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Jul 13 2006

Is the US a ‘Christian nation’?

If one views this as a question of demographics, the answer is yes because the majority religion is Christianity. But that is not what those who clearly would love to see America be called a ‘Christian nation’ mean when they use the term because this is too fluid a definition and could change with time to become Muslim or Catholic or atheist nation, depending on demographic changes.

What such people would like to see is the US becoming a theocracy in which the barriers between the church and state are dismantled and the country run according to “Christian principles.” Of course, it is not clear what exactly these Christian principles are since, as I have discussed earlier, the Bible, the supposedly authoritative word of the Christian god, is all over the map when it comes to supposedly telling us what god wants.

But this does not faze those who seek to turn America into a theocracy. They share the idea, common to fanatics of all religions, that god, by a surprising coincidence, happens to share their own particular narrow-minded and intolerant view of how the world should be run. Of course, they do not see themselves as intolerant. They see themselves as benign, willing to accommodate other religious views as long as they do not run counter to their own.

One of the means by which they justify their goal of seeking a theocracy in the US is by essentially rewriting history, to argue that this country, after the arrival of the colonialists, was founded on Christian principles. They argue that the nature of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christianity and is thus impervious to demographic changes. They seek to persuade people that what they want is a return to those original principles and that this idea of a secular state with church-state separation is a more recent aberration, a deviation from the intent of the founders of the US constitution and the signers of declaration of independence.

Brooke Allen in his article Our Godless Constitution, which appeared in The Nation magazine (February 21, 2005) convincingly debunks that notion and I strongly urge you to read the full thing. As Allen writes, “Our nation was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent.”

Theocracy supporters try to blur this by acting as if more recent incorporations of god into public life were actually part of the original deliberations in the creation of the state. But Allen points out that popular invocations of the supposedly Christian origins of the US, such as “In God We Trust” on coins and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, were both introduced much later, the first at the time of the Civil War, and the second during the McCarthy hysteria in 1954.

In fact, the founders seemed to go out of their way to keep god out. Allen provides copious examples to support his claims. He says “Our Constitution makes no mention whatever of God. The omission was too obvious to have been anything but deliberate.”

“In the eighty-five essays that make up The Federalist, God is mentioned only twice (both times by Madison, who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the “only Heaven knows” sense). In the Declaration of Independence, He gets two brief nods: a reference to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and the famous line about men being “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Allen reports that in a 1797 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary,” (or more commonly, the Treaty of Tripoli), article 11 contains these words “[T]he Government of the United States…is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion[.]”

As Allen emphasizes:

This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate’s history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.

The founders took great pains to keep the fundamentalists of their time (the Puritans) from having too great an influence over civic life because they were well aware of the damage this could do. This attitude is refreshing when compared to the attitudes of current politicians who fall over themselves in pandering to the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons, while shutting their eyes to their messages of intolerance.

Jefferson warned of people “civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Allen goes on to provide evidence that the key players among the founders were at most deists, “that is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature.”

He also says that:

Jefferson felt that the miracles claimed by the New Testament put an intolerable strain on credulity. “The day will come,” he predicted (wrongly, so far), “when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” The Revelation of St. John he dismissed as “the ravings of a maniac.”

One wonders what Jefferson would have thought of the current religious climate where even such truly crackpot notions as the rapture (based on the Book of Revelations) hold sway over a large number of Americans.

This did not mean that there was no undercurrent of religion in the US at the time of its founding. There was, and all of the founders seemed to have realized that declaring oneself to be an atheist caused political problems. Thus they seemed to adopt a minimalist religious philosophy as a hedge, to avoid controversy. But their careful positioning on this issue is quite different from the conspicuous public piety that is displayed by the current crop of political leaders.

“Like Jefferson, every recent President has understood the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters. All of our leaders, Democrat and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies of Christian extremists. Though for public consumption the Founding Fathers identified themselves as Christians, they were, at least by today’s standards, remarkably honest about their misgivings when it came to theological doctrine, and religion in general came very low on the list of their concerns and priorities–always excepting, that is, their determination to keep the new nation free from bondage to its rule.”

Brooke Allen’s article is excellent. You really should read it in full.

POST SCRIPT: The new, improved US constitution!

The US constitution is remarkable for its brevity. But many people would have not realized that it has been revised to make it even briefer. It now has only two articles:

Article I. In times of war, the President is always right and can do what he wants.

Article II. The President alone determines when the country is at war.

At least this is how the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel seems to see it.

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