Former President Ronald Reagan sold Americans on a bright future.
Sounding like a consummate salesman peddling hope, Reagan predicted a positive tomorrow in his 1985 second inaugural address. "Voices were raised saying we had to look to our past for the greatness and glory," Reagan declared, "But we, the present-day Americans, are not given to looking backward. In this blessed land, there is always a better tomorrow."
A convincing salesman sells customers confidence in the future - about the ability to pay for goods, about enjoying the fashionable clothes, about the expectation that a purchase guarantees bright days ahead. Reagan mastered pitching Americans hope in a better future.
Today, political conservatives aren't buying Reagan's goods. They talk about restoring America to its former glories. They want to go back to yesteryear, when prayers were allowed in public schools, when traditional families were the norm and when white Protestants held political power as the overwhelming voting bloc in the United States.
Conservatives rivet attention on a mythic past when America gloried in strong morals, strong families and strong Christian faith that permeated society. They long for those yesterdays when citizens read Bibles, married before mating, lauded clerical authority, respected free-market capitalism and accepted Protestantism as the dominant American religious force.
Fearing America is slipping from its spiritual moorings, some Christians' hearts reverberate with lyrics in an African-American folk song that sustains citizens in peril and prosperity: "I'm singing and shouting with my mind stayed on Jesus." Fewer American voices, however, are joining in.
This longing to restore America goes back to our nation's founding. When the Constitution in 1787 was publicly printed, many evangelical Christians were stunned by what it lacked. This grand document of freedom doesn't mention abiding religious truths that bolster our nation. Some Christians were distraught the Constitution endorsed no particular religious faith. It favored no Christian church. Where was a pledge of allegiance to God in this founding document?
The Constitution places our nation on a foundation of freedom that doesn't claim to be divinely inspired. It merely declares "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Is this a blow to Christianity? Imagine, cried evangelicals, that a candidate is elected president who isn't a Protestant and rejects reliance upon God!
During the stormy constitutional ratification process in New Hampshire, a patriot opposed the Constitution because it allowed for "a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic and what is worse than all, a Universalist (one who believes that everyone will be saved), may be president of the United States."
Believers who wanted to keep America Christian rallied around orator Patrick Henry. Serving as Virginia's governor, he supported the Anglican Church reigning as the state church. When Henry couldn't get his way, he proposed a popular general assessment bill (a tax) supporting Christianity as the approved religion in Virginia. Subsidize each of the Christian denominations, argued Henry. Under this proposal, unbelievers and non-Christians, such as Jews, would be forced to pay taxes to support clergy and parishes of several Christian traditions.
Henry nursed a grudge against James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who strongly opposed making Christianity Virginia's preferential religion. Prompted by Jefferson's insistence on freedom of belief, Madison made sure the First Amendment honed in on religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
"With a breathtaking economy of words," commented religious historian Edwin S. Gaustad in "Faith of our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation," (p.44), "the Constitution now provided a double guarantee: first, that Congress shall take no step that would impede, obstruct or penalize religion. Neither hindering nor helping, government would simply leave religion alone. And religious persons, no matter how zealous or idiosyncratic their beliefs, had nothing to fear from government, nor did irreligious persons, no matter how heretical or scandalous their opinions."
Jefferson declared, "Almighty God hath made the mind free."
Historian Gaustad crisply summed up government's vital role: "What good deed can government do for religion? The best deed of all: Leave it free and unencumbered, burdened by neither enmity nor amity" (p. 137).
Evangelicals overreach, insisting on restoring America to its former glory when Christianity prevailed over culture. Remaking the United States into a nation where one faith rules is misguided.
Those wanting to rediscover national Christian glory fail to appreciate Jefferson's and Madison's wisdom. Patrick Henry lost his battle for Christian preference in Virginia. Evangelicals retreat today because of our nation's expanding religious diversity. The formative Christian character that shaped the U.S. at its birth no longer holds its past power, prestige and pre-eminence.
Let's stand for religious values shaping our emerging national identity without Christianity pushing other faiths to the periphery.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.the
livinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.