After a short respite from the fight over the Pledge of Allegiance, the Republican Party has once again thrown itself into the fray over issues of church and state. This time it's the Republican Party of Texas, President Bush's home state, which has approved a plank in its platform affirming that "the United States of America is a Christian nation."
The plank, which also pooh-poohs "the myth of the separation of church and state," has elicited protests from Jewish groups. So far, however, it has not been rejected by the national Republican Party.
This is in contrast to a similar flap in 1992: A statement by then-Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice at a Republican governors' convention that "the United States is a Christian nation" was met with rebukes from leading Republicans, and Fordice eventually had to apologize.
True, the Texas Republican Party's plank also includes the "Judeo-Christian" formula that the national Republican leadership defended in 1992 ("our nation was founded on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible"). But the affirmation of Christianity as the core of the American spirit rings far louder than the small nod to the Jewish heritage.
Some conservatives in the media have not merely refused to criticize the "Christian nation" plank but rallied to its defense. Interviewing Tina Berkiser, Texas Republican Party chairwoman, the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly described the plank as a "largely symbolic" response to secularist activists and judges who would throw God out of the public square. On another Fox News show, "Hannity & Colmes," guest host Mike Gallagher suggested that objections to the plank stemmed from anti-Christian "bigotry."
Secularist bigotry does exist. It can be found in policies that forbid any mention of faith in student graduation speeches in public schools, in campaigns to get Christmas decorations off public property or in the recent successful push by the American Civil Liberties Union to remove a tiny cross from the Los Angeles County seal. But it is hardly bigoted to see the "Christian nation" plank as an affirmation of Christian supremacy, relegating non-Christians (if only in a "symbolic" way) to second-class status.
On "Hannity & Colmes," Gallagher asserted that the plank was a simple statement of a numerical fact.
"If a neighborhood had 82 percent of the population that was Italian or a town had 82 percent of the population that was Polish, we'd call those communities Italian or Polish towns. So why do liberals have such a knee-jerk reaction when anybody dares to suggest that with 82 percent of the population being Christian, we are, in fact, a Christian nation?"
Well, for one, if a town council passed a resolution affirming that it was an Italian or Polish town, there'd be a strong reaction, too. Such a resolution would be perceived as a clear statement that members of other ethnic groups are not welcome.
If we're going by the numbers, why not have a party platform asserting that the United States is "a white nation?" After all, 77 percent of Americans are white.
As for the plank's historical aspects, few would dispute that Christianity has played a central role in American history and culture. But the foundation of the American political system rests at least in equal measure on the secular philosophy of the enlightenment.
On "Hannity & Colmes," the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the prominent evangelical leader, asserted that it is precisely because America is a Christian nation that Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or atheist Americans enjoy the freedom they do.
That statement, however, reeks of ignorance: Plenty of Christian nations have had a sad record of religious intolerance and persecution. America's religious freedom is the product of a unique blend of Judeo-Christian and enlightenment values; as Susan Jacoby documents in her book, "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (Metropolitan Books, 2004), tension between these two strands of our culture has persisted throughout our history.
Numerically, the United States is a predominantly Christian nation. That's a factual statement, just like the statement that historically, Christianity has been a major force in our public life. But to call the United States a "Christian nation" is an assertion of ideology, not fact, particularly coming from the same corner that produces efforts to legislate religious beliefs about homosexuality or abortion.
The Republican Party's apparent embrace of such attitudes is troubling. It lends credence to the notion that our war against radical Islamic terrorism is a religious war. And it alienates many Americans who support the Republican values of limited government and strong defense but also regard the separation of church and state as a bedrock American principle, not a "myth."
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe.