Concerning recent (and seemingly conflicting) poll results from the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Justin Reynolds is, I think, exactly right when he says: “Actually, a sounder reading of these results would suggest that most Americans see the separation of church and state itself as the mark of a ‘Christian’ nation.” Absolutely correct. What the average American (if there is such a thing) sees in the First Amendment is primarily a guarantee that he or she can practice whatever religion he or she wants to practice. That is, the protection afforded by this element of the Bill of Rights–as the idea of “Rights” itself implies–is a protection of religion (especially minority sects) from government interference, and not at all a protection of government from religion. (Indeed, whether secularists like it or not, this is actually a pretty sound constitutional reading of what the First Amendment says.) But this “right” to practice the religion of one’s choice, however impinged upon by cultural prejudices about various “minority” beliefs (such as Catholic or Jewish in former days, or Islam today) has nothing to do with how Americans understand the deeper cultural roots of their nation. These roots are generally understood as being based in low-church Protestant Christianity–i.e. primarily Puritan–and, again, this is not at all an untenable reading of America’s cultural origins. The manifest ignorance of Americans about religion today needs to be juxtaposed to their broader (and not really incorrect) understanding of First Amendment rights and America’s cultural beginnings.
Of course, as I have argued concerning PBS’s “God in America,” there is nothing unique in all this: Britain, too, has a strong Protestant heritage, one that became increasingly low-church in the nineteenth century (read the work of Linda Colley, for example, to see how important that Protestant heritage was to British identity). Much of Holland and Germany fits a similar mold. And one could look at the powerful effects of Catholicism in Spain and Italy and France. What, alas, is often missing in Americans’ view of their culture is the sense that things do not have to remain exactly the same for all time; this is, I think, also the failing in the way Stephen Prothero thinks about religion in America. The low-church origins of American culture do not–and should not need to–embalm that culture in the world of 1776, though somehow that is what the Tea Party has come to assume. And the First Amendment, useful as it is, need not be the only document that informs how we see religion in America. There is a long tradition of jurisprudence that argues for the benefits accruing to both religion and government if the two are kept reasonably separate, and on the whole this has been a very effective, justice-enhancing, and peace-maintaining presumption in the history of American legal practice. Which is to say that, as a result, we have largely avoided the sort of thing that ripped apart England in the 1640s, or that is killing people to this day in Iraq. What Americans need desperately to grasp even more than the specific doctrines of this or that religion, though it is understandably hard for them to do so when our “teachable moments” are mishandled, is that comprehending the past well or thoroughly does not mean that one must also be wedded to it. What a mess we would be in if people still did not recognize that drinking the water downstream is not a good idea if the people upstream are defecating into the river. Sometimes, we need to leave the past behind, and never more so than when it is likely to make us ill.