There’s plenty to chew on in the latest data from the Pew Research Center about religious trends in America.
Consider just one fact: The number of self-identified Christians in America now stands at 65 percent – a drop of 12 points within the past 10 years. “Nones,” people who when asked to state a religious preference, reply “none,” now account for 26 percent of the population, a jump of 9 points since 2009. There are now more nones in America than Catholics, who are at 20 percent.
“Nones” are a diverse group, and they should not all be perceived as being faithless. While some are atheists and agnostics, most remain interested in spiritual topics but haven’t joined a faith community.
As the Pew report makes clear, our country is changing. When it comes to religion, we’re more diverse than ever. While far-right fundamentalists who are convinced that only their narrow version of faith is “true” may tremble at this news, the rest of us should celebrate it. It’s what our founders intended.
Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison spoke of the value of religious diversity to a growing nation. Madison in 1788 asserted that a “multiplicity of sects” is “the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.
“For where there is such a variety of sects,” observed Madison, “there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.” Even in Madison’s day, it was understood that religious freedom should never be used as an instrument of discrimination or a device to deny others their rights.
That’s one reason to support the religious freedom that separation of church and state gives us. Another reason is that it’s simply a fundamental right of all people to make their own decisions about religion without government interference.
That includes the right to affiliate strongly with a faith community, the right to change your beliefs or the right to blend traditions together into your own unique spiritual brew. It includes the right to reject all faiths and embrace atheism. It includes the right to question, to doubt and to seek.
Americans who do these things may horrify the Christian nationalists among us, but they’re honoring a great American tradition. Colonial-era religious freedom advocate Roger Williams was a Puritan minister but found that faith’s rigid requirements too stifling. He was a Baptist for a short time but ultimately decided that Jesus would not reveal which version of faith was valid until the second coming, so he went his own way. Williams may have been our first “none.”
Jefferson operated in the same vein. In an 1819 letter to a friend, he observed, “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
Religious freedom gives all of us the right to be a sect by ourselves – or to reject all sects. And keeping religion and government separate is what protects that right for everyone.
Unfortunately, our court system is moving in the opposite direction by upholding certain forms of Christian privilege. The U.S. Supreme Court this summer approved the display of a 40-foot-tall cross on public land in Bladensburg, Md., and a lower federal court has said that non-theists can be excluded from offering guest invocations before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives because only references to God can properly solemnize such an occasion.
Courts have said such practices are permissible because they are “traditional.” But our greater tradition is meaningful religious freedom and the right to make your own decision about which faith, if any, you wish to join and support.
As recent demographic changes have shown, more and more Americans are taking advantage of that tradition. Only separation of church and state can ensure that future generations will be able to do the same. For their sake, our courts should be shoring up the church-state wall, not knocking out its bricks.
Join us as we work to keep that wall high and firm!