Christianizing America

Nat Hentoff

An array of reports and studies—not to mention Jay Leno’s impromptu questioning of college students on NBC’s Tonight Show—make it alarmingly clear that from grammar school to graduate school, and across the country at large, many Americans are educationally left behind in their knowledge of the basic constitutional, individual liberties. You know—the liberties we are purportedly trying to protect from terrorism.

In September, the Freedom Center, based at Vanderbilt University (a source of valuable research for me) released its annual “State of the First Amendment” national survey. Many of the responses were as politically correct and constitutionally incorrect as I have come to expect. Fifty-six percent of respondents would prohibit public statements that would offend racial groups; 74 percent would ban students from wearing T-shirts that might be offensive to various groups.

What startled me was that when asked if they believe “the Constitution establishes a Christian nation,” 46 percent of respondents strongly agreed, 19 percent mildly agreed, 12 percent disagreed, and 19 percent—brave secularists—strongly disagreed.

Here’s more to gladden the heart of Pat Robertson: 58 percent desire teacher-led prayers in schools; 43 percent support school holiday programs that are entirely Christian. (I remember such programs during my elementary school days at Boston’s William Lloyd Garrison public school during the so-called Great Depression.) Reversing the Supreme Court, 50 percent would permit public-school teachers to use the Bible as a “factual text” in history classes.

The fundamental question in this survey was “Is America a Christian nation?” Presidential candidate John McCain says yes. Commenting on the First Amendment Center’s poll in a September 30 New York Times interview, McCain said, “I would probably have to say that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation.” The only Baptist minister running for the White House, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, agrees.

Unsurprisingly concerned, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Jewish Week (October 5): “The religious factor in campaigns is becoming more and more acceptable—it could easily cross the line and become a kind of religious test for office.”

All of this is telling those of us who are not Christians that we are here on sufferance. I’m reminded of a day years ago when I was on a panel at Robertson’s Regent College in Virginia. The question was: “Is this a Christian nation?” Before we went on, previous speakers agreed, in celebratory chorus, that this is clearly a historical fact.

When my turn came, I suggested the audience look more closely at the fact that God is absent from the Constitution—except for the date of the document: “the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”

Amid the hostile stirrings in the audience, I also told them to check out Article VI, Section 3: “. . . no religious test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States.” For the rest of the day, I was the pariah in the room.

What I hadn’t realized at the time, until reading David Koepsell’s “Humanism and Civil Rights” (Free Inquiry, October/November 2007) was that despite a 1961 Supreme Court decision, there remain states that—in addition to denying atheists a range of civil rights—defy the utterly clear language of Article VI, Section 3, which forbids religious tests for public office.

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), Justice Hugo Black penned a decision that affected the state constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, all of which continued to mandate belief in God as a requirement for state office. In the case before the Court, a citizen appointed as a notary public in Maryland was forbidden to serve because he would not abuse his conscience by swearing to a belief he did not hold. Hugo Black ordered that no state could act as if Article V, Section 3 had been written in invisible ink.

Among the remaining civics classes that have survived the No Child Left Behind Act’s concentration on teaching for tests in reading and math, I doubt if Torcaso v. Watkins is ever mentioned in public schools. Actually, the First Amendment Center might have asked the respondents to its “State of the First Amendment” poll how many had ever read the Constitution.

It would be useful if the same question could usefully be asked of members of the Congress, the incumbent president, and the presidential candidates of both parties. Except for Joseph Biden, very few ever cite the unilateral “effective revisions” of the Constitution by this administration.

Torcaso v. Watkins was not even fully obeyed by the offending states. In Isaac Kramnick’s and R. Laurence Moore’s The Godless Constitution (Norton 1995; expanded paperback edition, 1996), the authors help to explain the growing Christianization of this nation in Americans’ minds: “Since 1961, amazingly enough, each of the five states, including Maryland, have amended their constitutions [as ordered by the Supreme Court] but have not eliminated required belief in God from the documents. The force of [these remaining clauses may be symbolic in view of Torcaso], but they do matter. They speak to pressures that weigh upon legislatures and to the mentality of those who appoint and elect people to office. They tell atheists not to apply.” (Emphasis added.)

David Koepsell ended his Free Inquiry article by warning that “Some Supreme Court justices have publicly stated their opposition to Torcaso and its application of the First Amendment to the states. They would have no problem with a return to state-sponsored religion. We can only guess where Samuel Alito and John Roberts will come down on this matter.

“We should stand ready,” he added, “if the need arises—as it well might with this Supreme Court—to follow the model of successful civil rights movements and fight for what we have so slowly gained and so tenuously hold.”

Koepsell also advised that we not minimize “the way we are misperceived by a hostile public.” (Concrete evidence of that hostility to us atheists can also be found in the “State of the First Amendment” survey.)

But the civil rights movement has not been successful in securing compliance by state and federal legislatures to the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education—witness our increasingly racially segregated public schools.

We do need a civil rights movement for atheists. As Koepsell writes: “There is no need now to march in the streets,” but we must maintain “our vocal and forceful presence in the courts, where the laws will protect us.”

But the meanings of these laws—as shown by some states’ post-Torcaso evasion of that Court decision and among the general public—are not being sufficiently protected. We also need to educate the educators and the public that the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws” continues to fail to prevent debasement of atheists in the ways Koepsell describes in his article.

The considerable recent sales of books by atheists—and I doubt that only atheists bought them—shows a momentum of interest about the foundations of atheism that should be continued and quickened. I welcome specific ideas of how exactly that can be done. Perhaps not all future “State of the First Amendment” polls will reflect the current ignorance about atheism and atheists—and the Constitution.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).

An array of reports and studies—not to mention Jay Leno’s impromptu questioning of college students on NBC’s Tonight Show—make it alarmingly clear that from grammar school to graduate school, and across the country at large, many Americans are educationally left behind in their knowledge of the basic constitutional, individual liberties. You know—the liberties we are …

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