The Huffington Post conducted an online poll of a varied group of Americans to see how many people in our country want to establish an official religion at the national level or in their state. There are a couple things you should keep in mind as you check out the results.
Established religion does not mean a theocracy or that everyone has to join the official religion; it just means that the government contributes tax money toward the budgets of one particular religious denomination. It can also mean that a state picks a favorite religion: your state bird could be a bluebird and your state religion could be Rastafarian. In that case nobody gets any money; maybe the Rastafarian chaplain gets to perform the swearing in ceremonies of the governor, but it’s not much of a bigger deal than being the state reptile or state snack food.
Many western countries, including very secular ones in Europe, have established religions today: the UK, Denmark, Norway and Sweden for example. Nobody really thinks about these as dangerous theocracies on the prowl.
At the time the Constitution was adopted, several of the 13 original colonies had established religions: Anglicans (Episcopalians) in some of the southern colonies, Congregationalists in some of the New England ones. By the 1830s the last of these state established churches had been abolished, not by court order but by vote.
The federal government does not have the authority to establish a religion at the national level thanks to the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. As a practical matter, it was never going to happen anyway because with so many different religions powerful in so many different states, there would never have been a consensus on who got picked nationally: Methodists? Baptists? Catholics?
State governments never had the power to establish an Iranian-style theocracy or religious dictatorship in any form. The federal government under the constitution is supposed to guarantee a “republican form of government” to the states and the feds would have the power to intervene if a deranged state headed into deep waters.
Most legal scholars would agree that these days states no longer have the right to establish a religion because the 14th Amendment to the Constitution limited the powers of states and put them under the restrictions of the Bill of Rights more or less. Forcing some citizens to pay tax money to support a religious organization to which they did not belong would put states in violation of the individual rights they are obliged to uphold.
In any case, the religious diversity that has marked American life throughout our history and continues to become more evident today makes it impossible to get a majority together to do anything more substantive than, say, putting “In God We Trust” on coins. Polls show very limited support for declaring a state religion, and that’s even before the divisive question gets answered: what religion gets to be the teacher’s pet? You have to define a state religion: even if you choose something vague like “Christianity” as the choice, do you count Mormons and Unitarians as Christians? How liberal or conservative can a denomination be and still qualify?
American seculars and atheists can relax: compulsory, state-mandated Vacation Bible School is nowhere in sight.
[Church image courtesy Shutterstock]