There is a video that has been making the rounds recently, in which Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA) contends on the House floor for the Spiritual Heritage Resolution (HR 397). In case you’ve not yet seen it, here it is:
Here is a clip of the statement by President Obama to which Forbes was referring:
So the question before us is this: Is America a Christian nation?
Chances are that most people would respond to this question with a simple “yes” or “no”, but a loaded question cannot have a simple answer. If I were forced to respond with one or the other, however, I would have to agree with our President that we are not — and should not be — considered a Christian nation.
The more critical question is the first which Forbes proposed: Have we ever considered ourselves a Judeo-Christian nation?
Before I answer that, I must insert a brief side note paying homage to the great philosopher Stephen Colbert, who, in his recent book I Am America (And So Can You!), wrote that the term “Judeo-Christian” is bogus, because it makes it sound like Christianity and Judaism are equal. “Think of ‘Judeo-Christian’ like ‘Sears, Roebuck & Co.’ — Judaism is Roebuck. The ‘& Co.’? Unitarians.”
In all seriousness, though, it is important for all Americans to address the question of whether or not ours is — or has ever been — a Christian nation. In order to do so, we must first define what we mean by the term. (Words are important, remember?) Our answer to the question will depend on our understanding of the term as meaning explicitly Christian (i.e. – State sponsored or mandated religion) or implicitly Christian (i.e. – characterized by Christian principles).
I would assert that America today is neither explicitly nor implicitly Christian, and I think most would agree. The debate then, will be over our history. (History is important, remember?)
Predictably, most Christians will affirm that America was founded as a Christian nation, while most non-Christians will claim the opposite. Both can defend their views quite reasonably, quoting the same Founding Fathers, because both are correct. As Christians, then, it is important that we be able to define the difference between the “explicit” and “implicit” meanings of the term “Christian Nation”, both to ourselves (so that we are not dismayed or discouraged by “proof” that our heritage is secular) and to others (so that they do not see us as ignorant or unreasonable).
Previous posts in this blog have included many quotes from the Framers of the Constitution demonstrating that I believe the nation WAS founded on Christian principles, so I will not repeat them here for the sake of brevity. Instead, I will give just a few of the many evidences given to refute that claim. The first — and at first glance the most damning — is from a relatively obscure document known as the Treaty of Tripoli, written in 1796 and ratified the following year.
Art. 11. 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 tranquillity, of Mussulmen (old form of the word “Muslims”); and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Islamic) 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. (emphasis & explanations mine)
This treaty was read in its entirety before the Congress, and passed by unanimous vote. It was signed into law by President John Adams. It was published in major newspapers across the nation with no public outcry. How then could anyone claim that these same people founded this nation on Christianity? Other than to point out the irony that Obama’s “not a Christian nation” quote was from a speech in Turkey, and that Tripoli was, in 1796, a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, I’ll hold off on commenting on this quote, because I believe it will be clarified by the next series of quotes.
Another founder often quoted as “proof” that America was not to be a Christian nation is James Madison, called the “Father of the Constitution”. In 1785 (two years before the Constitutional Convention), the Virginia legislature was about to vote on legislation that would assess a property tax used to pay the salaries of Christian preachers. Madison then wrote a letter opposing this, entitled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments“, from which further evidence of our “unchristian” heritage is gleaned:
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
“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.”
“Quote mining” is a term usually reserved for Creationists misquoting Evolutionists (which should never happen but often does; we have Truth on our side, we don’t need to resort to bad logic!), but secularists are often just as guilty of taking quotes out of context. This is exactly what has happened in countless articles such as this one, which uses the above quote as evidence that Madison “had no conventional sense of Christianity”.
When one reads the rest of Madison’s letter, though, it becomes clear that his objection was to state-funded or supported ministry, because it is contrary to the concept of liberty taught in the Bible! The founding fathers knew this. We often forget the context of the founding of our country. The Puritans were not fleeing a pagan king or even a secular king, but a Christian king. The Church of England had become the national church, and those who would not join it were persecuted. This is what Madison hoped to protect against in his Memorial and Remonstrance letter:
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” ~ from Objection 3, Memorial and Remonstrance
“Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man.” ~ Obj. 4, M&R
What happens if someone claiming to be a Christian comes to power, but misrepresents the faith?
“The Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy.” ~ Obj. 5, M&R
Christianity does not need the support of law:
“The establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them.” ~ Obj. 6, M&R
The earlier quotes meant to “prove” that America is a secular nation were actually an admission of the wrong that has been done in the name of Christianity… something we don’t admit to or address nearly enough. However, the first reference failed to complete the point Madison was making:
“Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.” ~ Obj. 8, M&R
Governmental support of religion will actually prevent its spread:
“The policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those who have as yet received it with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions; and how small is the former! Does the policy of the Bill tend to lessen the disproportion? No; it discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation from coming into the Region of it.” ~ Obj. 12, M&R
You will also notice in the above quote a blatant admission that true Christians were, and knew themselves to be, a minority. I believe that some very Godly men were involved in the forming of our government, and that our Constitution is the greatest legal document ever written protecting the liberty to promote and freely exercise our faith. However, the blind claim that ALL of our founders were devout Christians, or even that those who were ever intended for America to be an explicitly Christian nation, is easily proved false. Making those claims not only undermines our testimony; it undermines the great pains our forefathers took to ensure us the liberty that Christian Americans have today. That liberty is rare in the world, and not to be taken for granted.
And thus is the problem with Rep. Forbes’ resolution. HR 397 lists many instances that would seem to assert that America is a “Judeo-Christian” nation, yet it mixes in many patently unchristian events to make that assertion. For instance:
Whereas, beginning in 1904 and continuing for the next half-century, the Federal Government printed and distributed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth for the use of Members of Congress because of the important teachings it contained;
This document, also known as The Jefferson Bible, is Thomas Jefferson’s edited version of the gospel accounts, in which all sections of the text dealing with supernatural events or the deity of Christ have been removed. I could have used other examples; there are many. Why would we Christians pass this around as if it is a good thing? Our attempts to mainstream our faith accomplish nothing but the watering down of the Gospel.
The fact remains that the Puritans came to the New World to establish a nation with the express purpose of propagating the Gospel of Christ. By the time our nation declared its independence, our Constitution was founded on many implicitly Christian principles, but by design the Framers did NOT want America to be considered a Christian nation. I believe this was wise.
The efforts of many in the so-called “Religious Right” to politicize our faith have led to the exact thing those faithful Christians of the founding era warned against. Too many Christians look to the State to be our savior; to pass laws that uphold Biblical principles. Today’s American Church is characterized by the attributes which Madison predicted: Pride, laziness, ignorance, legalism, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.
Jefferson’s wall of separation between Church & State is there for our own benefit. It allows us the opportunity to worship freely as we choose. When we choose each day to take up our crosses and REALLY follow Christ, it results in a radical and contagious faith. When the Church decides to personalize rather than nationalize our faith, THEN we’ll begin to see this nation return to it’s implicitly Christian origins, as Madison and others intended.