Some meandering thoughts on the myth of the "Christian nation"

Found this great essay by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone over at ACSBlog, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers here. In short, no Mitt, Jesus didn’t write the Constitution. Pardon the longish quote, but it’s worth the read. Then click the link and go read the rest of the piece, which gets even better.

That version of history suggests that the Founders intended to create a “Christian Nation,” and that we have unfortunately drifted away from that vision of the United States. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Those who promote this fiction confuse the Puritans, who intended to create a theocratic state, with the Founders, who lived 150 years later. The Founders were not Puritans, but men of the Enlightenment. They lived not in an Age of Faith, but in an Age of Reason. They viewed issues of religion through a prism of rational thought.

Benjamin Franklin, for example, dismissed most of Christian doctrine as “unintelligible.” He believed in a deity who “delights” in man’s “pursuit of happiness.” He regarded Jesus as a wise moral philosopher, but not necessarily as a divine or divinely inspired figure. He viewed all religions as more or less interchangeable in their most fundamental tenets, which he believed required men to treat each other with kindness and respect.

Thomas Jefferson was a thoroughgoing skeptic who valued reason above faith. He subjected every religious tradition, including his own, to careful scrutiny. He had no patience for talk of miracles, revelation, and resurrection. Like Franklin, Jefferson admired Jesus as a moral philosopher, but insisted that Jesus’ teachings had been distorted beyond all recognition by a succession of “corruptors,” such as Paul, Augustine, and Calvin. He regarded such doctrines as predestination, trinitarianism, and original sin as “nonsense,” “abracadabra” and “a deliria of crazy imaginations.” He referred to Christianity as “our peculiar superstition” and maintained that “ridicule” was the only rational response to the “unintelligible propositions” of traditional Christianity.

As I have noted elsewhere, it’s impossible to argue that we live in a Christian culture – when damned near all of your citizens and an even higher percentage of your elected and appointed leaders are Christian, there’s a certain day-to-day reality in that.

  • Polls show the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian ranging as high as 85% or beyond.
  • The president is a Christian…
  • …as is the VP.
  • The Speaker of the House is Catholic…
  • …and the Senate Majority Leader is Mormon.
  • Well over 90% of our Congressional representatives are Christian, with a majority of the remainder being Jewish.
  • The Supreme Court features seven Christians and two Jews.
  • All of our major presidential candidates in both major parties.
  • Almost all of our past presidents; depending on how you count Unitarians, you have to go all the way back to Lincoln (ironically enough, the founder of the GOP) to even find one to debate over;
  • Hell, even sports franchises are starting to build their operations around the evangelical litmus test.
  • It seems unlikely that a similar review of the legislatures and courthouses in the 50 states would reveal too much variation from this overpowering Judeo-Christian norm.

The long history of human progress shows us pushing upward and onward, but there are times when we match the last two steps forward with a step or two (or three) back, and those regressive, reactionary moments just about always occur in times of significant technological advancement. Which means change, which scares people, and fear makes people act in odd, counter-productive ways.

For instance, it causes Mike Huckabee, who thinks he’s running for Preacher (when he isn’t worrying about public health). He believes a great many things that qualify him for the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church, but in a rational world these beliefs, paired with his conviction that he ought to be a religious political leader and his idea that Jesus is tinkering with the polls in Iowa, should automatically disqualify him from consideration for high public office.

Fear also causes people to vote for the Mike Huckabees of the world (he looks to be doing even better at this stage than fellow evangelocrat Pat Robertson was when he ran).

[sigh]

There are a great many who refuse to believe that people like Jefferson meant what they said about religion and politics. And some have apparently convinced themselves that our founders never even said the things they said. So let’s close this meandering little missive with a bit that nobody can deny. From Article VI of the US Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Try to ignore that such a test is currently required at just about every ballot box in the nation. And if you’re happy about this at the moment, think about how much fun it’s going to be if your religion ever falls into the minority.

38 comments on “Some meandering thoughts on the myth of the "Christian nation"

  1. Obviously I didn’t live through it, but my parents regaled me with tales of how the nation seemed incapable of accepting JFK as president due to his Catholicism. Not because of the principle of church/state separation, of course, but because of our overwhelming Protestant lineage.

    That’s probably the only thing I can think of that gives me comfort when faced with the stark reality that on a social and cultural level, we’re sliding into a Dark Age. At least we Jews will be better situated to ride this one out–we control the banks and the media, after all. :)

  2. But those Founders who were Deists believed in God and drew heavily, I thought, on Christianity whilst rejecting its wilder claims and of course seeing off the Calvinists. Jesus himself they had no problem with (ie his human chats with humans).

    European culture has its religious leanings, theocracies…but it has not stopped the West from housing great, scientific and engineering minds, inventions, fantastic arts and landing spectacular machinery on the red planet Mars.

    I don’t see a dark age ahead…

  3. Historically speaking it was the Christians who drove so much of our technological innovation. JSO and I have had a spirited debate on the subject and may have more, but this is actually the subject of my dissertation.

  4. Un-Christians are also increasing in numbers and becoming emboldened. Check out this from the Economist:

    According to figures compiled by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), almost 30m people claimed “no religion” in 2001, a doubling from 1991. This dwarfs America’s 2.8m who describe themselves as Jews according to the same survey (although other estimates suggest that the Jewish population is much larger, at about 6m). Catholicism, the country’s largest Christian denomination, boasts 51m followers. In other words, irreligion claims a surprisingly large number of adherents. Mr Romney’s attack on disbelievers prompted Christopher Hitchens, a well-known polemicist and the author of “God Is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything”, to describe him as “Entirely lacking in dignity or nobility (or average integrity)”. Others cited Thomas Jefferson’s ruder comments about religion. Even some conservative columnists chided Mr Romney for not saying, as George Bush has, that people of no faith at all are Americans too.

    And yet those with no religious beliefs are shut out from political power. Earlier this year, a secularist group offered $1,000 to the highest-ranking politician in the land who would publicly proclaim no belief in God. This turned out to be Peter Stark, a Democratic congressman from the San Francisco area. He is the only congressman, of 535, who professes no belief in the Almighty.

  5. …think about how much fun it’s going to be if your religion ever falls into the minority.

    No. I won’t. Not while my God’s on top.

  6. I think it can be summed like this:

    Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
    Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
    [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
    Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
    Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
    [aloud]
    Captain Renault: Everybody out at once!

    ;)

  7. At the risk of addressing the original entry ;-), I’d just like to say that the idea that the Age of Enlightenment was religious, at least among the educated class, is greatly overstated. Heck, even British ships and Army regiments usually had no chaplain, and were often considered bad luck!

    As for democracy drawing on Christianity, can anyone kindly point out the place in the Bible that plugs democracy? OK, that even mentions democracy?

    Thank you.

  8. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I agree. :-)

    People tend to point to deism, pantheism, and even religious tolerance as evidence of the continuing importance of religion to Enlightenment thinkers; but a shift in world view, no matter how widespread or profound, doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Religion ruled civilization for thousands of years. It was a vast force to be reckoned with, and those reckoners were human, with the human ability to entertain contradictory beliefs and the human need for meaning in life.

    Dealing with those issues in a myriad of ways didn’t prevent or subvert the Enlightenment. One obvious example: Jefferson was personally reluctant to abandon the idea of some kind of supernatural existence, yet he absolutely refuted the right of any religious system to impose its will on the people.

    “God schmod,” as Rousseau used to say. Or so I hear.

  9. Historically speaking it was the Christians who drove so much of our technological innovation.

    Hmm…I think people like Galileo would disagree with you. And in “modern” times the church has often been the one holding us back: evolution, birth control, stem cell research, etc.

  10. This is a long argument, but let me boil a couple points down. First, there has always been the smackdown element in the church, but there’s also a strong “heretical” strain. This tension has actually been central to what Christianity is today. One strain has been more about control, but the progressive, technotopian strain has been strong enough to drive significant tech development.

    Also, when I talk about historical, you have to note that things change a bit in the 19th Century. Prior to that religion wasn’t as “anti-science” as we think of it being today.

  11. Sorry, I have to add a bit of color to the conversation…

    Did not the constitution NOT include black people as human beings? How enlightended could these people have been? Didn’t Jefferson own slaves? I thought a black person was easier to see (or believe in) than an invisible Jesus?

    I do know a little about Q.M., so ask away…

  12. Maybe the church was more progressive than I thought. I mean, they did get rid of those darn midwives and wise women…er witches…allowing modern medicine to evolve. And of course there’s the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, basically a list of books banned by the church.

  13. Here’s the best source I’ve seen – I drew heavily on it in my dissertation research. It’s not all about the Millennarians, but it deals with them in a lot of detail.

    Noble, David F. The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

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