The gloves are finally off: according to a poll, one third of Americans want a state religion. Two hundred years after the United States was created by men and women fleeing the stifling rule and religious persecution of their homes, we have come full circle by expressing a desire by some to return to a state sanctioned religion. No surprise that the preferred state religion is Christianity. Reflecting on the reasons for such a supposedly non-American public opinion, the pollsters wonder if it could be “reflective of dissatisfaction with the current balance of religion and politics”. In my mind, however, the results of the poll point to some deep-rooted issues, which instead of being dismissed as inconsequential because it could never actually happen, should be analyzed to understand the thought process of millions of the population.
Surely not a coincidence, a related news story making the rounds last week was that of North Carolina lawmakers petitioning to make Christianity the state religion. While many took it as a joke, it led to a scare among religious minority groups in the state and across the nation. Jewish and Muslim leaders rightly voiced their concerns to the ACLU, whose state legal director Chris Brook explained:
People were horrified by this proposal because it sent a message of exclusion to them, that they don’t matter… It’s a very unfortunate and confusing message to be sending in 2013.
It turned out that the bill was an attempt to sanction Christian prayer in government offices, which is an entirely different discussion. But it could also be taken as a lab test of what the rest of the nation would go through if one-third of Americans had their way. The fact that the bill was struck down was an indication of the soundness of the U.S. constitution and the Bill of Rights, but it – and the poll – are similarly indications of the discomfort and alienation in the minds of average Americans about religion itself. More alarmingly, it points to a lack of religious tolerance and pluralism that interfaith activists like me have been striving towards since 9/11. More than two years ago, Wendy Kaminer of The Atlantic discussed the long-term effects of religious intolerance amongst Americans. Interestingly, even as people become disillusioned with religion, they feel the need to deny others the right to practice their faith in public. Which is the essential, though shrouded, argument for a state or national religion – if you follow anything other than this one religion, you cannot practice it in public.
The benefits of a separation of church and state are innumerable and undeniable. What Americans have never experienced firsthand is perhaps the most dangerous impact of establishing a state religion: persecution of religious minorities. Muslim countries unfortunately have fallen into this trap all too well. From Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and virtually every Muslim nation in between, so-called Islamic laws have crushed the rights of non-Muslims to the extent that those laws no longer resemble true Quranic teachings. The reality is that when one religion is preferred by the government over another, and preferential treatment is meted out to that religious group in terms of even school prayer or invocations, the result can be dangerous and terrifying. The persecution meted out by state sanctioned laws against Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia, and against Christians in the Middle East should be a warning to those Americans who would like to establish one religion over others in their state. There can never be a happy ending to such a sad story.