God in America
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Interview: Sarah Barringer Gordon

Sarah Barringer Gordon

A professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Gordon holds advanced degrees in history, religion and law. She recently published The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 4, 2010.

Why are you interested in religion and American society? ...

My interest in the topic really stems from growing up in a period that we will look back on as a great awakening, meaning the 1970s and 1980s, and across the 1990s, we had an enormous religious revival in the United States; and that's really when my interest was triggered.

What triggered that revival? ...

Any revival is very hard to pin down to a single cause. But if I had to say what I saw going on in most people's minds, it was distress at the materialism of the world around them, a desire for a deeper connection to community, less of a transitory feeling, and also a return to some level of security that life means something, that it's not just cheap, ... and also very much a yearning for security; that life meant something more than just what the TV screen and the newspaper was dishing out. ...

Was there a sense that something had been lost or something was missing from American life?

The question of loss or nostalgia is always there. There's always something lost. There's always a yearning for a return to a golden age. But yes, I think this revival in particular was keyed to a sense that deeper spiritual meaning in American life had been sacrificed, that an overcompensation of secularism had taken place, and that it was time to rediscover deeper meaning, deeper values, even though I realize that term is now politically laden. ...

Let's go back to some of the history, back to just after the Second World War, in the early '50s. … Talk us through what happened in the late '40s, early '50s, during that time period.

... There was almost immediately a shift to another sense and kind of war: a hot war to a cold war. And the hot war had been fought at some level in the interest of respect across religions, right, the Holocaust as a tremendous and horrific violation of toleration and respect for different traditions. Not just Jews, but Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, died by the thousands in Hitler's concentration camps.

“Each time [the Supreme Court] decided a case, another one would come along a few years later that destabilized the former decision.”

The Cold War, by contrast, was fought for the idea of religion. The atheist Communists were the new enemy, so at some level there was a new religious reason to think about what America really stood for right at the end of World War II. And in part, the investment in tolerance as well as the investment in religion migrated into that term, the "Judeo-Christian tradition," because for the first time openly and continuously, American politicians began to speak of American religious life as embracing more than one religious tradition.

And "Judeo-Christian" was designed to do that, to sweep great religious traditions into American life and history and politics.

What was driving that? Was that an idea that theologically the differences don't matter and we should all come together, or was it more of a political motivation that actually we need to have everybody inside the tent to face this new enemy?

The question of whether this is politics or a more genuine theologically driven ecumenism is one that I think can probably never be answered with any kind of perfect clarity or certainty. I think it was both the idea that, truth be told, protection of religious diversity seemed to many Americans to be a centerpiece of American life. And yes, that's political, but that's also religious, so I think both theology and politics are at work.

I think it's also true that many believers decided that respect across religious lines was actually more important than any particular battle for who had or didn't have final access to truth. The idea of getting along seemed more important; everybody flourished together. So I think while it's a great question, is this political or theological, I think the answer is both. ...

With [evangelist] Billy Graham, for instance, he was incredibly prominent during this period, but he sort of bridged together these two -- the religious and the political -- molding them together in one very potent message.

There's a great story about Billy Graham. He became an adviser to the candidate and then the newly elected President Eisenhower, who when he was elected was not a member of any religious organization. He did not attend any one church, and Graham advised him, "You know, you really should settle on a denomination," and the two of them had conversations back and forth. Mamie Eisenhower had been a Presbyterian, and Graham eventually said: "You know, Presbyterian, great denomination. Why don't you think about becoming a Presbyterian?" And within two weeks of being sworn in as president, Dwight Eisenhower was baptized, confirmed and became a communicant of the Presbyterian Church. It's remarkable: They had a conversation about it, and he joined a denomination at the advice of Billy Graham.

Why do you think that matters? What was the symbolism?

I think it matters, first of all, because Eisenhower was a spiritual person, but he hadn't really settled into a denominational identity. And one of the remarkable things about the post-World War II period was this great institution building. As people became "churched," as it's called, they began to go to churches and to identify themselves denominationally. I think that's one. The other is that Graham didn't say: "You have to do what I do, all right?" He said, "Well, let's talk it through and decide what's best for you," rather deciding as a spiritual adviser, as a minister, that it was his duty to advise the president of the United States to follow him, Billy Graham.

I think it's remarkable that they could have a conversation like this; that the president would, in fact, after becoming president of the United States, join a church and thereafter attend. In fact, it was at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church I believe that Eisenhower heard a sermon on adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and from that day forward [he] became an advocate of including the new words in the pledge, which happened in 1954.

Was there any strong opposition to adding those words to the pledge?

There was opposition. The movement to amend the pledge really got under way in about 1952. And the sermon was delivered by a Presbyterian minister, as I said, who was actually of Scottish origin, the Rev. [George] Docherty. And he said that this is part of the American way of life, that Americans understand themselves and their country to exist under a god and that the pledge should reflect that. There was a greater or lesser movement toward amending the pledge, but bills had been introduced for a couple of years and kind of languished in Congress.

Congress was doing some pretty important things in the early 1950s, and maybe amending the pledge didn't seem so urgent. But honestly, after Eisenhower got behind it, after it got some publicity, the public was so overwhelmingly in favor that one congressman reported receiving 2,000 pieces of mail in a given week advocating for the pledge.

There was opposition, though. There was opposition from the vanishingly small number of atheists. There was some opposition among Jews, worried that this was just a back way of trying to get Christianity into the pledge, but a majority of Jews also supported. It really was a very popular move.

"One nation under God," as opposed to the Soviet Union not with a god.

Exactly. ... It was considered a new weapon in the arsenal of anti-communism. ...

One thing that a very ardent defender of America said in the mid-1950s was that if the United States lost in this Cold War with the Soviet Union, it would not be because the Soviets really won. It would be because Americans were not themselves dedicated enough to their own faith.

Let's talk about some of these court cases. ... Little town of Champaign, Ill. -- tell us about who these people are, what happened.

One of the interesting things about the 1950s, and even the first half of the 1960s, is that we project backward a sort of uniformity that just really wasn't there, especially [when] the Supreme Court in the 1940s incorporated, as it's called, the religion clauses of the First Amendment, meaning that for the first time, the freedoms of religion that were protected by the national Constitution would now apply against state and local government.

When the Supreme Court incorporated those clauses, people who dissented began to realize that they, too, might have a voice, that maybe they couldn't have religion shoved down their throats if they didn't want it. And you began to see the fabulous diversity of American religious and non- or even anti-religious life. One of the things that emerges almost immediately after the Supreme Court incorporates the religion clauses is that the fantastic diversity and pluralism of American religion begins to be shown in new ways. So, for example, objections to providing textbooks to parochial school students or school prayer or other kinds of religious instruction in public schools during the school day become items of controversy in ways that they really hadn't been before, and they become especially issues that draw national attention.

For the first time, the Supreme Court of the United States is involved and begins to issue opinions that seem to offend the assumed consensus [with which] many people had blanketed the country.

Why were schools such a lightning rod? When did it become the focus of this much broader debate or conflict?

The question of schools and why they become the fulcrum for so much debate is really one that involves money on the one hand and the transmission of knowledge and faith to the next generation on the other. Public education truly is the single largest expense of local governments. And after World War II, for the first time, the federal government began funding state and local education. So there was lots of money sloshing into schools and lots of fights about who would benefit from all this money flowing in. ...

[And then there's] this Cold War dedication to education, and especially science, right? As the first line of defense against the Soviet Union, we need to build better scientists in order to build a stronger country. At the same time, there's a renewed emphasis on morals, moral behavior and religion: We need to build better citizens to build a country that can withstand the onslaught. ... How do we build a better American, a more knowledgeable and a more faithful American? And how do we fund that? There's intense focus nationally on this -- and of course, a baby boom. ...

Who is Vashti McCollum?

Vashti McCollum, she's an interesting woman. She herself was an atheist. Her case especially followed on the first of the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause opinions, which upheld the provision of busing to parochial school students in New Jersey [in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947]. So that's one of those questions of money: Can we pay for kids to get to openly religious schools?

Once the Supreme Court begins to talk about religious schools versus nonreligious schools, the question of where religious education appears, even in public schools, becomes really important. And in Illinois, like in many other states, the public school system had cooperated with religious educators and provided for students to take religious classes. ...

During the school day? ...

This is absolutely during the school day. ... Vashti McCollum didn't want her kid being isolated by not receiving this religious instruction. ...

Students who did not participate in the religious instruction were sent to the hallway. They were ostracized, in other words. They sat by themselves out in the hallway. Understandably, their parents were concerned that their children felt like they really weren't part of the class, part of the public education system that should make each child feel equally welcome.

So what did [Vashti McCollum] do?

She filed suit. She now had a right to go to federal court to have the attention of the national judiciary, and she claimed that this situation violated the Establishment Clause. ...

Initially she loses in the state courts, the appellate courts. It looks like the courts are reflecting the sort of broader national consensus. And suddenly, when it reaches the high court [McCollum v. Board of Education in 1948], it gets reversed. ... Walk us through that a bit.

When filing a lawsuit, a litigant reaches the Supreme Court of the United States only when it's a really important and undecided question. When the Supreme Court has discretion whether or not to hear a case, it will take a case only when there's that kind of vital issue at stake. So one of the things that's clearly happening in the late 1940s at the Supreme Court of the United States is that it's taking the Establishment Clause very seriously and beginning to build a jurisprudence of what the Establishment Clause requires and doesn't.

And what is the Establishment Clause?

The Establishment Clause technically reads: "Congress shall enact no law respecting an establishment of religion." And the debate over exactly what that means is endless and ongoing. But as it became explained in the opinions of the Supreme Court, it meant that not only Congress but also state and local governments could not prefer one religion over another, and it could not prefer religion over nonreligion, and that's where Vashti McCollum's situation comes into play, because in her child's case, the school was preferring religion over nonreligion and ostracizing the nonreligious child.

The family itself is more than ostracized; they're harassed and abused within their own community. And I'm wondering whether it goes to this idea that what we were talking about before is that if you're American, you're religious or anti-communist. If you're an atheist, maybe you're a Communist. Maybe this kind of politicalization of religion, I wonder whether that's sort of the passions around this case and [whether they] were driven by this kind of thinking.

I do think that the reaction against litigants, especially dissenting litigants who are so stubborn that they get all the way to the United States Supreme Court, the reaction against people like that is not just in a political sense tied to an era of anti-communism and anti-atheism. I think it's also about the way communities are and the way they react to the inherent critique of community values by someone who says they don't want to fit in. So it's visceral and psychological as well as political.

But the idea of being able to go to Washington and appear in front of the United States Supreme Court, and perhaps even be vindicated there, is very, very satisfying to someone who has suffered for their beliefs, or lack of beliefs. ...

And what did the court say, and what was the significance of that ruling?

The court said that it was unconstitutional to use the machinery of the public school, to use the property of the public school, to enforce religious educational ideals of the parents or of the children's denomination; that it certainly was appropriate for a child to get a religious education, but not for the government to be providing it, or to assure that religious institutions could provide it on public school property.

The significance of the case really was undermined five years later in a follow-up called Zorach v. Clauson [1952], when the same Supreme Court of the United States upheld a [New York] program that allowed school children to leave school property and go to religious institutions and to get their religious instruction there rather than having it imported on to school grounds.

So the significance really is qualified relatively quickly in a pattern that becomes common in Supreme Court jurisprudence. It gives with one hand, then it takes away with the other, making Establishment Clause jurisprudence very unstable, and in the end extremely unpopular.

Tell us about the way in which secularists were sort of defined in broad strokes as a minority to be protected. And was that a new way of thinking about protection of minorities [in terms of school]? ...

One of the great goals of the Supreme Court in its Establishment Clause litigation was to ensure that every student had a secular education, to ensure that they were not inculcated with religion against their will, or even if they wanted it; in other words, to ensure that the government was not in the business of delivering religion to students.

In the end, what the court said was, you can teach students about religion; religious history is part of American history. What you can't do is have them pray. You can't have them engage in religious life in school -- that is not what public education is about. There's a difference between religious education and secular education, and governments are in the business of delivering secular education.

We'll segue into the New York school prayer case, where the Board of Regents comes up with a very bland prayer. Maybe set the stage for us. What did New York do, and then what did these parents on Long Island do in reaction to that?

New York's Board of Regents put together a coalition of religious leaders across the faith spectrum and asked them to come up with a prayer that would be truly ecumenical; that would not offend Muslims, Jews or Christians and that would be suitable for saying at the opening of every school day. And the Regents' prayer, as it was called, was recommended in the 1950s for all school districts, and many of them adopted it; not all did. And there were lawsuits before the case that wound up making its way to the United States Supreme Court, a case called Engel v. Vitale, which was decided in 1962.

In that case, a group of parents on Long Island of various denominations challenged the school prayer, saying that opening the school day with an avowedly religious exercise was itself a violation of the Establishment Clause. ...

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee, and we beg thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country." It's so vapid. Why does [the prayer] even matter?

The prayer is in fact bland and vapid, but it really was the product of a group of representatives from different faiths who got together and ... did write something that would be inoffensive to all of them. In other words, if you were a believer in God, so the Regents said, this prayer would not offend you. It was designed to be genuinely respectful across faiths. The problem was that it was religious, and nobody disagreed with that. Prayer is by definition religious. And that's where the rubber really hit the road.

Was it valid for a school to require students to participate in a prayer at the opening of the school day, ... and if little Johnny objected, have him hop out on one leg and sit in the hallway, like the McCollum child had had to do? Or would he then be just as ostracized as that child had been? That was really the issue. Even if it's inoffensive to everyone who believes, what about the nonbeliever? What about them? And given that it's a validly religious exercises, even starting down that road unconstitutional, and that's what the Supreme Court held.

So some parents in Long Island said: "Hang on -- not us."

Yes. "We don't want our children praying in school." ... Several of them were believers, but they didn't want their children to be taught this prayer in school. Others simply didn't want the government to have anything to do with religion; [they] wanted a purely secular education delivered to their students, and that's what the Supreme Court said the Establishment Clause, the Constitution, requires.

Did the court say something to the effect that even though they were trying to be nondenominational, the very fact that the Board of Regents was writing a prayer meant that it was in fact acting as a church?

Yes, the question [of] whether it's all right to be religious as long as you're interfaith, as long as you don't offend any one religion, really was hotly debated in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The question of, is it OK to include religious exercises as long as they don't exclude anybody, as long as they are as genuinely respectful across religious boundaries as they possibly can be? That really was an open question until the Supreme Court decided the school prayer case, and it said the government simply cannot be in the business of providing religion; that's not the government's job. ...

Was there a sense that Jefferson's wall of separation is coming back 150 years later?

That's a great question. Thomas Jefferson had written to the Baptists in Danbury, Conn., a small dissenting group, ... saying, "I look with great pride on the wall of separation," referring to the religion clauses of the national Constitution. In fact, in the early republic, the national government was so small and so unlikely to be involved in anything like the prayers we're talking about in the mid-20th century that the wall of separation really didn't mean all that much. It really acquired life and meaning in the 20th century, through the Supreme Court's use of the phrase, which, as opponents of the court have pointed out, does not appear in the Constitution itself.

So even if Jefferson used this phrase before, this was really a new idea as the court has leaped forward?

This is really the application of that phrase to everyday life, which it had never really been applied to before. This was ground-level constitutional decision making affecting the way public schools across the country design education for their students. So this was a massive change.

Because at the time a lot of schools actually did have prayer, not only New York but --?

A lot of schools had prayers, especially across the South and in the Midwest. It was a little less common on the East Coast, but yes, many, many schools had prayers, and many continued them even after the Supreme Court's decision.

But the court said actually prayer in schools, you can't do it, and --

In that first case, in Engel v. Vitale [1962], the court said it is invalid for government to write a prayer. In a follow-up case a year later called Abington School District v. Schempp [1963], in which the school had the Lord's Prayer, something that the school itself didn't write, the court struck that prayer down as well, saying, "When we said prayer, we meant it."

That sent shock waves. It was very controversial.

Very controversial across the country. Something like 80 percent of the population opposed the decision. "Impeach Earl Warren" signs went up across the country; he was the chief justice of the Supreme Court. ... In fact, Engel v. Vitale prompted more hate mail being sent to the Supreme Court than Brown v. Board of Education. ...

The school prayer decision was in its day the most unpopular decision the Supreme Court had ever made. ...

Why do you think it was so unpopular? What really struck a chord? What was that nerve that it hit?

... It seemed like the Supreme Court was imposing secularism on the rest of the country, and especially in an era we spoke about, how the Cold War was fought in religious as well as military and political terms, especially in an era when religion seemed like a bulwark against communism. It seemed like the Supreme Court really was pulling out an essential support of the country from underneath the public education system. ...

Was there a growing secular movement? Was this court ruling beyond the specifics of the case? Was it reflective of a broader sort of movement, even though it might be a minority movement, but a secular movement as well?

I do think it's very difficult to claim [that] the United States was secularizing in the early 1960s. I think what had grown was government, honestly. That government had become far more powerful, far more pervasive, far more controlling than it ever had been before. It really appeared in everyone's lives on a daily basis in a much more controlling and domineering way. And one of the central questions for the Supreme Court in the second half of the 20th century was, what limits should be placed on government? ...

And in that sense, the Supreme Court was saying, it cannot be in the business of delivering religion; it has to stay out. ...

This might not relate to the court, but it seemed that after the [Second World] War, late '40s and '50s, I know some people felt that after the Holocaust and with the invention of nuclear weapons, that somehow faith in general, it was more legitimate to call into question, how could God allow this to happen?

The problem of theodicy, right?

And also at the same time, in technology as the rational answer to man's problems, and spiritual beliefs through science and technology, do you think there was a kind of -- I hate the term "secular movement," but people who felt like actually religion is outdated and there are other answers, other ways of looking at the world and at the human condition?

Yes, I do. I do think that the possibility of a purely secular explanation of the universe and of life altogether was available and that the looming conflicts between science and religion that we're so familiar with today were themselves in a smaller, more nescient way certainly there. I do think that most people most of the time thought that secularism really was a problem rather than not so much a scientific inevitability; it was a social and spiritual problem, not just another way of thinking. And that includes educated people and many, many scientists.

I'm thinking of Adlai Stevenson, in his presidential campaign, [who] said, really the enemy of America as the Antichrist is communism. And science was used to battle atheism in that sense. If you're using science and scientific training to build the defense of America, you're defending religious liberty and religious freedom as well. So yes, I think you are right; secularism was a possibility, but was considered a danger. And down that path communism lay.

[There was a] rise of the religious right that you saw in the late '70s. They were incensed by some of these court rulings and what they saw as a general decline in values. Almost America itself was the enemy, or something to that effect. How did they see the court? Put yourself in the worldview of [evangelical theologian and preacher] Francis Schaeffer or [founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network] Pat Robertson circa 1973, '74, [founder of the Moral Majority] Jerry Falwell. How did they view society and the court's ruling?

By the late 1970s, most of those right-leaning evangelicals really had a strong and even visceral opposition to what the Supreme Court had done. They saw it as the forcible imposition of secularism on a nation that was not itself secular. They had a very coherent set of ideas about what the Constitution really meant and what the Establishment Clause meant, which was that it meant that the government could not itself be sectarian; in other words, the government couldn't prefer one religion over another, but that it could act in favor of religion broadly conceived they thought of as perfectly valid.

It's fair to say that this is an old and venerable tradition in constitutional thought among American religious leaders. You can find it in the thought of the [Methodist Episcopal Church bishop] Rev. Jesse Peck in the mid-19th century, and also in the writings of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, for example. Many commentators hark back to Thomas Jefferson, but he didn't have a lock on what the Constitution meant. And many people thought that this prevention of preferring one religion over another was really the core of the Establishment Clause, not secularism.

Going back to state religions, that we didn't want to follow that same path; we're going to have freedom across the board.

Exactly -- the idea of allowing religions to flourish, but also not involving government in deciding which one on which day got which set of government preferences. Yes, the idea was that in these people's minds -- and again, I want to stress that this is a venerable tradition. The idea was that government should not be in the business of declaring one winner among religions, that it should provide space for all of them but not prefer one over another, but that the notion that it would impose rigid secularism struck them as absolutely a violation of the constitutional mandate; it was hostility to religion.

How did abortion fit into this from that respect?

Abortion is complicated from every perspective. In the so-called holocaust of the unborn, as it was referred to frequently by its opponents, religious leaders saw the Supreme Court as sanctioning murder on the most superficial, secular, scientific grounds and not taking seriously human life. I cannot emphasize enough how much abortion is seen as upholding of murder for the most superficial of reasons. ...

State-sanctioned murder, taking away fundamental rights of --

Yes, the imposition of secularism upholding abortion, upholding taxation of religious schools that didn't have an adequate number of minority students, it went on and on and on. Just to give you one example, the taxation of religious schools exempted Jewish and Catholic schools, so the evangelical right felt that they were being discriminated against.

So what did they set out to do?

They set out to recover a place in society -- more broadly construed, to recover the public square, if you will, and to declare their fundamental belief in America as a religious nation. Sometimes they called it a Christian nation famously, or even infamously called it a Christian nation. And they really declare themselves deeply, deeply opposed to what the Supreme Court had done in particular with public education, with the secularization of government altogether, and appealing more broadly to the values of a populace that they were convinced was actually yearning for religious values. Their success is testimony to the fact that many of them, much of the time, did find a welcome audience.

How did the court appointments from [Ronald] Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush] move the court away from the separation viewpoint? Has it been an evolution as a result of these pressures, the anger that came out of some of these rulings? Has there been a shift in the way the court sees separation of church and state?

There has been a shift in the Establishment Clause jurisprudence of the court. There's been a shift actually in the way the court decides both kinds of cases, Free Exercise [Clause] as well as Establishment. And the shift is in personnel on the court, but I think it's also in terms of how successful or unsuccessful the jurisprudence of the religion clauses has been. And one sense you get is that the court is less interested in deciding these cases. Each time it decided a case, another one would come along a few years later that destabilized the former decision. It was a very rocky road for the court. There was always another religion case. You could never quite smooth out the doctrine so that the system ran cleanly. And the court really began to pull back on both clauses about 20 years ago. ...

In terms of the court personnel, one of the things that really is remarkable is how many Catholics actually we now have on the court. That's also an interesting overlap with the religious right. We were talking about the ways, for example, that evangelical Protestants objected, and many still do object strenuously and deeply, to abortion. And when they found themselves holding those protests against abortion on demand, they found themselves marching next to Catholics. ... And many of them also found themselves in support for, say, governmental support for religious schools or even school prayer standing next to Orthodox Jews, so that new coalitions, new interfaith groupings became apparent in part in opposition to what the Supreme Court had done. ...

So that's one way of looking at it, is that the court personnel changed in terms of its own religious affiliation, but also in terms of who was appointing them. Republican presidents, right? The substantial number of appointments made by Reagan and Bush included a reliable number of conservatives in ways that, say, [Richard] Nixon just hadn't been able to deliver, or even Eisenhower appointed [Earl] Warren and [William J.] Brennan, who turned out to be liberals.

Reagan and Bush actually screened appointments very carefully and very successfully and delivered a more reliably conservative bench for the Supreme Court, which included a substantial number now of Catholics. ... And yes, it pulled back both on enforcement of the Free Exercise Clause and on the Establishment Clause over the last 20 years or so.

One of the things that's been striking for us as we've done research [about the] religious right is that a lot of them feel that they were not successful in their broad agenda. They wanted to save the country, and a lot of them regret getting too close to power. But I'm wondering whether for all of that, actually one of their new legacies may really be in a shift within the courts, not maybe the shift that they wanted, but they seem to have actually had an impact.

It's always difficult to trace causes for changes in Supreme Court jurisprudence. I think the one rule I would say is that constant -- at least in my own study of the court's opinions over the last seven years in this field, is that change is what always happens. So on the same day in 2005, the Supreme Court held that a monument with the Ten Commandments placed there decades earlier on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin, that monument of the Ten Commandments was OK [in Van Orden v. Perry], but posting the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse was not OK [in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky]. ...

Inconsistency really is the rule. So I think it's difficult to say that the court in any sense enacted the agenda of the religious right or any one group. Everyone's miserable. I think that it is true to say nobody thinks that the jurisprudence is consistent or elegant or right all the time. It is, however, fair to say that the voices of religious conservatives have acquired new decibels in federal courts around the country. ...

And many conservatives across the '70s, '80s, '90s and into the new millennium felt themselves empowered in ways we talked about with Vashti McCollum, [in] similar ways: a right to be heard in federal court and maybe even to win there. Many of them litigated their concerns, and, for example, acquired access to public forums that had been closed to them before, not so much by courts but, say, by a school principal who said, well, we rent the school gymnasium to the blood mobile and the League of Women Voters and the Boy Scouts, but we won't rent to the evangelical rock band, because that's religious.

And the evangelical rock band, or the students that wanted them, went to court and said: "Listen, it's not fair if you include all these other people and not us." ... You're right: Once you've opened up, you can't exclude religious voices any more than you can impose them from above. So there really was a correction, and many conservatives were involved in that, and it was very important.

I want to just ask some broad questions related to the deeper themes of the series, which are, what role does religion have in America? ... Why does religion matter so much to this country still today? ...

We talk about the founding of the country as motivated by belief that people migrated to North America so that they could be free to practice their beliefs. That's a genesis for a country, right? That's a religious explanation for the existence of the place at the very first instance. So there's an engine there. It's not just that religion exists; it's that it powers in many people's minds the existence of the country. So that's one way to think about it.

Another way to think about it is that it's possible here in ways that it simply isn't possible in many parts of the world, in part because we're such a mobile people. We move all the time, and we are transient in that sense. It's very unusual to think of a given family having lived in the same place for 300 or 400 years. ... But the idea that you can move to a new place and set down new roots, often movement leaves people asking themselves: So what really is important? What do I bring with me? What do I want to find when I go? How do I create roots? And the creation of roots through religious community is really a powerful way to establish oneself.

So migration may be part of the story. Another is our creativity in terms of religion. This is an extraordinarily creative country, and we find new ways to do religion all the time. And sometimes it's very controversial; sometimes it seems silly to outsiders. But honestly, the fact that it is so creative provides outlets for expression of spirituality in ways that I find endlessly fascinating and worthy of my respect and interest.

I could go on, but those just give you a few ways to think about why it's so important, why it continues to be so important, and at some level, why it seems like the ground we walk on. ...

Would you describe America as a nation that came out of the Christian tradition, or is still a Christian nation?

We were talking about the genesis of the country and the ways that in the 20th and 21st century we understand the founding of the country or the great migrations to North America to have been undertaken for religious reasons. Historians who study the period know that most migrations, even to North America, were not taken for religious reasons. They were taken for all kinds of reasons, including economic and nutritional -- access to protein. But religion is really, really important to many of them.

And that religion remains important to many Americans. So it's vital to understand that most migrants were Christian; that many were persecuted before they came. I'm thinking especially of the Anabaptists [a 16th-century group of European Christians], for example, who were in the business of being wiped out in Europe before William Penn invited them to Pennsylvania. ... There are vital stories of persecuted Jews coming to North America, especially in the late decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th. So being a haven for faith is and was important.

[Calling America] a Christian nation is difficult, because of course the Constitution limited the right of the nation to describe itself in religious terms right from the get-go. The nation itself was not supposed to have a religion, but it was overwhelmingly Christian. There is just no doubt that many Protestants, for example, across the 19th century really described Christianity as the source of democracy. They saw Christianity as the initial impetus for the political forms of American national and local government.

So the importance of Christianity is vital, but the label "Christian nation" has always been somewhat troubled. And there were fascinating surveys in the late 20th century among conservative believers, asking, is this a Christian nation? If it isn't, was it? And how much skin do you have in the game into making it a Christian nation again? And many of them believed, yeah, maybe it once was a Christian nation, but no, it isn't now, and we don't want to force it on anyone today. ...

We talked to Muslim leaders. They said, of course it's a Christian nation. Non-Christians certainly often feel it is a Christian nation.

Of course they do. Look at our calendar. Look at the Christmas holiday, you know. There's no Sunday mail delivery. ... Our calendar is set up to respect Christian practices.

In the course of your 20 years conversing in this subject, what have you learned about your own faith and about the country? ...

I have to say, after 25 years of working in this field, I remain astounded at the diversity of religious life in America, ... by the variety and depth of belief and the variety and fascination for me of believers and expressions of belief. I am finding more and more interest on the Internet and all kinds of communities that exist outside denominational life -- spiritual exercises that happen in the most unlikely places, in parks on Saturday mornings or Thursday nights, or in reading groups, or all kinds of ways that people feel themselves free to engage in religious life in unexpected corners and in fresh ways. ... I also have to say that I've seen my own country change so much. And much of life becomes more compressed timewise.

I see people trying to fit religious life into nooks and crannies, and they're struggling. I also see many people feeling embattled. I first recognized that in the early 1980s ... with this enormous political engagement from the right that took the left by surprise so much. I see people feeling embattled really across the spectrum and wondering what's next.

There's a great deal of insecurity as religious mobility is what's most noticeable. There's a price you pay for all that mobility, which is that some groups are declining and really feeling the pain, while others are flourishing. So there's a constant price to pay for that kind of creativity and diversity.

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Published October 11, 2010

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