Warren Throckmorton, who teaches psychology at Grove City College, the fellow who blew the whistle on Mars Hill, has set his sights on David Barton of Wallbuilders fame. You may have seen Barton on late-night infomercials or on the web. He is known for making some interesting claims about American history and has gained a following among cultural conservatives. In relation to those posts Throckmorton pointed out yesterday a recent poll from PPP, one part of which you can see above. There are three caveats. First, they “surveyed 316 Republican primary voters” via automated calls to landline telephones. They also contacted some respondents via the internet. I suppose that those who responded to landline calls were older. Who knows who responded to the internet survey. Second, this is a small sample. Third, I did not see anywhere the exact question put by the caller to those being polled. For the sake of discussion, however, let us assume it was something like, “Do you support establishing Christianity as the national religion?” That seems like a reasonable assumption given the way the question is framed in their report.
If this survey is reflective of the way a social conservatives are thinking then it confirms something I’ve inferred from the many discussions here and elsewhere about Christ and culture: a surprising number of American evangelicals (and perhaps others) are really Constantinian at heart. They want the civil magistrate to enforce and support (e.g., through taxation) some sort of religious orthodoxy. What surprises me more, however, is that it is a majority of those polled. One might have guessed that the numbers would be the other way round, with 30% supporting establishment and 57% opposing. Who are the 13% who don’t know? Does anyone want Jerry Brown (a former Jesuit seminarian) or Barack Hussein Obama (educated briefly in an Indonesian public school where Islam was taught, who has said that the Islamic call to prayer, the Adhan, is “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset,” who became a member of Jeremiah Wright’s UCC congregation) determining or enforcing religious orthodoxy?
Frankly, had the numbers been reversed it should still surprise one a little. The first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Then, of course, there is the Article 6.3 of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of religious tests for public office: “but no religious Test shall ever required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It is difficult to see how establishment would not lead to religious tests. It certainly did in England. The University of Oxford did not abolish religious tests for non-theological degrees until 1871.
Christianity has played an undeniably major role in the history of North America since the early 17th century. Several of the colonies were explicitly chartered as affiliated with various Christian denominations. Indeed, after the Constitution with the Bill of Rights was adopted, even though there was no nationally established churches, there were state established churches. In Georgia the Church of England was disestablished in 1780. The congregationalists were established in New Hampshire in 1790 and not until 1818 in Connecticut.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to recognize the historic role of Christianity in the formation of the United States (and continues to play) but it is quite another to think that, 197 years after Connecticut disestablished the Congregational Church, there should be nationally established church.
Of course the first question that critics ask in response is “which one?” As a confessional Reformed minister I should be very unhappy if California adopted the Roman communion as the established state church of California. As the demographics change in the southwest due to immigration from predominantly Roman Catholic nations, that is probably what would happen. At the current rate of change. If birthrates stay relative constant for a generation or two, it’s not unthinkable that, should the United States actually revise its constitution to establish a national church, that it might well be the Roman Church. We may wonder if that is what 180 respondents had in mind.
If we’re dissatisfied with the federal government picking winners and losers (e.g., by attempting to jump-start the solar power business with giant subsidies) in business, why would we want the government picking winners and losers in religion? Would we put it to vote or referendum? One’s head begins to spin a little. It’s very difficult to imagine how confessional Protestants fare well in any event.
Were the respondents even aware of the 1st Amendment or Article 6? If my supposition that most of them were older (using landlines) then one would think that they went to school when basic civics were still taught. If so, did the respondents imagine a constitutional convention or some other process whereby the constitution of the United States should be amended, by revising the first Amendment or by revising Article 6? Were the respondents expressing a frustration with the apparent marginalization of Christians from public life? We’re just playing with the pollsters? Given the other results in the poll, it doesn’t seem as if the last option is likely.
If this very small sample reflects a more widely held sentiment that may help explain the ferocious response to any suggestion that Christ rules all things in two distinct spheres, or, as Calvin put it, in a “duplex regimen” a “twofold government.” Maybe Constantinianism, the civil enforcement and support of religious orthodoxy, is more deeply entrenched in the American psyche than one imagined?