In 1790, officials with the fledgling U.S. government proposed taking a census, in part to determine what sort of jobs people in America were doing. Initially, they wanted to include clergy.
James Madison took alarm. A government attempt to count the number of religious leaders could, he warned, lead to entanglement between church and state.
“As to those who are employed in teaching and inculcating the duties of religion, there may be some indelicacy in singling them out, as the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who are and who are not ministers of the gospel,” Madison told his colleagues in the House of Representatives.
No List Of Religions
That Madisonian spirit lived on, and the official U.S. Census has traditionally not asked Americans about their religious affiliation. A recent article on the website of the Pew Forum goes into some detail about this issue, noting that government officials have cited church-state separation as a reason not to question Americans about their faith or lack thereof.
“After public debate over the issue in the 1960s and ’70s, the Census Bureau’s director, Vincent P. Barabba, announced in April 1976 that there would be no question on religion in the upcoming 1980 census, on the grounds that ‘asking such a question in the decennial census, in which replies are mandatory, would appear to infringe upon the traditional separation of church and [s]tate,’” the article notes. “He added, ‘Regardless of whether this perception is legally sound, controversy on this very sensitive issue could affect public cooperation in the census and thus jeopardize the success of the census.’”
Officials are right to be cautious here. There’s just something about the federal government querying you about your religious beliefs on an official form – it doesn’t pass the “ick” factor. Put simply, when, where, if and how you worship is none of the government’s business; it doesn’t need to know.
Data Collected Privately
Besides, there are plenty of other ways to get this data. Several private firms, Pew among them, regularly survey Americans about religious beliefs and practice. The information is out there for anyone who wants it.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with delegations of scholars and government officials from abroad to explain how religion and government interact in America. Some of these visitors are occasionally surprised to learn that the U.S. government doesn’t keep tabs on the religious behavior of its citizens.
I’ve explained that in America, what you believe about God, religion and prayer (or indeed if you believe) shouldn’t be relevant to your standing as a citizen or affect your rights.
In Madison’s day, many countries combined church and state and spent way too much time obsessing over how people behaved when it came to religion. Madison and other forward thinkers showed us a better path.
Let’s stay on it.