is necessary because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that organized school prayer violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Such reaction to the constitutional issues posed by religion in the United States is not unusual. In recent years, state and local legislatures have attempted to pass religiously oriented measures designed to provide for Bible reading in public schools, to teach "scientific creationism" as an alternative to evolution, and to allow the display of religious symbols on public property. It is often the case that apparently popular, and perhaps innocuous, acts of government are prohibited as violations of the Constitution.
This is a book about public attitudes toward church-state relations. This topic assumes a central role in contemporary American politics for two reasons: First, Americans are very religious. Relative to other industrialized countries, religious belief and religious observance exist at very high levels. Second, religion and politics are separated as a matter of constitutional principle. As we will show, there is little agreement on the correct meanings of the religion clauses in the Constitution, but, at the level of general principles, few Americans would explicitly favor "establishing religion" or prohibiting religious "free