New Church-State Poll Reveals Some Troubling Results – And Challenges

A recent poll on Americans’ view on the First Amendment contains plenty of food for thought.

Like most polls on religious liberty and church-state separation, this one, conducted by the First Amendment Center, contains some news that is heartening and some that is alarming.

On the good news front, the survey shows that Americans clearly value religious liberty and, generally speaking, want to see it broadly applied. A whopping 97 percent agreed that the right to practice the religion of your choice is either “essential” or “important.”

Americans also believe this fundamental freedom includes the right to practice no religion. Eighty-nine percent call that right “essential” or “important.”

Religious Right groups complain incessantly about their rights supposedly being violated, but most Americans aren’t buying it. Sixty-six percent said our country’s amount of religious freedom is “about right.”

Americans remain a people willing to live and let live. Sixty-seven percent say the right to privacy is “essential”; 31 percent call it “important.”

But not all of the news is good. Indeed, the poll found majorities backing teacher-led school prayer, the use of the Bible as a factual text in school classrooms and the display of religious symbols in public schools.

Too many Americans also persist in believing that America is a “Christian nation.” Indeed, the poll found that an astounding 65 percent of American adults believe the Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation, and 55 percent believe the Constitution actually establishes it as such. In fact, our nation’s governing document is secular and says nothing about Christianity. Instead, the Founders gave us a First Amendment that mandates the separation of church and state.

Some Americans are also feeling a little skittish about the limits of religious freedom. Twenty-eight percent say religious freedom was not meant to apply to groups “the majority of the people consider extreme or on the fringe.”

Looked at as a whole, these results present a challenge – and an opportunity – for Americans United. Americans clearly value religious freedom. They aren’t willing to see it eroded. They do, however, need to be better educated on how religious freedom in America developed and the crucial role church-state separation plays in keeping it today.

A poll is a snapshot that reflects a mindset that can be particular to a certain time. Opinions can and do change as circumstances shift. The number of people willing to curb “extreme” religions has probably jumped because of fears of militant Islamists in the wake of the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Likewise, if we were given an opportunity to probe deeper by asking some follow-up questions, respondents’ views might change. Many people might not blithely endorse teacher-led prayer in public schools, for example, if they knew the prayer to be said was not from their own tradition.

The task of groups like Americans United is to do that probing – to challenge people and ask hard questions. We need to make them think. For example, using the Bible as a textbook in a public school may seem like a good idea to some until someone raises questions: “Which version?” “What about the stories of miracles?” “What about the rights of non-Christians?”

Many Americans are thoughtful enough, upon hearing questions like this, to reconsider their position and perhaps even change it. We’ll probably never persuade the dogmatists of the Religious Right, but those occupying the middle ground are probably open to persuasion.

Most importantly, Americans need to be reminded about how we got to where we are today. Some tend to take for granted our grand measure of freedom. It was always this way, right?

Advocates of church-state separation know better. Our freedoms were secured by bitter struggle and acrimonious debate. Our Founding Fathers separated church and state because they knew what happens when you don’t. This story has been told many times, but it is not reaching enough people. We must work to change that.

Finally, we must constantly remind people of what will happen if we lose our church-state wall. We need to be forthright in stating that some forces in America want to see a combination of their faith and government – and remind Americans why that’s so dangerous.     

Recently, Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest in New York, penned an opinion column for Religion News Service titled “The (Many) Dangers of Theocracy.” His words are worth remembering as we contemplate the task before us and recall that even if some Americans don’t fully understand the First Amendment, it’s still worth fighting for:

“What we learned from Europe’s religious wars and from the more recent horror of the Taliban isn’t some historical footnote,” Ehrich asserted. “It’s the reason we keep religion out of political life. Power corrupts everyone who holds it, but corruption and carnage increase exponentially when the religious hold political and cultural power.

“Religious zealots can’t handle the reins,” he continued. “They don’t know how to compromise. They don’t know how to admit error. They don’t know how to encourage freedom and the many unexpected places freedom will lead. They don’t know how to promote science, learning or creativity. They have no demonstrable interest in oneness and fairness.

“If history teaches nothing else,” Ehrich concluded, “it teaches that religion makes a mess of government and society when it has too much power. There is no reason to think that today’s theocrats would behave any more admirably.”