Is America a 'Christian Nation'?

November 25, 1992

Gov. Kirk Fordice of Mississippi spoke with the jawbone of an ass last week when he said at a Republican governors' conference that the United States is "a Christian nation." He made more trouble for himself by adding, "The less we emphasize the Christian religion, the further we fall into the abyss of poor character and chaos in the United States of America."

Mr. Fordice later said he regretted offending anyone, though he wouldn't retract the remarks themselves. All he meant, he explained, was that the majority of Americans profess to be Christian.

We can't argue there. Of the 148 million Americans who practice specific religions, 141 million (some 55 percent of the general U.S. population) follow various Christian faiths. It's also true that many of our society's cultural and moral tenets were established by Christian settlers from Europe.

Still, we doubt the governor's half-hearted apology and unconvincing explanation comforted the 6 million Jews, 6 million Muslims, 1 million Hindus, 20,000 Buddhists and millions of non-practitioners of religion in the U.S. These are folks who get pretty nervous every time a Kirk Fordice, a Pat Buchanan or a Pat Robertson speaks of "a Christian nation" or the need to put "Christian values" back into American society. Many Christians similarly are made uneasy by such talk, which tends to ignore that many of this nation's Christian settlers came here to escape religious intolerance.

In the Nov. 3 election, voters who denied President Bush a second term in the White House were showing their displeasure not only with the economy but with the president's embrace of the Republican Party's right wing. According to the pundits, the party never recovered from opening night of its national convention last August, when Messrs. Buchanan and Robertson took turns being muscular Christians in the bully pulpit at the Astrodome.

How to explain, then, the hundreds of seats won this month by fundamentalist Christian candidates in school board, city council, state legislature and other local races throughout the U.S.? Hardly repudiated, the Christian right appears strong and sophisticated, even staging "stealth candidacies" that downplay a nominee's fundamentalism so as not to alarm mainstream voters. The Christian rightists reportedly seek to play a key part in the revamping of the Republican Party, thus regaining -- perhaps even surpassing -- the prominence they enjoyed a decade ago.

That's not good news for moderate Republicans looking to 1996. Nor is it a cheery development for any American concerned that increased power for the religious right augurs sanctioning of the type of sentiments uttered last week by Kirk Fordice.

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