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America, A Christian Nation?

“These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” – Justice Brewer, U.S. Supreme Court, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892)

Many people will tell you that the United States is not a Christian nation. Well, perhaps they are right that, as of now, we are not a Christian nation. However, throughout most of our history, we have been a Christian nation. Now, I can hear the secularists running around cupping their hands over their ears, howling in disbelief and shouting their mantra regarding separation of church and state (which is mysteriously absent from our founding documents).

For the sake of this article, I’m just assuming we are still a Christian nation. You know what they say about assuming, right?ย  Oh well…Anyway, when I say that, I don’t mean that we are exclusively Christian. That’s obviously not the the case. The United States is more diverse religiously speaking than almost any other country on the face of the earth. What I do mean is that we are predominantly Christian and that our laws and moral code is/was based on Judeo-Christian principles. There are also multitudes of statements from our founding fathers and other political leaders throughout the last 200+ years solidifying this, which I’ve written about previously. That article can be read here.

Being a Christian nation doesn’t mean other religions are excluded or that their adherents should be shunned or even persecuted. This country has a long history of religious tolerance, for the most part. Yes, some examples of intolerance can be found but no country’s history is devoid of shameful periods of time or scattered incidents.

I’m against anyone who calls themselves a Christian and either persecutes, belittles, or pushes their beliefs on someone of another religion. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your faith or even debating someone on their beliefs as long as they are a willing participant. To continue doing otherwise when someone has made it abundantly clear that they don’t want to hear it is wrong and an abuse of our freedom of religion.


11 Responses

  1. I think more to the point–if you have two people, one saying we are (or were) a Christian nation and another saying that we are not or never were–they are actually talking about two different things.

    The fact of the matter is we are not and have never been a de jure Christian nation, but we have been and basically still are a de facto Christian nation (although the case has been harder and harder to make as time has gone on.)

    That’s one side of the debate. The other side of this debate is that until the 60s there wasn’t such a thing as a “Christian nation.” In the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th Century there was no group in this country running as foil to Christians. As a result most of our greatest civil rights crimes were delivered onto the Catholics by various Protestant sects. These people did not consider themselves “Christians” in the way we use that term today. They were in fierce and direct competition with each other. No peer of our founding fathers would claim that we were a “Christian nation” unless he was also saying that we should therefore outlaw Catholics and kick them out of the country as to maintain our “Christian nation” status.

    By 1892 enough Jews were present in the country for there to be a reason for Christians to work together on some issues, but already by that point you were able to see major moves away from the Christian monoculture. And since the 1920s most politicians have explicitly recognized our “Judeo-Christian” heritage–a phrase that has come up even more often in light of our most recent wars.

    But cutting even closer to the point. Even if we were a Christian nation–now or in the past–de facto or de jure–what would that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that if there were benefits derived from adopting a pluralistic society now that we shouldn’t do so. Most people claiming that we are, or were, or “were founded as” a Christian nation seem to be arguing that that fact (if it were an indisputable fact) somehow should require that we remain so.

    Basically, although I have entered this argument a bit on my own blog, I really fail to see how it matters. The question is what we are going to be not what we were. And there is no path toward being “a Christian nation” short of massive humanitarian crimes that will have a very non-Christian look about them.

    As far as our laws being based on the judeo-christian culture, that’s just a happy myth. Every culture, including hammurabi’s (distinctly neither jew nor chrisian) had laws against lying, stealing, murder and the like. so unless you think ancient Babylon was building a legal system on the 10 commandments, I think we can dispense with this argument. Our laws, those that were developed through legislation and not through the (remarkably pre-Christian) English common law system were derived by argument of Natural Right. They were later amended in the Utilitarian fashion.

    The fact that many laws seem to correspond to the 10 commandments is only a testament to the universality of those laws. That is, their correspondence was a happy accident. If America had been founded by Chinese immigrants instead of English ones, people would claim their laws banning murder were based on Buddha or Lao Tzu. The fact is that every government bans the practice of violence from one citizen to another. It is no more Christian than it is Hindu.

  2. If you delve into the founding fathers and what they had to say then, yes, our legal system is based on the Judeo-Christian culture.

    “The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.” – John Adams

    “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” – George Washington

    This not only effected our independence but all throughout the early stages of our country’s development. Certainly Judeo-Christian principles are the same in many cases and similar enough in others that you could attribute our legal system and system of government to being influenced by other legal or moral codes but it’s fairly obvious when you take the statements of the founding fathers in general that they relied very heavily on Judeo-Christian thought.

  3. To get back to the point…I’m not saying that we are a “Christian nation” in that we’ve ever declared that in some legal sense but just that, generally-speaking, that’s what’s permeated our culture.

  4. Again, as I stated at the beginning of my comment–the difference here is de facto vs de jure. There was never any legal encoding of Christian doctrine. To the extent that Christianity played a part in the creation of the legal foundations of the nation they are/were completely compatible with later immigrants from other faiths–which implies a de facto Christian nation with a de jure pluralistic bias. There are towns in Michigan with no black people in them but if a black person were to show up they would be free and treatd equally under the law. Those towns are de facto white, but de jure racially tolerant.

    And again, in the same way that Christians today will say things like “Well, they _say_ their Christian but since they believe X, they aren’t _really Christian_” many of our founding fathers meant something very different than what we mean when we say that word today. It’s very likely that many people who used the phrase “Christian” in 1780 would not consider Catholics, Calvinists, or Baptists as “Christians” or whatever sect they opposed.

    And that Adams quote above says exactly what I said–the principals are synonymous not necessarily derived. Similarly Kantian ethics is synonymous with Christian ethics but he specifically went out of his way to rebuild the Christian ethic without deriving it from the Bible. And again, similarly, there was much work in 18th Century philosophy to reconstruct Christian ethics from a philosophy of Natural Right–and Jefferson and Madison–the architects of the Constitution were both Natural philosophers of this type. So yes, I have no qualm admitting they are synonymous ethics–but that does not necessarily imply derivation. A couple of out of context quotes–especially knowing a bit more of the religious temper of Franklin, Jefferson et al–are not going to persuade me to admit otherwise. There’s been a movement of late to try to apologize for or ignore Jefferson and Madison’s Deism, but make no mistake, while they claimed their beliefs were “Christian” no Christian today outside a Universalist church would call it so.

    And I still say: Even if Jefferson et al were diehard Christians who wrote the Constitution as a long-winded rewrite of the 10 Commandments, we would still have to face the fact that the very 1st amendment grants religious freedom–which is a distinctly non-Biblical approach to religion and government. This simple fact, which is obvious on its face, means that although 100% of the original immigrants were Christian it was legally prepared as a non-Christian nation as soon as the first non-Christian showed up.

    Which leads me back to how I ended my first comment: What lesson or what advice are we supposed to gain if we admit that we started off as a nation of all Christians? Does this in some way inform how we are supposed to deal with our modern plural society? If not, and I propose it does not, then the debate is purely academic.

  5. The quotes are not out-of-context at all. Like I said, you have to take in the totality of what they said. Just because they were Deist (which I was well aware of, mind you) that doesn’t mean Christianity didn’t play a huge role in their thought process and the end result.

    I’d be interested in hearing how you think the 1st amendment is non-Biblical. It’s certainly the antipathy of the way Israel was set up but that doesn’t make it non-Biblical. The New Testament doesn’t really have much to say as to how government should be, just that we are to obey those who are in authority over us.

    As far as the debate being academic or not, it’s merely just a matter of identity as a whole for me. No, the founding fathers didn’t intend us to be a Christian nation as far as crafting our laws to exactly spell out each and every tenet of the Christian faith. I don’t think most of us want a theocracy (I certainly don’t). Identity goes a long way in defining who we are as a people but that doesn’t exclude atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, etc.

    Regardless of whether we are or aren’t a Christian nation, it’s discussions like this make it interesting to delve into the topic. Whether or not that helps myself or anyone else deal with a modern plural society is up to the person.

    • Here’s a quote from Patrick Henry that sums it up nicely…”It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship.

  6. 1. You’re right, the debate is interesting or else I wouldn’t be over here having such a good time with this back and forth with you. ๐Ÿ™‚
    2. You are also correct that, to the extent you are a Christian and an American, you have a vested interest in believing that this was a Christian nation.

    But the quotes are out of context. Whether it is the case that they have been removed from some explicative context is debatable, we’d have to see the context to know. Which is to say that I did not use “out of context” to mean “inaccurately applied” which is how that term is often used. What I mean is that these quotes are out of context by definition because they have been removed from their surrounding context. So it is impossible to judge if you are using them accurately or not. The Adams quote, is specifically the one I was thinking of because, based on what you quoted, it’s clear that you and I have different interpretations of what Adams may have meant. Seeing the passage in context might help illuminate us.

    Furthermore, Patrick Henry can say that this nation was founded on the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that doesn’t make it so. (More on that later.)

    The fact of the matter is that some of our laws look a lot like some of the 10 commandments. However, there are a lot of Biblical laws that did not make it into any American law book, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution. Moreover, most of the Declaration and the Constitution has no Biblical foundation at all. As a matter of fact, off the top of my head I can’t think of a single law or right in those early documents that is Biblically derived. There are two invocations of a non-denominational “Creator” which may or may not resemble our modern concept of a “Christian” god. As we both admit Jefferson, the pen behind that word “Creator,” was a Deist. He thought Deism was a Christian mode, but modern Christians probably wouldn’t–Adams didn’t even think that Jefferson was a Christian (more on that later too).

    The first and largest chunk of the Constitution (the only true founding document) is concerned with how funds and armies will be raised and the three branches of government and how they will interact.

    Of the 10 amendments known collectively as the Bill of Rights, most of them are concerned specifically with the nature of police-work and the exercises of the judiciary.

    The First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of religion is a specifically non-Biblical right because the Bible is quite clear that there is one true God. Those that stray are foresaken–in the afterlife certainly, but in the context of Expulsion, Floods, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc–also on Earth.

    As I said there’s no doubt that there this country has a Christian heritage and insofar as Christianity is a continuation and alteration of Jewish tradition a Judeo-Christian one. But the statement “this is a Christian nation” goes much further than merely recognizing our heritage. That sentence must mean something above the simple academic question of our founders’ faiths or people would not spend so much of their time on debates like this.

    Some of the confusion is over the word “nation.” It is definitely not true to say this was a “Christian country” which is more or less my argument made more clear. A “country” is a collection its laws and the laws have always been pluralist.

    A “nation” is a self-identifying group–that is a nation is defined by its people. So insofar as some people have refused to admit that someone can be of another faith and also be an American, then there might be some truth to the fact that we were once but are no longer a Christian nation. This question deserves a closer look too.

    The tradition known as “Christianity” was not so recognized in the 18th Century and there was a lot of distrust and animosity between sects. Patrick Henry may have said “this country was based on the gospel of Christ” but that’s because he had a concept of what this country’s principles were and they jibed well with his interpretation of the Gospels. But both of those things are his opinion and doesn’t speak to the facts of the matter.

    There were a lot of people in 18/19th Century America and they were of various faiths and opinions. They even had pretty dramatic differences on the nature of the country and how Christian were its founding princples. So I think it is wrong to appeal just the founders in our pursuit of determining the religious nature of the country. But even if we reduce our study of early America to just these people we run into significant problems.

    “The founding fathers” as a group were not much of a group. They were split widely on deep issues like the legality of slavery, the creation and role of a central bank, the nature of a federalist system, and all manner of other things. Which may seem irrelevant to this debate but it isn’t. A lot of ink was spilled on how Christian our nation could be if it allowed slavery to continue. Even slave keepers like Jefferson recognized slavery as a violation of Christian doctrine. In an effort to make this a “Christian nation” many of the members of the 2nd Continental Congress wanted to outlaw slavery. However, Southerners routinely referred to the slavery present in the Bible as a means of justifying their right to continue the institution. Despite the appeals to the Bible on both sides–somebody was wrong. Only one of these notions is truly Christian and depending where you sit you can determine whether or not we were a Christian nation or not. I can tell you that Jefferson and a lot of the founding fathers you appeal to did not think this was a Christian nation because we allowed slavery to continue. Many Southerners stopped thinking this was a Christian nation in 1865.

    Take a smaller, more explicit example. Adams was a devout Christian–a Unitarian, specifically. But during the election of 1800 he had his campaigners routinely called Jefferson an atheist.

    So given these facts:
    1. Adams, according to you, is an authoritative source for whether our young nation was a “Christian” one.
    2. Adams thought Jefferson was an atheist.
    3. Jefferson is the author of the Constitution, a principle architect of the Revolution, and a two-term president.

    By this simple logic would it not be somewhat reasonable to believe that our young nation was an atheist one? Or at the least that Adams contradicts himself a little and might not be a good source?

    I do not believe that our nation was an atheist one. However, appeals to authority like the quotes you are using can lead us down just these roads. These people can say things, but that doesn’t make them correct.

    So without appealing to people’s opinions how are we to prove that our nation was a Christian one? Well, we could look at the way they acted and we can look at the legal documents they left behind. I’ve already looked at the Declaration and the Constitution and other than an appeal to a non-denominational “Creator” there is no marking of Christianity. Furthermore, there is some evidence that certain rules of the Bible were being specifically ignored or countered. So appeals to official documents don’t help the “America was a Christian nation” argument.

    And what do we know about the way they acted? Well, as I already said, Christian fought Christian not just often, but horribly. There was nothing–at all–like the Christian brotherhood we see today. In the same way that young Americans saw themselves as “Virginians” and “Pennsylvanians” rather than “Americans,” an 18th Century religionist saw himself as a “Calvinist” or a “Catholic” and not a “Christian.” When the term “Christian” was used it was typically used with an implied principle of exclusion as in “I am a Methodist and we are the only and true manifestation of Christianity.”

    We also know that, in time, other faiths were welcomed–not without struggle, but eventually. And so over time what was a de facto Christian nation, became a self-identifying group of multiple faiths all recognized as “American.”

    • Dude…Way too much here to spend my time responding to but I’ll make a few points…

      1 – I don’t have a vested interest in whether or not this is/was a Christian nation other than that’s what I’ve discovered from what I’ve seen, heard, and read from history.

      2 – I get what you mean by “out of context”…Point taken.

      3 – I can say that this is/was a Christian nation without meaning that it was based fully and only on specifically Christian rules and principles, or even that the people doing it were Christian (whatever that means in the context of history). As a fan of 80s music, I can say that the song “Let’s Get Crazy” by White Lion is basically a Van Halen song. Van Halen didn’t write it, didn’t sing it, and didn’t perform it but it’s got an obvious VH influence. The notes might be different than what VH would use. The lyrics are different. The singer is different but it’s still an overtly VH-influenced tune. There may be other smaller influences there that make up the song but I would characterize it as a VH song.

      OK…Maybe a bad example but that’s all that’s in the tank right now. ๐Ÿ˜€

      • I just realized you’re the Porch Dog…I love your blog. Can’t say I agree with you on much, although I haven’t had time to read a whole lot of your stuff, but I like your style anyway. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. In discussions of this sort, it also is important to distinguish government from society–a distinction akin to JimPanzee’s de jure/de facto point. It may be said that America was a Christian nation at the time of the founding in the sense that Christianity was a dominant religious influence in society. In that same sense, America remains a Christian nation today, though perhaps not to the same degree. Perhaps too some of the founders even expressed preferences for American society to remain that way.

    The nature of our government is an entirely different thing. It may be said, with just as much certainty, that America is a secular nation in the sense that our government is established by the people and predicated on the power of the people (and not any diety) and the government is kept, in some measure at least, separate from religion by the Constitution.

    That said, it is certainly understandable and to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in large part by their religion, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it’s simply a natural outgrowth of the people’s expression of political will. To the extent that the people’s values and views change over time, it is understandable and to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite–the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people.

    It is conceivable, therefore, that if Christianity’s influence in our society wanes relative to other influences, it may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that.

    BTW, the quotation of Patrick Henry you offer is fake. See http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/07/fake_patrick_henry_quote_found.php#more

    • Thanks for the correction. My use of the quote had more to do with the second part that I put in bold but it’s certainly good to know for future reference.

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