Is the US a Christian Nation?

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2022

In our secular society, Christianity has become an interest group vying for influence in the marketplace of ideas. It is no longer taken for granted that this is a Christian country.

Consider a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a Christian group that wanted to raise its flag outside city hall in Boston. The court is considering whether this would be an endorsement of Christianity by the city, or whether the flag is merely the private expression of Christian citizens.

Christian Flag SCOTUS Blog

If the Christian group wins the case, its victory will mean only that the group has the right to express its religious beliefs in a public forum. They must take turns along with advocates of LGBT rights, BLM protesters, and other groups who want to fly their flags. No one is arguing here that the state ought to reserve a privileged place for Christian symbols and beliefs.

American secularism is grounded in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment’s “establishment clause” prevents government entities from endorsing any faith. Its “free expression clause” permits individual citizens to express their own religious (or non-religious) beliefs.

Clarity about this is important, given the shifting religious identification of American citizens and the threat of religious violence. Our system allows people with diverse religious and non-religious beliefs to peacefully coexist. And it prevents the government from oppressing religious minorities.

Some people continue to maintain that America is a Christian nation. A recent report on NPR quoted a minister at a “patriot church” in Tennessee, who said, “You know why there’s churches everywhere and not mosques? Because we’re a Christian nation.”

But the First Amendment and our shifting demography point in another direction. In a report published at the end of 2021, the Pew Research Center indicates that the Christian population has continued to decline. Only 63% of Americans identify as Christian. Non-Christian religions (Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) account for another 6% of the population. And even among the faithful, religious belief is often lukewarm. Fewer than half of Americans report that they pray daily. Only about 40% say that religion is very important in their lives.

The fastest growing group in our country is the “nones,” those who answer “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. The “nones” have nearly doubled since 2007, when Pew began tracking the data. Nearly one in three Americans (29%) are “nones.” This includes some atheists (4%) and agnostics (5%). But many of the non-religious simply do not identify with traditional religious categories.

It is true that at one point in our history, Christianity was the dominant faith. But even that claim needs qualification. Many of the founders had unorthodox views. George Washington attended church infrequently. When he did go, he refused to take communion. Thomas Jefferson admired Jesus, but was skeptical of the Bible’s miracles. John Adams claimed that the Christian view of the trinity was absurd. And America is the home of alternative Christian faiths such as Mormonism, Adventism, and Christian Science.

Critics will also argue, as Frederick Douglass did, that a nation founded on slavery could hardly be called “Christian.” Douglass argued against “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He said, “I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said something similar. She thought that Christianity contributed to the oppression of women. She worked with a team of feminists at the end of the 19th century to rewrite the Bible. The result was “The Woman’s Bible,” which thoroughly revised the Bible’s patriarchal and misogynistic texts.

And so it goes. We disagree about what Christianity means. A growing number of us no longer identify as Christian. And Christian groups must vie time on the flagpole along with other interest groups.

This is the reality of our secular system, operating under the First Amendment. Under our Constitution, religious liberty is valued while the government is prevented from endorsing any specific religion. In this country we are free to argue about the meaning of the Bible. We are also free to gather round the flagpole and argue about history and the role of religion in our public life.

Freedom is Frustrating and Pride Provokes

Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 2021

Life in a secular democracy can be frustrating. In our country, we disagree about nearly everything. Our lack of agreement is a sign of the health of our democracy. Liberty is disruptive. The confusing complexity of our secular world is worth celebrating.

Consider the controversy about an LGBTQ pride club at Fresno Pacific University. Fresno Pacific is a Christian school. It denied an application for a student pride club. The university president, Joseph Jones, explained that establishing a pride club “was not consistent with the Confession of Faith of the university.”

The Fresno Pacific Confession of Faith says, “God instituted marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for the purpose of companionship, encouragement, sexual intimacy and procreation.” Fresno Pacific is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, a church that is opposed to homosexuality and extramarital sex.

As a religious institution, Fresno Pacific has an exemption from Title IX, the law that is supposed to prohibit sex discrimination. The Department of Education explains that “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

All of this came as a surprise to student journalists who reported about it in the Fresno Pacific school newspaper. An important part of this story is about courageous student journalism. The good news is that the student journalists at Fresno Pacific were free to pursue this story.

Another part of the story is the fact that the national Campus Pride organization lists Fresno Pacific on its website as among “the absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” Campus Pride is free to publish its list. Students can complain. And the campus will likely continue its policies.

The First Amendment is the touchstone here. It guarantees religious liberty as well as freedom of speech, freedom of the press— along with the right to assemble and to petition the government. In the United States, religious organizations have a significant degree of freedom. Journalists are free to report on these things. Ordinary citizens are free to cheer or jeer in rallies in the streets. And if you want to change the law, you can speak to your congressional representative.

The Fresno Pacific case is the kind of thing that happens in secular democracies. The story undoubtedly involves anxiety and acrimony for those directly involved. There will be disagreements about what should happen next. But the story reminds us that the First Amendment is alive and well in our country.

The liberties enumerated in the First Amendment give rise to controversies that span the political spectrum. Wherever your sympathies lie, you are bound to be outraged and offended by someone in a world that is organized under the First Amendment.

On the one hand, anti-vax and anti-mask protesters make First Amendment appeals and disrupt school board meetings. Some Trumpians have celebrated the protests of Jan. 6, linking it to the kind of assembly protected by the First Amendment. This shows us an important limit. You can rally and protest. But violence is not protected.

On the other hand, LGBTQ people have a right to speak out against Fresno Pacific. And in our world, religion is strictly regulated in public schools. One interesting recent case involves a high school coach in the state of Washington who was fired for leading his players in prayer. Among the issues in that case is an atheist family who complained that the coach did not provide their son with adequate playing time because he refused to pray.

And so it goes. There will always be plenty of controversies to keep the lawyers busy and the critics buzzing. The political philosopher Robert Nozick famously said, “liberty disrupts patterns.” We might add that liberty also disrupts social harmony and peace of mind.

Some may prefer a world where everyone conforms and obeys. But that’s not America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” And if you don’t agree, in our country you are free to say so.

Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

Satanism and QAnon: Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Do our leaders worship Satan? How would we know? And what would that mean?

Fifteen percent of Americans believe Satan worshipers are in charge.  The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found this in a recent study about the QAnon conspiracy.  This belief is more prevalent among Republicans: 23% of Republicans claim that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation.”

I find this hard to believe.  But then again, I find it difficult to believe in Satan at all.  I also think it would be absurd for anyone to worship Satan—both because there is no Satan—and because if he did exist, he would not be worthy of worship. 

The whole thing is a theological, ethical, and sociological mess. 

Perhaps those who say this are actually trolling the researchers.  Do 48 million Americans (that’s 15% of our population), really believe that Satan worshipers are running the country? 

This opens the question of what it means to really believe something.  A related question is about how we could know what anyone really believes.

Let’s begin with the absurdity of Satan.  The most obvious argument against Satan is the existence of a benevolent and all-powerful God.  Satan does appear in the Bible.  God empowers Satan to torment Job, for example.  But would a good God really do this?  Why would a good God create a devil who torments us?

Creative theology attempts to make sense of this and the general “problem of evil.”  One solution is to claim that evil is the absence of good and not the active power of some supernatural being.  Texts that personify evil in Satan must be reinterpreted as allegories or parables.

But lots of Americans appear to have a more literal belief.  The Gallup Poll reports that 61% of Americans believe in the devil.  A survey from the Pew Center found that 58% of Americans believe in Hell.  So maybe it is not surprising, that millions of Americans believe our leaders worship Satan.

Perhaps enlightened theology and secular critiques of religion could help cure QAnon belief.  But some non-religious people (11% according to PRRI) also claim that Satan-worshippers run the country.  A full-fledged atheist who does not think Satan exists could believe, I suppose, that others worship the non-existent devil.  This could be an ad hominem accusation, like making fun of someone by claiming they believe in fairies and leprechauns. 

This leads to questions about the sociology of belief and religious tolerance.  How can we presume to understand what strangers really believe?  Could anyone know that ruling elites worship Satan?  And what would that actually mean?

One rule of thumb is that it is wise to avoiding judging the beliefs of others.  Religious belief is complex, changeable, and internally diverse.  Religious people disagree among themselves.  Many believers are ignorant about or indifferent to the dogmas of their own religion.  We also fail to understand other people’s beliefs.

Satanists even disagree among themselves.  A group calling itself the Satanic Temple advocates empathy, reason, and secular values.  They reject the supernaturalism of another group called the Church of Satan.  The Satanic Temple appears to be Satanism without Satan.

This is probably not what QAnon believers have in mind.  But then again, how do we know what the QAnon-ers really believe about the supposed Satan-worship of ruling elites?  And how would a QAnon-er actually know what the ruling elites really believe?

These vexing questions should encourage us to be cautious and tolerant.  It is difficult for any of us to figure out what we actually believe.  It is presumptuous and rude to claim to know what someone else believes—or to condemn it as evil.  And in the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees our right to believe whatever we want.  Indeed, toleration in the United States appears to extend even to Satan worship.

QAnon will likely fade away as a fever dream of the Trump era.  But the tendency to vilify the beliefs of others will remain.  Part of the cure involves religious liberty and toleration.  Another remedy is to think critically: to play the devil’s advocate in posing critical questions about Satan, God, and what we think we know about religion.

God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself.