Before 1970 or so, most religious people identified as either Catholic or as one of the Protestant denominations. Today many people identify simply as Christian. When and why did that trend start to happen and why is it important?

Beginning in the early 1970s, conservatives mobilized to combat liberalism’s live-and-let-live sense of morality. They reasoned that if liberals succeeded in defining morality as being based on subjective, personal judgement it would be the end of America as they saw it.

While there are exceptions to every rule, the conservative position was, and is, that the Bible sets the objective, external moral standards that everyone must follow. Contrary to the liberal’s idea that individual freedoms stem from the inherent ability of everyone to think for themselves, conservatives believe the Bible is the God-given source of individual freedoms.

To gain popular support for their worldview, conservatives worked to harness the power of all Catholics and Protestants. They accomplished this in part by referring to them all as Christians, a move so successful that the very definition of “Christian” has come to mean politically conservative. Political groups with an evangelical Christian agenda such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Paul Weyrich’s Heritage Foundation solidified the Christian Right. They then began to subvert the Republican Party and were instrumental in getting Ronald Reagan elected president in 1980.

Reagan showed he supported the Christian Right with statements such as, “Religious America is awakening, perhaps just in time for our country’s sake” and, “Traditional morality, based on religious morality, are among our greatest strengths.” The Christian Right called for politicians to pass laws that enforced their peculiar interpretation of the Bible; they claim the Bible calls for making abortion illegal; ending gay rights and defining marriage as between one man and one woman; teaching creationism and allowing teacher-led prayer in public schools, opposing the Equal Rights Amendment; and legally defining America as a Christian nation.

Philosopher Leonard Peikoff’s 1986 talk “Religion Versus America” offered an opposing view. He argued America was and is a secular nation founded on ideas from the Age of Reason such as personal liberty, a constitutional form of government, and the separation of church and state.

The Founding Fathers were well aware that many European national governments heavily influenced by religious beliefs created conflict by suppressing individual freedom, as did the Puritans here in America. The U.S. Constitution, a secular document whose only mention of a god is exclusionary, exemplifies logic, reason, science, and protection of individual freedom. Because the Founding Fathers recognized that religion was and is an anathema to American values, they rejected faith and subjugation to a higher power, the hallmark of authoritarian and religious regimes, as a governing principle of a free society.

Most secular Americans, liberals, and progressive Protestants and some Catholics, for whom the common politically conservative meaning of the label Christian is a misnomer, believe that respecting individual rights is the source of morality and personal liberty. Consequently most people in these groups support a woman’s right to have an abortion, the right of same-sex couples to get married, the right of terminally ill people to end their lives on their own terms, and the right of freedom from religion.

These freedom-loving Americans also know that America is a pluralistic society that welcomes everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or ethnicity.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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