Conservative politicians and Christian religious leaders have been encouraging the idea that the United States was created as a “Christian Nation” by Christian forefathers that were ever mindful of Christian principles.
Planisphere of Copernicus from the Harmonia Macrocosmica of Andreas Cellarius
Few will directly address this assertion when it’s made. Certainly, there are books and the occasional article, but with the ‘Religious Right’ as a fairly large and monolithic voting bloc since the days of Ronald Reagan, politicos see it as a third rail.
Simply and factually, we are no more a “Christian” nation than we are a 4H nation or a Pepsi nation.
Many of the primary designers of our nation were Deists and/or Unitarians. Over half of them were Masons as well. Let’s get some definitions in here now before I wander off on some tangential digression…
Deism is the idea that there is a supreme being that created the universe and it’s laws, often called The Divine Watchmaker or Supreme Architect, yet doesn’t participate in human events, nor is describable within a religious framework. Deism is not a religion, per se, but a philosophical outlook.
Masonry, which shares much of the philosophical underpinnings of Deism, has wide participation among persons of nearly all faiths world-wide. In some lodges multiple holy books share the alter to reflect the diverse membership. Membership requires a belief in a supreme being of some nature but does not ask for, nor offer, any definition beyond that.
Unitarianism (not to be confused with Unitarian Universalism) is a belief in a single god, not a trinity, and rejects miracles. Also called “Rational Unitarianism” it considers the Bible as a philosophical work of man. I’ve seen the term “nontrinitarian christian theology” applied to unitarianism, however that’s a pretty clear oxymoron as Christianism carries the trinity as a core belief and the Bible is assumed to be inspired by God.
What is also very important to note is that this was during a period called “The Age of Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason”, an intellectual movement throughout Europe and adopted by the American territory’s intellectuals that sought to understand the world and humankind’s place in it through reason and science outside the restrictions or authoritarianism common to religion of the time. (Newton’s gravity-laden apple appears to be a forbidden fruit in this instance) The Enlightenment was not a set of principles but a means of exploring ideas in order to find objective truths. In addition to an expansion in science, the idea of a “public sphere” came about which brought the “common man” into the discussion on science, government, and society.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin could generally be called Unitarian Deists both from self-identification at different points in their lives and from the standpoint that the philosophy of both informed their writings and opinions. Thomas Paine and James Madison (the principle author of the Constitution) were strong Deists, and George Washington was a politician more than anything else, and like many of his time was a Mason but promoted no faith or religion.
This is not to say that many of them did not participate in, and see the value of, religion as ready-made personal guide for life in polite society, however they well recognized it’s incompatibility with government.
In discussion and debate the Christian proponent almost always points to the references in the Declaration of Independence. Now, this is all well and good, however the Declaration of Independence is not the basis for our governance, it’s the treatise outlining the reasons for dissolving legal and governmental ties with Britain. That’s it, nothing more. There are references to a “Nature’s God”, “Supreme Judge”, “Creator”, and “Divine Providence”, but these are very Deist terms (with a Pagan twist there for flavor). There are no mentions of Jesus Christ nor religion at all, however.
The next natural argument is, of course, that the Declaration of Independence was written by the same guys that wrote the Constitution and expresses their intent, but there are no statements of religious intent there, in fact, it’s clearly noted that the power of a government is given by “the consent of the governed” and not by a supreme being. On the practical side; even if there were statements of will in the document, should they be a basis for legal interpretation? To do so would have negated women’s right to vote and civil rights as there are Bible-based arguments against both.
The Constitution, actually, is the foundation of our government and that is where the action is. The very first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . .” and has been reiterated by not only Jefferson’s and other’s own letters (a good example is his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists) but the Supreme Court on several occasions.
Here is a spot that is getting much abuse, in my opinion: To support the idea of a Christian-founded nation some pundits will cite quotes by founding fathers that are in actuality created from whole cloth. An example is Rush Limbaugh’s quotation of the father of the Constitution James Madison: “We have staked the future upon our capacity to sustain ourselves according the Ten Commandments of God.” Unfortunately for Rush, Madison made no such statement or allusion. In fact Madison was a staunch proponent of church and state separation and argued in a letter to Rev. Jasper Adams in the spring of 1832:
“I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.”
And Limbaugh is not the only one doing this. The practice is rife and other pundits perpetuate these made-up quotes, perhaps inadvertently by simply citing another pundit, but at times with full knowledge.
In my mind there is no defense, especially a moral one, of blatant mistruth.
The adjunct argument is that without Christian guidance, government (and man in general) is unable to operate with moral characters or within moral boundaries. This argument rapidly devolves into Christians insisting non-believers want to crush religion, and non-believers countering that Christians want to impose religion on them – a hot-button issue that nukes middle grounds.
Let’s go back for a moment to the Constitution’s defining of our freedom of religion. What is commonly missed here is that freedom of religion must contain freedom from religion. If it did not then there would need to be laws defining religion and worship which would be incompatible with the freedom of. To many evangelicals and conservative Christians the distinction is either lost or ignored due to their belief that their religion is the “one true religion” and in the eternal scheme of things what non-believers think is of no relevance. Truth be told, this is the identical attitude taken by radicalized Muslims. An odd area of common ground, to be sure.
On the philosophical side of the moral/not moral question is; What is the actual difference between a Christian donating a bag of food to a shelter and a non-theist doing the same – are their reasons at the core any different? Is the non-theist’s motivations more moral if they believe it to be ‘right’ to help their fellow in need and the Christian is merely following their Pastor’s instruction? Is the non-theist’s reason for the donation purer because they do not ascribe to a religious belief system that defines morality for them? Does the believer’s donation ‘count’ towards their eternal reward whereas a non-believer’s does not because noone is keeping score for them?
The question then transforms into why the morality of an action depends on the individual’s belief in a supreme being, or perhaps the ‘correct’ deity. A non-sequitur. It reminds me of Orwell’s famous line in 1984; “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Today we see folks that insist that Christianity is the “religion of tolerance” branding Islam as the “religion of hate” with no knowledge of Muslim philosophy. The same people who demand the freedom to worship in their own manner calling for the legal suppression of Islamic practice, or any practice deemed immoral by their belief system. Even killing is justified in the name of religion.
In 2006 the first Muslim was elected to Congress; Keith Ellison. Several politicos, pundits, and preachers derided his election as the opening gambit to the eventual rule of America by Islamo-facists. And the fear-mongering didn’t stop there; when he chose to use the Quran during his ‘photo-op’ swearing in (the actual swearing in is done en masse and without books of any kind) Congressman Virgil Goode, a Republican from Virginia, (among others) said that it was a “threat to the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America”. What makes this particularly interesting is that the Quran Ellison used was a two volume set from 1764 loaned from the Library of Congress and previously owned by (drum roll, please) Thomas Jefferson.
Religion has also become a litmus test of fitness for public office by many on the right – simply question the candidate’s/nominee’s/office-holder’s faith and soon it becomes legitimized as an political ‘issue’. Never mind that Article VI of the Constitution states quite clearly,
…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Many conservatives are rabid in their denouncement of Iran and other middle eastern countries due to their theocratic governance yet find no hypocrisy in their own insistence that the US be reformed into a Christian theocracy. With one breath they rail against government intrusion, yet in the next they demand legislation restricting or suspending basic human rights to others.
I can’t recall where I heard it, but another quote comes to mind. Unfortunately the deeper one looks into human history the accuracy of it becomes clearer:
No one is as ferocious as when their prejudices are being attacked.
I have seen intelligent and rational people vehemently (and loudly) assert things they knew weren’t true because of this human knee-jerk response, and I have done it too. No one is immune – but in the current political climate reconsideration and compromise have given way to entrenchment and pettiness. Tolerance to bigotry, balance to extremism. We have forgotten the real lessons our Founding Fathers were trying to teach us.