Bishop John England of Charleston has always been one of my favorite characters from American religious history.
England, head of the Catholic Diocese of South Carolina from 1820 until 1842, was a staunch advocate of church-state separation. He insisted that the U.S. Constitution gave government no authority whatsoever "to legislate upon religion or morals, directly or indirectly."
Argued England, "If ninety-nine hundredths of the present population, were to become Catholics to-morrow, they would be morally criminal did they exclude the remaining hundredth portion from any civil, or political, or religious right; and under our Constitution the attempt would be usurpation, and therefore invalid."
England insisted, "Congress has no power to nurse the Evangelist, nor to frown upon the Papist; it cannot prefer the Christian to the Jew; nor bestow one cent either to plant the Gospel in Monrovia, to build a synagogue at Grand Island, or a mosque in New York."
I thought of Bishop England last week when I heard the results of the latest First Amendment Center survey on Americans' understanding of their First Amendment rights.
In contrast to his enlightened views, 55 percent of Americans told pollsters that "the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation." Only 39 percent disagreed.
On a similar note, 63 percent of respondents thought "the nation's founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation." Only 32 disagreed.
These are absolutely appalling results. Are our public schools really doing that bad a job of teaching history and civics? Are Americans really that ignorant of our nation's heritage of church-state separation and individual freedom?
The framers of the Constitution were abundantly clear that they sought a nation where all individuals were free to follow their own consciences in matters of religion. Far from writing a Constitution that established a "Christian nation," our governing document forbids government officials to meddle in religion in any way. It doesn't even mention Christianity, let alone establish it.
The Constitution mandates church-state separation and the free exercise of religion for everyone. Christians are free to practice their faith, but so are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and the entire array of religious adherents who have found a home here. And atheists and agnostics are just as free to refrain from joining any faith.
Are the Religious Right's propaganda mills producing these alarming poll results? Or is it just a matter of Americans knowing too little about history and reflexively affirming their own faith when pollsters ask about religion?
At any rate, the poll indicates that Americans United and our allies have a daunting task ahead of us in educating our fellow citizens about the true history of the First Amendment and the rights we hold. Church-state separation is essential for freedom of conscience, and it's good for religion as well.
As Bishop England wisely put it, "There never was a union of church and state which did not bring serious evils to religion."
By the way, tomorrow is Bishop England's 222nd birthday. Let's all have a slice of cake and a bit of champagne in the old boy's memory – then get to work spreading the good news of our constitutionally guaranteed religious liberty.