Americans and religious liberty: A new poll yields good news and bad news

Should one religious tradition be given preferential treatment in the United States?

I think most of us would emphatically say, “No!”

So a new public opinion poll from the Barna Group has good news for us. The telephone survey, announced Jan. 18, found that 66 percent of Americans say no one set of values should dominate in this country. That’s two out three Americans on the right side, and that’s not too bad.

But Barna, an evangelical-leaning enterprise, also found some troubling statistics. Twenty-three percent of those polled say “traditional Judeo-Christian values” should be given preference in the United States. Among evangelical Christians that number rose to 54 percent!

I think this data tells us why we have so much trouble with the Religious Right. Most Americans have a live-and-let-live attitude toward religion. We make our own decisions about faith, and we expect others to do so as well.

But a sizeable minority of Americans is so sure they’re right about religion that they want the government to give their faith preferential treatment.

Needless to say, there are a lot of problems with this approach.

In the first place, it violates the U.S. Constitution, our nation’s governing document. The First Amendment clearly bars government from favoring one tradition over others or prohibiting the free exercise of any and all faiths. The “Judeo-Christian” tradition has no more claim on governmental embrace than any other faith.

In the second place, America is becoming increasingly diverse. We have a staggering array of different Christian denominations and we also welcome millions of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and those who follow no spiritual path at all. What kind of country would we be if one religious tradition was singled out for preferential treatment and all the others were given second-class status?

Finally, what in the world is the “Judeo-Christian” tradition the poll asks about? There really is no such creature. The Jewish faith does not include Christianity as part of its worship, and Christian denominations come in so many different varieties that a reference to a “Judeo-Christian” tradition is completely meaningless. Could Roman Catholicism be any more different from the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

When evangelicals say they want that particular tradition to be given preference, I can only assume they mean they want their own personal variety of Christianity to be preferred. There really isn’t much “Judeo” in the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. It’s entirely Christian – and of a fundamentalist bent at that.

Bottom line: most Americans applaud American diversity, pluralism and religious liberty. But there’s a determined minority out there that doesn’t appreciate church-state separation. We need to be on guard against their political intrigues.

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