For many Christians there exists a prevailing mythology that America was established as a Christian nation. They envision the founders sitting around trying to put the language of Scripture into the framework of the Constitution. But the myth, while powerful and certainly durable in the imaginations of many believers, is just that—imaginary.
Were there members of the founding clan that wanted to establish America as a Christian theocracy? Yes, they were there. But at the end of the process a theocracy was rejected in favor of a democratic republic. What evolved in the cauldron of a constitutional convention was a system of government in which leaders govern by consent of the governed with God having no legal basis at all.
The religious issue remained contentious, of course. There were those who wanted a purely secular state with no room for religion at all. There were others who wanted acknowledgement that God was integrally part of the social order. The solution came in the form a compromise that we now know as the first part of the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
For over 200 years now an ocean of ink has been spilled trying to figure out the precise meaning of these words. But there is one fact that cannot be disputed. The freedom of religion guaranteed and protected by the words of the First Amendment has generated in our country a spiritual diversity unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
That diversity will be on full display as the 111th Congress convenes and begins its work. According to recent analysis by Congressional Quarterly and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the new Congress’ religious diversity is significantly representative of the diversity that exists in the country as a whole.
For instance, 292 members of the new Congress identify themselves as Protestants. That amounts to nearly 55 percent. Protestants make up 52 percent of the nation as a whole. The same is true for Catholics, which comprise 30 percent of the new Congress and nearly 24 percent of the population at large.
In a few cases the faith of Congress exceeds representation in the wider public. For example, nearly nine percent of the new Congress professes Judaism whereas Jews comprise only about two percent of the population at large. And Mormons, comprising only about two percent of the population of the country, are nearly three percent of the new Congress.
The 111th Congress will also feature two Muslims and for the first time two Buddhists. Together Buddhists and Muslims make up just over one percent of the nation’s population but less than one percent of Congress.
Interestingly, those who do not profess any faith are also represented in Congress. Five members of the new Congress did not specify a religious affiliation. In America, about 16 percent of the population claims to be unaffiliated with any faith tradition.
All of this should lead us to express gratitude for the genius of the founders of our country. Without knowing fully how it would work out, they created a way for us to have a government that is pragmatically secular while supporting a social order that is dynamically spiritual. It’s a delicate mix that for now at least, seems to be working pretty well.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.