-Bhanu DhamijaFollow @bhanudhamija
Nearly three-quarters of Americans support the concept of Separation of Church and State. According to numerous Pew Research surveys, most Americans want their government to stay away from religious activities of any kind.
This high degree of secular philosophy is remarkable, considering that the nation has always been predominantly Christian. Nearly 65% of the population today is Christian, as was almost every President and Congressman throughout the country’s history.
Credit for this belief that Church and State remain separate goes mainly to two features of the Constitution: the First Amendment, which bars government from promoting any religion, and the structure of the Presidential System, which makes it difficult for interested majorities to form.
The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But this constitutional restriction alone wouldn’t safeguard America’s religious minorities if the country had a majoritarian structure of government, like the Parliamentary system. That system is inherently unitary and assigns all executive and legislative powers to the majority party. In such a system, the Christian majority would have found it easier to dominate the country’s politics. For example, the United Kingdom’s Parliament still holds that the Church of England is an integral part of the State.
India is another example of a majoritarian, Parliamentary government which has failed to end religious strife even after 75 years of functioning under a liberal Constitution. That Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but its government structure allows dominance by the Hindu majority.
“Structure is everything,” wrote the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, stressing the importance of the Constitution’s basic framework. In a 2014 interview on C-SPAN he said, “Every tinhorn dictator in the world today has a Bill of Rights. It isn’t a Bill of Rights that produces freedom. It’s the structure of government that prevents anybody from seizing all the power…
“Keep your eye on the ball. Structure is destiny,” he said.
Here are five startling facts about the relationship between religion and government in the United States:
(Based on surveys and analyses by the Pew Research Center.)
1. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) say that religion should be kept separate from government policies.
2. A law (the Johnson Amendment) limits political activity by religious organizations, and most Americans (70%) want churches and other houses of worship to stay out of politics.
3. The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it’s unconstitutional for a teacher to lead a class in prayer at a public school. Only three-in-ten adults said that public school educators should be allowed to do this.
5. Every U.S. president, including Joe Biden, has been Christian (though a handful claimed no religious affiliation). Congress too has always been overwhelmingly Christian, and roughly nine-in-ten Representatives (88%) in the current Congress – including 99% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats – identify as Christian.