Separation of Church and State: Is America a Christian nation?

By Ameen Izzadeen
(Deputy Editor The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)
In 2003 Ameen Izzadeen spent nearly a month in the United States as a guest of the US State Department. This is part 7 of a series of observations penned  after his visit.  This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror of November 21, 2003
Early this month, the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal from suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore who wanted to place a monument depicting the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building.
The highest court, apparently unwilling to enter into a major controversy, quietly rejected the appeal, thus upholding an Alabama Court verdict, which ordered Chief Justice Moore to remove the monument on the grounds that it was in conflict with the principles enshrined in the First Amendment.
The First Amendment calls for separation between the State and the Church – meaning that the government will not actively endorse religion in general or favor one faith over another – while it also guarantees the religious freedom of an individual.
Another case that has been listed for hearing by the federal Supreme Court is a petition by a Californian atheist who objects to the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, which is a national event.
I cite these two cases to show the seriousness with which the US body politic upholds the principle of Separation of State and Church – a principle that forms one of the cornerstones of the United States, underscoring the importance of liberty, equality and justice for all.  However, the unbridled capitalism and hegemonic designs of the present administration have unfortunately undermined these principles to a large extent not only in foreign policy making but also by
enacting certain domestic legislation such as the US Patriot Act.
The two cases cited here are some of the recent ones that have come into the public domain for debate and discussion. The struggle to protect freedom of worship and uphold the principle of separation of State and Church is older than the federation itself. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their allies in the state’s religious groups ended Virginia’s established church and helped pass the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, a 1786 law guaranteeing religious freedom to all.
Underscoring their belief that the separation of the State and the Church would be good for all faiths, including Christianity, the US founding fathers, though devout Christians made sure that the Constitution they were framing did not favor one religion. Even the language used in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, was generic in nature, thus avoiding the institutionalized bias in the unwritten constitution of Britain and state policies of Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia or even in Sri Lanka’s present and the previous constitutions where Buddhism has been granted special status while recognizing the religious freedom of all.
Rejoicing over the Virginia legislation, Jefferson noted that it would ensure religious freedom for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan {Muslims}, the Hindoo (sic), the infidel of every denomination”.
George Washington’s administration even negotiated a treaty with the Muslim rulers of north Africa – a pact known as the Treaty with Tripoli and adopted by the Senate in 1797 – that stated explicitly that the United States was not founded on Christianity. To assuage fears that the new nation would be hostile to Islam, Article 11 of the treaty states, “the government of the United States is not, in
any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
In spite of historic evidence and traditions that uphold the separation between the Church and the State and early assurances especially aimed at Jews and Muslims, opinion is divided still on the question ‘Is the United States a Christian nation?’
Efforts were made in 1864 and again as late as 1950s to give a Christian flavor to the Constitution. A group called the National Reform Association (NRA) pushed a Christian Nation Amendment Bill in the belief that the civil war was divine punishment for the exclusion of ‘God’ from the Constitution. The NRA amendment called for the “humble” acknowledgement of God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among the nations and his revealed will as the supreme law of the land in order to constitute a Christian nation.
Similar attempts were made in the 1950s but they too failed like the NRA amendments in the face of intense campaigning by civil rights groups in the United States where some estimates say half the Christian population consider themselves to be religious while the other half also includes, among others, atheists, humanists and agnostics.
“Religious right activists and right-wing television preachers often claim that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation.  Even some politicians agree. If the people who make this assertion are merely saying that most Americans are Christians, they might have a point. But those who argue that America is a Christian nation usually mean something more, insisting that the country should be officially Christian. The very character of our country is at stake in the outcome of this debate,” says a powerful Washington-based
activist group calling itself ‘Americans United For Separation of Church and State’.
Rena Levin, an official of this group, which is, incidentally, one of  the petitioners in the Alabama case, told us that there were 2,000  different religions or sects in the United States and if the laws  were to enforce the doctrines of one version of Christianity, then it  violated the founding principles of equality and justice.
President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address and other public speeches are marked by the liberal use of the word ‘God’ while Attorney General John Ashcroft holds daily prayer sessions in his department. Besides, the Bush administration has launched a Faith- Based Initiative program to dole out public funds to churches and other houses of worship to perform government-sponsored social services.
Commenting on this initiative, Ms. Levin said her group was alarmed over these developments and added that her group believed that these actions were a sweeping assault on the First Amendment’s separation of Church and State.
In the context of the doctrine of separation between Church and State, Islam in America flourishes and even is practiced in an intellectual light rather than being dogmatic. If this is so, why are there efforts in Muslim countries to establish governments based on Islam? This is one of the questions that were fired at us during our dialogue with the US intelligentsia.

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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