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By The Times Editorial Board
Belief in God is obviously not a legal requirement for U.S. citizenship. Yet, as we observed in the first editorial in this series, citizenship has meanings that are deeper and more subtle than legal permission to live in this country. For many Americans, one important aspect of citizenship in this broader sense is loyalty to “one nation under God” — the God of the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, they believe that the institutions of government should acknowledge that fact. The result is that nonbelievers and adherents of minority faiths sometimes are made to feel like second-class citizens.
In Mississippi there is currently a campaign to amend the state constitution to acknowledge the state’s “identity as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state, in terms of the majority of her population, character, culture, history, and heritage, from 1817 to the present; accordingly, the Holy Bible is acknowledged as a foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues; and, accordingly, prayer is acknowledged as a respected, meaningful, and valuable custom of her citizens.” (Bizarrely, the text says the amendment “shall not be construed to transgress either the national or the state constitution’s Bill of Rights.”)
The commingling of citizenship and Christianity isn’t confined to the Bible Belt. In May, the Supreme Court upheld a New York town’s practice of opening its public meetings with invocations that overwhelmingly were offered by Christian clergy members who frequently prayed in Jesus’ name. The notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation also underlies claims, fanned by talk show hosts and other non-serious hysterics, about a secularist “war on Christmas” and the continued complaints about Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s that ended the practice of beginning public school classes with prayers and Bible readings.
Even some Americans who reject the notion of America as a Christian nation identify this country with “Judeo-Christian principles” and applaud politicians who do the same. Many agree with the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” — and not just any Supreme Being. There were protests when the Washington National Cathedral, recently hosted a Muslim prayer service. Those who attempt to delegitimize President Obama whisper that he is a secret Muslim, as if Islam were somehow un-American. And if being a Muslim is bad in some peoples’ eyes, being an atheist is worse. In a 2012 Gallup poll, 40% of respondents said they wouldn’t vote for a Muslim for president; 43% said they wouldn’t support an atheist.
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