"It is the death of humanity to know the price of everything but the value of nothing." ~Unknown

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Christian Nation? The Historical Background

A Christian Nation? The Historical Background « The Christian Humanist

A Christian Nation? The Historical Background

When the political-religious right wants to have the government subsidize some religiously-based project or entity, or promote prayer or Bible-reading in schools or other public places, or undermine science with creationist theories, or put up religious symbols in public places, or legislate morality for our citizenry, they insist that they are justified because the United States is a Christian nation. But is the United States really a Christian nation? If so, what particular version of Christianity (fundamentalist, Catholic, traditional) applies?  What are the practical implications of being a Christian nation? 

Leave aside for the moment the inconvenient fact (despite uninformed assertions to the contrary) that the United States is not, and from the earliest days of nationhood was never intended by its founders to be, a “Christian” nation.  Our national Constitution (in the “Establishment Clause”) expressly forbids any federal government support of, or involvement in, religion.  The claim that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation is based on ignorance from misreading (or simply not reading) our nation’s history and the writings of our brilliant and wise founding fathers. 

Thomas Jefferson, who probably had more influence on our founding principles than any other single individual, was adamant about the necessity of the separation of government from religion.  He was not a Christian.  Like many of the intelligentsia who guided our nation in its formative days, he was a Deist [Deism is the belief in an impersonal designer-creator god of the universe discovered by reason rather than revelation].  Our founding principles as written into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution largely reflected European philosophical thinking of the time, particularly the French revolutionary ideas of liberte, fraternite, and egalite, roughly translated as the freedom of the individual, the brotherhood of man and the equality of all citizens, ideas that are consistent with Christian principles and may have been partly derived from them as well as from some of the philosophy of the time that was fairly widespread in Europe as well as in the Colonies during that period. The fact that some the principles underlying our democracy may have been derived from Christianity does not make us a “Christian nation.”

Many of our original 13 colonies were founded by religious immigrants from Europe (Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, Huguenots, Calvinists, Ana-Baptists, Roman Catholics) who wanted to escape from the tyrannical domination and oppression by the state Christian churches of Europe.  During the 1600s and early 1700s these small American colonies were founded based on the particular beliefs of groups of settlers and the settlers did not distinguish between political and religious rules. They were not interested in religious freedom as a general principle; they were only interested in religious freedom for themselves and they could be as intolerant of those who did not share those beliefs as were the state churches in the countries from which they had come.

 The colonists punished dissent sometimes by various corporal punishments or by public humiliation and sometimes by expulsion from their churches or their colonies. [While researching my family history I found that a distant relative and his family had been expelled from their Massachusetts town for inappropriate behavior for which they refused to accept church punishment.]  Some religious dissenters voluntarily or forcibly left their communities to relocate elsewhere, a prominent example of which is Roger Williams, a Baptist made unwelcome in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who famously emigrated to Rhode Island to found a new colony.

By the latter half of the 1700s intolerance of differences gave way to religious freedom as it became increasingly obvious that diversity of religious belief was not going to end, the various colonies and their citizens had widely different views about religion, and these local religious squabbles and differences inhibited cooperation with their neighbors.  Tolerance of differences and mutual respect were necessary for getting along with their neighbors and therefore essential qualities in cooperation to displace their colonial masters, the English. The nation’s leaders wisely recognized that the young nation would not survive unless its government stayed out of religion with its continuing disagreements and controversies.

The founders of our nation established the principle, based on the earlier religious freedom clause in the Virginia constitution, that the Federal government would be neutral with respect to religion and would have no role in religious matters.  The Constitution expressly prohibited the “establishment” of any religion, by which it intended no state religion, no state support for religion, no state prohibition against any religion, no state position in religious controversy.  There would be a clear line of separation of the State from any religious role, support or function.  Clearly some of our early leaders were practicing Christians from diverse traditions, but many others were not, and their unhappy experience with state-sponsored religion in Europe led them to the decision that the best course of action was for the government to be neutral on religion.

[This is the first of three articles on the subject of the United States as a Christian Nation.  The complete article can be read on my website or on my electronic newsletter Perspectives at ]

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