In 1995, a high school geometry class in south-central Montana was scheduled to learn about the ubiquitous ratio pi. Hoping to broaden their mathematical outlook, I told my students to bring a Bible the following day, if they had one, and we would see that the author of 1 Kings gives us an early value of pi by using the measured circumference and diameter of Israel's "molten sea", or baptismal font (they got three, accurate but not precise).
The students were both unified and somewhat militant in their cry: "We can't bring the Bible to school! That's unconstitutional! What about the separation of church and state?" In case you think this is too far removed from us in time, I gave my two children attending our local public high school the same scenario just the other day and heard almost the exact same response.
We are all familiar, and most of us even comfortable, with this avoidance of faith at school, work and play. However, because most of us still believe religion is indispensable to the country, we've also hoped that our public square, void of religious talk and behavior, would be easily compensated by private worship that would give us robust religious understanding and pious behavior. But, as religious and cultural experts tell us, and our everyday observations confirm, this compensation has mainly failed to materialize on a large scale — our hope has been in vain. For example, more and more Americans find it difficult to marry and then to remain married, which ceremony act has always been first a religious one. Also, it would be hard to argue that America's religious majority "remember[s] the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
Nonetheless, America continues to be unique among developed countries having a robust and peaceful religious landscape. Yet the forces and movements that make it easier to disregard and even forget America's religious self, such as secularism, materialism and even religious extremism, continue to grow and even prosper. It appears that the time has come to establish and maintain a National Museum of American Religion on the National Mall, which would continuously invite Americans to explore the role religion has played and does play in shaping the social, political and cultural lives of Americans and thus America itself.
Seen as unfortunate and often embarrassing by non-believers and as gratifying and often provident by believers, religion has been a viscerally powerful force in American history. From the early explorers and the Puritans to the 13 colonies; from the Revolution, the Founding Fathers and the writing of the Bill of Rights to Manifest Destiny, the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves; from the devastating wars, an emergent middle class and the epic social movements of the 20th century to the Cold War and our response to the terrorist attacks of 2001; the strong hand of American religion is everywhere to be seen. And this also implies the necessarily broader and deeper influence American religion has wielded in our homes all along. Furthermore, there is a bright thread running through our history, seen by believer and non-believer alike, true or false, declaring that God has a special role for America to play in the world. This exceptional story, in all its representations, stands on its own and begs to be told through a museum in our nation's capital.
James Madison wrote that "the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man." In this spirit, the National Museum of American Religion must do at least three things with great care and without fail: (1) present U.S. religious history objectively; (2) remain silent relative to the supremacy of one faith (i.e. Christianity) or denomination; and (3) refrain from judging whether American religion has been beneficial or detrimental to the country. Visitors will decide this for themselves. The museum must be philosophically built around what some have called our greatest export, the First Amendment's dual religious liberty clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Each citizen, now and in the following generations, needs to be thoroughly reminded of America's religious history, judge it for themselves and decide on a religious path of progress forward with at least some thought given to the country's long-term health. The National Museum of American Religion would be a treasured jewel in the crown of the many other celebrated museums in Washington D.C. that exist as testaments to, and teachers of, this country's wonder, progress and endurance.
Christopher Stevenson is the Director of America's Quilt of Faith, a non-profit organization advocating the importance of faith for American self-government. This column originally appeared in the Washington Times.