Last week, I gave a talk about church-state history at my wife’s church. I called my speech “The ‘Christian Nation’ Myth.”
Although I’m not an attorney, I laid out the case against the idea that the United States is some sort of officially Christian nation as one would in a courtroom, by marshaling the evidence. I put forth the following points:
* The Constitution does not say we’re a Christian nation. The body of the document contains no reference to Christianity, Jesus Christ or even God. Had an officially Christian nation been the founders’ intent, they would have put it in there. Instead, they crafted a First Amendment that separates church and state and wrote Article VI, which bans “religious tests” for public office.
* Key founders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others knew that combinations of church and state crushed human freedom. They knew about the European experience, and they had seen the dangers of church-state union in some of the colonies. They wanted to ensure liberty by ending what Jefferson called this “loathsome combination” of church and state.
* Many founders were skeptical of orthodox Christian theology. Several, like Jefferson, had Deistic views. Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus but did not accept his divinity. Adams considered the Trinity nonsensical. Madison, who was prone to remain silent about his personal beliefs, wrote frequently about the dangers of government-sponsored religious persecution.
* Theocracy-minded ministers of the founding period knew that the Constitution was secular – and they attacked it for that reason. One New York pastor in 1793 said that he was offended by the lack of references to God in the Constitution and told his flock that God would retaliate and “crush us to atoms in the wreck.” After the Civil War, a band of fundamentalist ministers proposed amending the Constitution to declare America officially Christian. Obviously, they would not have pushed for this addition if the document already had a sectarian slant.
I talked a little about why the “Christian nation” myth continues to have such a hold. It serves a political purpose, to be sure, but it’s also an expression of triumphalism. It says, “My religion is better than yours. The government thinks so. You’re a second-class citizen.”
And that’s why the myth is so dangerous. In a country that is about inclusion, it excludes. In a country that celebrates religious freedom, it implies that some religions should have more rights than others.
Today is the Fourth of July, a time when we celebrate our nation and its accomplishments. High on that list is the separation of church and state. This principle, pioneered by our founders, has given us the greatest degree of religious freedom known to the world – and a country where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and so on live side by side in a large degree of interfaith peace.
No officially “Christian nation,” no attitude of “some religions are better than others,” no concept of an official religion with mere toleration of others could have given us that.
I hope you have some time off today. Maybe you’ll attend a picnic and enjoy some hot dogs and watermelon. Perhaps spend time with family and friends. You might see some fireworks. These things are quintessentially American, so have at it. But also take a moment to reflect on our freedoms, how we got them and what they’ve done for us.
Then take the next step by resolving to stand up and work to preserve them.