Christian America - Where Art Thou?

June 1, 2009

Every society is founded on some ultimate principle. It might be the absolutism of a single ruler, the majority-rule concept of a pure democracy where the “voice of the people is considered to be the voice of God” (vox populi, vox dei), or an oligarchy where a self-appointed group of experts claim sovereignty and control. A system of values (laws) flows from this fundamental operating principle even among regimes as diverse as Nazism, Communism, Fascism, and Socialism. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez make the claim that their socialistic system of rule is the best form government. Adolf Hitler made the same argument for his brand of National Socialism as did Lenin and Stalin for Communism. No government ever argues that its system is evil and bad for the people.

At a 1992 Republican governor’s conference, former governor of Mississippi Kirk Fordice (1934–2004) stated that “America is a Christian nation.” As you can imagine, many objected to the factual basis of the claim and its social, cultural, and political implications. Does a nation that rests on certain religious tenets affect the belief and value systems of those who do not identify themselves with the Christian faith? The governor’s controversial remarks landed him on CNN where he repeated the claim:

Christianity is the predominant religion in America. We all know that’s an incontrovertible fact. The media always refer to the Jewish state of Israel. They talk about the Muslim country of Saudi Arabia, of Iran, of Iraq. We all talk about the Hindu nation of India. America is not a nothing country. It’s a Christian Country.

Mike Gallagher offered this analogy: “If a neighborhood had 82 percent of the population that was Italian or a town had 82 percent of the population that was Polish, we’d call those communities Italian or Polish towns. So why do liberals have such a knee-jerk reaction when anybody dares to suggest that with 82 percent of the population being Christian—we are, in fact, a Christian nation?” In fact, America has ethnic enclaves called “China Town” and “Little Italy” because these areas are made up mostly of Chinese and Italians.

The debate over whether America was or is a Christian nation has not gone away. In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama stated, “Whatever we once were, we’re no longer a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”  Stated this way, America has always been made up of people who have held diverse religious opinions. But there is no doubt that the earliest settlers to these shores were Protestant Christians. Joachim Gans, an English metallurgist and Jew, was recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh to join an expedition to explore the Virginia territory. Solomon Franco, a Sephardic Jew from Holland, is believed to have settled in the city of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1649. A map of New York, dated 1695, shows the location of a Jewish synagogue on Beaver Street. The first major Jewish settlement was in Newport, Rhode Island. George Washington wrote a letter of commendation to the congregation on August 21, 1790 in which he stated the following:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Of course, there were also unbelievers and probably even some Hindus and Buddhists in early America. America is the most religiously diverse nation in the world. In 2009, President Obama made these comments while in Turkey where more than 99 percent of the population is Muslim:

“Although . . . we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.” 

Turkey does consider itself a Muslim nation because nearly everyone is Muslim and its value system is based on the principles found in the Koran. Here’s the question that goes to the heart of the Christian nation debate: What is the origin of the “ideals” and “set of values” that the citizens of the United States are bound to acknowledge and ultimately to obey?

A lack of historical knowledge of the role the Christian religion played in the founding of America is rampant. Rob Thomas, front man for the band Matchbox 20, goes beyond the usual claim that our nation’s founders were deists by arguing that they were mostly atheists:

I believe that America is a great nation of even greater people. I also believe that anyone who says that this is a “Christian nation” has RHS, or revisionist history syndrome, and doesn’t realize that most of our founding fathers were either atheist or at least could see, even in the 1700s, that all through Europe at the time, religion was the cause of so much persecution that they needed to put into their brand new constitution a SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE so that the ideals of a group of people could never be forced onto the whole.

Even Thomas Paine, who is not really a founding father, was not an atheist even though he was described this way by Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, there were religious battles in Europe, but this did not stop the earliest of our founders from basing their colonial charters and state constitutions on Christian principles. Neither did it stop our constitutional founders from calling on the people to pray and acknowledge their sins in times of national distress. Of course, neither the phrase nor the principle of “separation of church and state” is found in our Constitution. Thomas, in defending homosexuality, makes the curious argument that he is opposed to the concept that “the ideals of a group of people” should “never be forced onto the whole.” But isn’t this exactly what the homosexual movement is doing? Even when Proposition 8 was upheld by a majority of voters in California, a very small minority of the population (homosexuals) intimidated those who supported it and ran to the courts to get it overturned.

Morality cannot ultimately be determined by the individual, the people, or judges. There must be some outside moral standard that can be appealed to. That’s what the Christian nation argument is all about.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.