Sometimes it takes a Canadian to see American patterns clearly. On
September 11, Konrad Yakabuski of the Toronto Globe and Mail noted
that “much of the current uproar” about Islam in America “can be explained
by the inherent tension between concepts of religious freedom and Christian
nationhood” deep-rooted in the American past.
In many quarters, the notion that the United States is,
in some meaningful ways, a Christian nation, has faded away. But it remains
a lively and urgent concern in other quarters and can, at least on occasion,
be effectively activated to mobilize opinion and votes.
In recent months, reasserting America’s Christian
nationhood has been high on the agenda of many conservative operatives,
including Glenn Beck, who organized a massive Restore Honor rally in
Washington last fall, and Sarah Palin. Yakabuski cited Palin’s comment last
April that it “is mind boggling to suggest that America is not a Christian
Palin is not noted for her subtle grasp of church-state
dynamics, but there is deep ambivalence about America’s religious identity,
and its patterns of church-state relations have shifted several times over
the course of the nation’s history. Most of the colonies that founded the
federal union had established churches, some of which persisted for a while
after the ratification of the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights at
the end of the 18th century.
Throughout the 19th century, a generalized
form of Protestantism enjoyed indirect forms of establishment that were
reflected in public education and in social services like care for dependent
children. Innumerable state court decisions included such phrases as
“because this is a Christian nation,” or even “because this is a Protestant
Nevertheless, it is indisputable that many of the nation’s
Founding Fathers really did want to build something on the order of a “wall
of separation” between church and state, especially Thomas Jefferson and
James Madison. And in the mid-20th century, in a much more
pluralistic nation, plaintiffs began to take church-state controversies to
federal courts, which then began to apply federal rather than state
constitutional standards, and leading to rulings that emphasized the
separation of church and state.
That hasn’t sat right with millions of Americans,
especially evangelical Protestants, who look back fondly on the 19th
century accommodations that benefited Protestants, both symbolically and
That’s the message that the Rev. Richard Land, chair of
the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,
got from his denomination’s pastors in January, when he announced that he
had withdrawn from an interfaith coalition supporting Muslim rights to build
mosques. Land told the Associated Press’ Travis Loller on January 25 that he
had “heard from many Southern Baptists who felt the work of the Interfaith
Coalition on Mosques crossed a line” they didn’t want to see crossed.
“My constituents, many felt, ‘Yes. We certainly believe
in religious freedom. People ought to have a place of worship. But it’s a
bridge too far not only to advocate for that, but to file suit,’” Land said.
“I don’t agree with that perception but it’s widespread and I have to