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Tuesday, 3 May 2011
A Christian nation or a nation of Christians?

[Inspired by Richard William's post]

Of all the hot-topics debated in our country none seem to ignite more arguments than the premise that America was founded as a Christian nation. As a historian who is also an active Presbyterian, I like to think that I understand where both sides of this dispute are coming from. On one hand, the core concept of “liberty and justice for all” appears contrary to the claim of a formally-established Christian nation. After all, didn’t the earliest settlers flee to our continent in order to escape religious persecution? At the same time, many people (predominantly conservative Christians) vehemently maintain that it was their faith alone that served as the keystone in America’s foundation. Some of these folks even believe that the United States was somehow divinely inspired, perhaps even ordained by God.

I have written about this topic in the past both here on ‘Blog, or Die.’ and over at ‘The Jefferson Project.’ Personally, I don't think anyone with even a basic understanding of our country’s origins would deny that the founding of this nation was definitely influenced by Christian-Judeo principals. I think the point is that they did not intend for the country to be a Christian-Judeo nation, but a nation where all religions (emphasis on the word “all”) could worship freely and prosper. That means liberty, on day-one, for every faith from Catholic and Protestant – to Atheist and Scientologist. I have friends who are devout Christians and friends who are devout Pagans. Is this not equally their nation? Was it not established so that BOTH of them would have an equal opportunity to pursue a life of happiness? Of course it is. That was the point.

So when people say America was founded on Christian-Judeo principals I agree. BUT if they say America was founded to BE a Christian nation I say no. Why? Because I find that statement in itself contradictory to the whole concept of religious freedom. Now I understand that most people have an innate desire to be right and that we all want to have a sense of belonging. Simply put, we want to relate in some way to our past. Naturally Christians want to believe that the Founding Fathers were on their side, while the Atheists wish the same. Historically I believe that America is, and indeed always has been, a nation of Christians but it is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation. And I absolutely believe that the Founding Fathers understood the distinction between living in a nation of Christians and legislating a nation of Christianity.

In April of 2009, President Barack Obama upset some people when he answered the question of whether the country he represented was indeed a Christian nation. He said that America is “a predominantly Christian nation,” but “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” He added that “We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” I agree with that premise, but I am also aware of the fact that there is conflicting evidence spread throughout the country’s infancy. Let’s look at some historical facts supporting both sides of this debate instead of relying on our differing opinions.

By early 1776, the colonies were religiously diverse, with several Protestant groups, minority Catholic and Jewish populations, and a large number of African-American slaves, many of them Muslim. In July of that year the Declaration of Independence was unveiled. The document contains just four theological references: “nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “Divine Providence.” There is not a single specific mention of either Jesus Christ or Christianity. The Declaration, reflecting their signer’s collective thinking, was carefully written and edited; words were included, or not, so as not to appear as an endorsement of any particular faith.

In 1785 Patrick Henry, Virginia’s governor and an Anglican (Episcopalian), wanted residents to pay a church tax to support the country’s expanding religious institutions. Thomas Jefferson, who was raised in the Anglican tradition, strongly opposed the concept. By enlisting the support of his friend James Madison and Baptist minister John Leland, he was able to lead a campaign that successfully defeated Henry’s bill in the Virginia Legislature. The following year, 1786, the Legislature overwhelmingly adopted Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom by a vote of 74 to 20. Madison, a Presbyterian and future president himself, predicted the rise of a “multiplicity of religious sects” in the U.S., similar to diverse political parties.

On the other hand, Samuel Adams, who has been called ‘The Father of the American Revolution’ wrote The Rights of the Colonists in 1772, which stated: “The rights of the colonists as Christians...may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institution of the Great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.” John Quincy Adams, our sixth president supported this notion when he said “From the day of the Declaration...they [the American people] were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of The Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct.”

Additionally, of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention the vast majority were Christians of one form or another: 29 were Anglicans, 16-18 were Calvinists, and among the rest were 2 Methodists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 lapsed Quaker-sometimes Anglican, and only 1 open Deist. The presence of these diverse denominations is undeniable. Still it’s impossible to believe that these brilliant minds would not think that the interweaving of religion and politics is dangerous, even offensive in some ways.

Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, offers some spiritually-practical perspective on the matter. In an article penned for Salon he writes, “The idea that religion is important because it educates democratic citizens in morality is actually quite demeaning to religion. It imposes a political test on religion, as it were -- religions are not true or false, but merely useful or dangerous, when it comes to encouraging the civic virtues that are desirable in citizens of a constitutional, democratic republic.” So by Christians insisting that it was absolutely essential for their faith to be the moral backbone of civilized democracy, they are in fact demeaning it by proclaiming it as political doctrine.

Unfortunately, I believe that far too many of my fellow practitioners fail to honestly scrutinize this topic from a purely analytical view. No one has summarized this problem better than John Fea, an American history professor at Messiah College and contributing writer to the History News Service. He writes, “And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today’s evangelical churches.”

How does this argument end? The answer in my opinion is that it doesn’t. It will go on and on and on…because there will never be a distinct verdict on this. The evidence supporting both sides is far too complex and the belief itself is way too personal. I will say in closing that you CAN be a devout Christian (like me) and still maintain that we are NOT a Christian nation. It doesn’t make you any more or less a believer – or any more or less a patriot. I believe in Jesus Christ and I also believe in an equal legacy of liberty for my fellow citizens who don’t. To me that is what America is all about. So if you ask me, I will say that we are NOT a Christian nation. We are a great nation of religiously diverse citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:08 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 3 May 2011 2:33 PM EDT
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