A Christian Nation?

John M. Kelley

Posted Sep 16, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Christian Nation?


John M. Kelley

Surely the decision in the Federal Court in San Francisco will get the Republican/

Business/Christian Right propaganda machine revved up. Any day now some crank will declare that Katrina was a warning not to rule against �under God�.  The talking points will be that we are a �Christian Nation�.  Given its tattered flag right now, the decision to ban the words �under God� from the pledge of allegiance will give the Right new momentum.

I find it interesting that many corporations and their owners contribute to this fiasco of superstition even though few of them (with some exceptions) really care about it at all.  Business leaders have supported the Pat Robertson type religious demagogues and others in their rallying of the troops not because of their spiritual message, but because they elect people who will vote for lower taxes, less corporate liability and regulation.  They look at science as a convenient opinion to be used selectively when it supports profits and demonized when it doesn�t.

One thing you have to give them is that this unholy alliance has a good PR department.  This propaganda mill has produced a level of superstitious belief that is reflected in absurdities that would have made my seventh grade science and history teachers tear out their hair in horror, even in 1961.  Polls show that 60% of the people doubt evolution, 78% of the American people believe that the Ten Commandments should be able to be displayed on public property and that prayer should be allowed in school.  I believe that this widespread consensus is not one based on knowledge of history or science as is being portrayed to the public, but on misrepresentations presented as fact by certain interest groups on the right. 

They base these attempts to haul us all back into the dark ages on a three legged stool of lies: 1) That Christianity was the intent of the founders when they referred to God; 2)That the majority should be able to enforce its will on the minority and 3) The founders meant for all opinions to be treated equal.  Lets look at each of these distortions of fact. 

The Founders Intent

We continually hear how this nation was founded as a �Christian� nation and that our forefathers certainly intended that the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States be enshrined.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This argument is not new, Jefferson and the other founders wrestled at length with this question.  And luckily they were literate men and wrote down their thoughts and discussions.

Let�s look at what Jefferson thought about this subject.  Jefferson a deist, sought to distance himself from religious dogma of any kind and was known to cut and paste the bible.  He believed that truth was readily recognized �in the light of reason� to any man.  In this light he also put forth that religious institutions were subject to the weaknesses of men and as such were prone to corrupt their spiritual missions with coercion and superstition.

He was particularly against the use of any religious beliefs, including Christianity; to qualify a person for civil life, participate in public activity or the forced financial support of any religious belief.  In fact these were the very reasons for the First Amendment exclusionary clause because of past restrictions in the colonies for public office and forced support of churches by non members.

This is what he had to say in his autobiography about the arguments over Christianity in the Constitution of Virginia.

�Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the words �Jesus Christ,� so that it should read , � a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion�; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.�

Even more to the point in a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper in 1814: �Christianity neither is nor ever was a part of the common law.�

John Adams who had strong spiritual beliefs but was very vocal about the abuses of religion in general and Christianity in particular had this to say.

“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen (sic),—and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan (sic) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” [John Adams, 1797-05-27, Article 11, Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the US and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary. Treaties and Other International Acts of America, ed. Hunter Miller]

On the mixing of religion and government Jefferson was again very specific.

“Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1813.

His opinion of such mixing certainly isn�t neutral.

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:119

Some might say that while Jefferson wasn�t a supporter of Christianity he certainly supported a belief in God and his guidance for government.  The problem with that argument is that he wrote on his beliefs about atheism as well. 

�Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing then he who believes what is wrong�  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia (1782)

and again here,

�Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more then that of blindfolded fear.�

Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr (1787)

Whether Judeo-Christian or not, none of us can deny that using the terms God promoting the Ten Commandments or other attempt to inject religion into civic life is anything else but an attempt to push faith on others.  The intent and action of the founders is abundantly clear to anyone who chooses to review its formulation and language.  Any attempt to state other wise is a blatant attempt to rewrite history as propaganda to suit their own views.  Madison in particular seemed to speak directly to our present situation.

“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political
tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.” - James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785

The Rights of the Majority

The other argument made by the religious right is that the majority of the people in this country have the right to impose their beliefs on the minority regardless of historical separation of church and state.  Even if you ignore the Bill of Rights, which protects the rights of the minority from the oppression of the majority, the assertion that a majority of Americans support the government adoption of Judeo-Christian values is questionable.  Jefferson described the issue of coercion by the majority as a quest for a �tragic absurdity of uniformity� and saw differences in religious beliefs as a defense against coercion by the majority.  Jefferson was clear on his view of religious coercion, �What has been the effect of coercion?  To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.�

These values still run deep in the American people when you examine them closely.  Polls tend to produce certain results by their specificity.  If you ask questions about general principles they tend to produce large consensus. The more specific you get in your questions about how application of those principles would affect individual lives the more disparity you get.  For example the figure showing a majority of people want the Ten Commandments displayed is not reflective of polls of deeper personal beliefs.  A majority of these same people believe that euthanasia and abortion are personal and family decisions and should not be determined by the state, while only a minority would convict those involved in these as acts of murder.

If we were to agree that this is a Christian nation and to embody those principles in government which Christian denomination would be the �right one�.  Certainly there is no clear majority on that.  The fundamentalists believe we should have no abortion, a death penalty and that the bible should trump science.  The Catholics are on record against abortion, the death penalty but also any kind of artificial birth control (legally prohibited in Ireland until just a few years ago).  What about civil unions between same sex couples, whose prayer will we say in the school, must certain religious beliefs be espoused to receive aid, serve in office or to get a job in a business?  I believe that if you asked Americans these questions you would get vastly different answers then the majority opinions usually quoted.

The Equality of All Opinions

The reason for the very belief in the separation of church and state was the belief that their opinions were not equal and that clear line should be drawn between them and by implication the difference between reason and faith with reason obviously believed to be the superior. 

On the subjugation of science to religion or the attempts to conform law to religion on evolution, stem cell research and the availability of birth control, Jefferson seemed to speak directly to us when he said the following:

“Whenever… preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct
of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art of science.”  Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:281

The founders believed that common principles would stand on their own merit and would be adopted by people no matter what their religious belief and that government support was unnecessary.  Referring to government endorsement of religion principles in �Notes on Virginia�, Jefferson stated �It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.�

Franklin may have expressed the most intelligent insight on the matter.

“I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it.”
Benjamin Franklin from “Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion”, Nov. 20, 1728

Lastly and most interesting about Jefferson on this subject was that he spoke against government coercion of any belief.  “Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men, governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity? But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.” Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:223

The founders were clear about the direction they desired, and it did not include the religious determination of civic policy or law.  Lets not call this attempt to make our government and society anything other then what it is, the desire to build a theocracy run by religious demagogues.

John M. Kelley is a teacher, writer and activist in Corpus Christi, Texas who worries daily about the world he is leaving his grandchildren.  His blog is at www.mytown.ca/johnkelley