October 21, 2011
What is our American religious foundation, and do we really want to go back? I have been thinking about this again recently, and share these reflections after reading John Armstrong's recent series [one, two, three] about religion in American public life.
- America wasn't Judeo-Christian, historically. When it was religious, it was white Protestant, and anti- most everybody else. And this is what we see, for example, all the way back in the original state constitutions that required office holders to be (white Protestant male) Christians. These, and not the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, are the actually-religious political documents from our early years. The huddled masses, Catholic, Jewish, or otherwise, were welcome to come and assimilate, or come and help build the economy, but not to share power or change the culture.
- This was the same white Protestant heritage that allowed centuries of slavery, denied women equal rights (the vote, property ownership, college education, political office, equal wages, etc.), and nurtured the Ku Klux Klan. This was the reality if not totality of America's religious culture, though it was more obvious in the South, where political power wasn't shared with non-white-Protestants.
- Increases in Catholic and Jewish immigration (mostly in the North) in the early 20th century led eventually to a shift away from total dominance by white Protestants and forced us to take seriously our unrealized constitutional promises about religious freedom, equality, and fair treatment under the law—first for Jews and Catholics, and then for racial minorities. More recent rights movements for other minorities, such as homosexuals, the handicapped, and the mentally ill, are the legacy of the earlier movements.
- The Civil Rights movement, thus, was a revolution against white Protestant America's lock on power—though white Protestants did take part on both sides of the movement, of course. Perhaps more of them on the anti-Rights side, sadly, considering where the Bible Belt is located.
- Nostalgia for or a return to our actual religious past, then, would be problematic, to say the least.
White male Protestants in Thomas Jefferson's day may not have needed such protections, but all Christians should lament the fact that only that group had such privilege and opportunity. Rather than wishing to see America return to the dubious morality of that era, we should take seriously the fact that neither the church nor America either is or was white, male, and Protestant.