The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.
Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.
The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University.
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Posted December 23, 2012 at 2:00 pm
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