Comedian Jimmy "J. J." Walker once joked that religious conflict in Northern Ireland between Christians and Protestants, showed that in a country with no Blacks, Jews or Mexicans, people can improvise. The current field of Democratic presidential candidates, with all its historic "firsts" - first woman, first latino, first African American - provides plenty of opportunities for identity politics in Election 2008. We've already seen some of the effects of this: Barack Obama now requires Secret Service protection, due to the volume of racially motivated hate messages and threats against him. However, with all the ethnic differences that do exist among the candidates, apparently, some want to improvise.
Someone close to me recently received the latest version of a hate-filled attack on Obama, in her e-mail box. It contained the now-tired claims that he is a Muslim (long debunked), that he attended a Madrassa (also debunked ), and that he is somehow tied to Radical Islam. After educating the sender on the facts, she was happy to receive an apology - however, she was also assured that the motivation for sending the screed was not hate, but a need to defend the Christian foundation of our country against violent enemies. Sadly, the writer had traded one misconception for several others; a case of taking one step forward and two steps back.
Of course, the painting of all Muslims with the broadbrush of terrorism, is inaccurate, unfair, and hateful. But the "Christian Nation" misconception has equally destructive implications, ranging from individual discrimination, to turning ordinary conflicts into full blown crusades.
Unfortunately, this viewpoint is a common one. As USA Today reports, 55% of respondents in a First Amendment Center survey "believe erroneously that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation." Besides being false, this belief is extremely destructive in a diverse nation. The danger is much greater, however, given the military entanglements we find ourselves in today.
The falsehood of the belief is simple to discover: the Constitution makes no mention of Christianity, Jesus, or God. The only mentions of religion are those that limit its entanglement with the matters of government. The term "separation of church and state" which comes from a speech given by Thomas Jefferson, provides context for the First Amendment's establishment clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The implications of the "Christian Nation" myth are perhaps more subtle. If this is a Christian nation, then non-Christians can only be seen as second-class citizens; guests merely tolerated by the majority. It means that non-Christian children attending public schools cannot feel at home there - they must accept exclusion or pretend to be someone they are not. And it means that all employers - not just tax-exempt houses of worship - can freely engage in job discrimination based on religion.
Beyond simple discrimination, the idea of a Christian nation ignores the fact that there are many sects of Christianity. Which version would be considered the "official" foundation of the nation? Which version of the Ten Commandments would be displayed in public schools? (Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, has often quipped that he'd be happy to post the Ten Commandments in public settings, as long as they're in the original Hebrew.) Which interpretations of scripture would be officially sanctioned?
Perhaps the most scary part of this view, however, is its implications for our current military involvements in the Muslim world. I wonder: Do subscribers to the Christian Nation Myth believe that the Iraq occupation is a struggle between Christianity and Islam? What about saber-rattling on Iran? Do they believe that such religious clashes are the business of American foreign policy?
Ironically, since 9/11, much pro-war rhetoric has emphasized the difference between the freedom enjoyed here, and the stranglehold that theocracies have on their citizens. Sadly, recent reports from Saudi Arabia, where a 19 year old girl suffered gang-rape, and is sentenced to 200 lashes and a prison sentence - all for violating a religion-based law - demonstrate the extremes of church-state union.
History is replete with the carnage of religious-based wars. This attack on Barack Obama has implications far beyond Election 2008.