Reflections on a "Christian Nation"

In 2007, the First Amendment Center reported that 2 out of every 3 Americans believed that our Founding Fathers intended to establish a Christian nation, and that 55% (still a majority) believed that the Constitution explicitly establishes a Christian nation.

Part of what we sometimes hear is that the U.S. Constitution and our laws in were strongly based on the 10 Commandments. But for me that idea kind of falls apart when we actually read the commandments and ask whether they are reflected in our laws. Commandments 1 through 4 are not only absent from American law but would be unconstitutional and run completely counter to our guarantees of religious freedom (are we going to arrest people for making idols and not honoring the Sabbath?). Commandments 5 (honoring father and mother) and 10 (do not covet) are also not found anywhere in American laws, and some have argued that covetousness (#10) is what keeps our economy ticking. Commandments 6 (murder) and 8 (stealing) are indeed reflected in American law, but certainly not unique to America.  Prohibitions against murder and stealing predate the Bible and have been found almost universally in societies all over the world.  Commandment 7 (adultery) is found as a law in some states but only becomes relevant in divorce proceedings. Prohibitions against "bearing false witness" (Commandment 9) in American law are only applicable in certain situations, like when testifying under oath.

Do I personally honor and try to follow the 10 Commandments? Absolutely. I have freely chosen to. And that's the key difference.

The affirmation of the separation of church and state is not a secular, liberal, or godless viewpoint. Quite the contrary; it is a position that honors the idea of a non-coercive God. Christians have long spoken of "free will," and the God we read about in much of the Bible never forces Himself on anyone. It is an affirmation that faith in or love of God is not genuine unless it is chosen, and that any other human being should be free to accept or reject faith just as I was. It's a simple matter of putting myself in another's shoes. Would I react favorably if I felt persecuted or marginalized for having a faith that differed from the majority? Would that make me want to sign on with them?

There is a reason that the Founding Fathers did not just sign the Bible. Think about it: if it's true that we were supposed to be a Christian nation, and they all believed as the fabricated George Washington quote asserts, "It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible," then why didn't they just sign the Bible? Why write a whole new pesky Constitution that never mentions God or Jesus and never quotes from the Bible? The answer is: they knew better. Theocracy had been tried. The Church of England was within recent memory, and the next round of religious persecution in the colonies was ongoing. And so the idea that government should not establish a religion won the day by a landslide.

There's a lot of discussion about the faith of the founding fathers. Is this important? In the history classroom, yes, it is obviously very important. But those men - whether they were Christians, Diests, or whatever - penned a religiously neutral Constitution that renders their faith (and anyone else's) irrelevant in questions of governance.

In early America, of all the denominations, Baptists spoke the loudest in favor of the separation. (And again, they did so from religious conviction, not secular interests). Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church on American soil, along with John Clarke, obtained for Rhode Island the first charter in the world that secured full liberty of conscience and religion. Thomas Helwys, widely regarded as one of the first Baptists, wrote the first call for full religious freedom in the English language. Virginia Baptist minister John Leland was set to run against James Madison for a seat at the ratifying of the Constitution until he met with Madison and was assured that he would fight for a provision for religious freedom.  Leland once wrote:
"The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."
What exactly is being proposed when we are called to remember or revert to our Christian heritage? What does this mean in terms of practical governance?  Should we replace the Constitution with the Bible as the law of the land?  Should we give Christians more rights than everyone else and implement an all new three-fifths compromise for all the inferior non-Christians in our ranks?

The revelation that scripture was used in government documents arguing for war with Iraq is just one of many clear examples of what government would do with scripture and why it's just not a good idea. The church abuses the Bible enough already - let's not let government have it. Faith, evangelism, and ministry are the work of the church. Government has a different purpose.

Besides, our history, though filled with plenty of inspiration and bravery, is also a bit tainted, and I'm not sure when this golden age of godly living was. It wasn't when we were running off and killing Native Americans so that we could expand. It wasn't when we were oppressing and enslaving Africans, Chinese, or other foreigners and minorities to help us prosper It wasn't when we were holding witch trials or persecuting Catholics and Jews. It wasn't when we were not letting women vote.

Throughout history, every single time religion gets political power, it's a maniacal mess. BUT, every time people who have willingly chosen to love God and follow Christ freely come together to live that faith out, marvelous things happen. Which brings up the question: What would our nation look like if everyone took the teachings of Christ seriously? Would it look anything like the struggle for power, wealth or influence that Christians are engaged in now, or would it be something drastically different? See Part 2.

Recommended reading: The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church by Gregory A. Boyd.

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