Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain caused quite a stir recently when he stated–in a video interview on Beliefnet–that he believes the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation.
His comments should have caused a stir for a number of reasons.
First of all, it is scary to think that a presidential hopeful knows so little about the Constitution he would be sworn to uphold, if he won. He was not asked about an obscure point of law but about the values espoused in one of the Constitution’s most famous passages, the First Amendment that specifically states Congress cannot establish any religion as the official religion of the land.
It is true the majority of our population is Christian. That is why my son decided he could not accept the call backs he received after auditioning for several plays being offered at his college: The call backs were held on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The students running these plays were obviously running on Christian time. My son took his decision in stride and I was proud he chose his Jewish observances over his great desire to perform.
This kind of cultural discordance between Jewish life and the Christian veneer of American life is part of the challenge of living as a minority in a majority culture. After all it is a Christmas tree, rather than a montage of various religious symbols, like a Hanukkah menorah, Kwanza candelabra, and Hindu festival lights, which grace the White House lawn each December.
But even with this cultural dissonance, we Jews have still faired far better here than anywhere else in any era of history, precisely because America is not a Christian nation, but one in which our Constitution separates church and state.
J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee and both a member of the Supreme Court Bar and an ordained minister, put it well when he wrote in Newsweek that “the U.S. may be a Christian nation sociologically, but not constitutionally. That fact is easy to demonstrate. Living up to the religious freedom values embodied in the Constitution and not giving preference to the Christian majority is more difficult.”
Living up to the value of religious freedom is precisely what we should expect from our next president. We certainly have not seen it in our present Commander in Chief. (His faith based initiative projects are just one dangerous example.)
The First Amendment, and the moderating influence it exerts over government and society, is a hallmark of America and one of the most critical elements America hopes to export to the larger world. It is what makes true democracy strong, rather than just another form of “the strong bullying the weak.”
Perhaps one of the reasons our current administration’s foreign policy has been such a failure is that President Bush failed to see the connection between the First Amendment and America’s success. Hopefully our next President will be better informed.