A Christian nation?

In recent decades, there has been a growing trend for political candidates- especially on the national stage- to try and outdo each other as Jesus’s personal choice (you’d think Jesus would be pretty busy with bigger issues than American politics… but that’s another discussion). They are appealing for votes from an electorate that either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care about some of the most important foundations of their country.

You hear it all the time: America is a Christian nation, founded by Christians, with its culture and law rooted in Judeo-Christian principles. It makes you wonder where (indeed, if) these people ever went to school. I’d like to consider each of these assertions.

America is a Christian nation

Too many people fail to understand the important distinction between America is a Christian nation, and America is a secular nation, the majority of whose citizens are Christian. It’s not a distinction that was overlooked by the founding fathers. For at least 1500 years before the founding of America, European nations were ruled by kings and queens whose mandate was seen as coming from God. In essence, that makes the ruler the equivalent of a deity, one whose decisions cannot be challenged. History shows this led to some horrific abuses of power. When Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, and the other thinkers behind our country were- literally- constructing a nation from scratch, they understood why the state needed to be separated from religion. They instantiated the Enlightenment concept of natural rights and government derived from the power of men in the founding documents, from the Declaration of Independence through the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Nowhere is found mention of God. Nowhere is found any reference to religion, except in the First Amendment prohibition against any religious entanglement with government. This absence was no oversight; it was debated, and deliberately omitted where some argued for it.

It is worth remembering that the Constitution was framed when nearly every American would have considered themselves some sort of Christian (although no doubt ranging in actual beliefs from atheistic to devoutly faithful). Any Buddhists or Muslims or Hindus were surely lost in the noise. Outside of Christians, there were only a few Jews. And in this environment, a conscious decision was made to build a secular nation. Since that time, America has become far more diverse. About a quarter of its citizens now identify themselves as something other than Christian- the majority of those as atheists of some sort, but many religious faiths, as well. There are more Muslims and Buddhists living in the U.S. today than the entire population when the Constitution was ratified. The founders’ wisdom in separating church from state has never been more clear.

America was founded by Christians

There is some truth to this. Certainly, many of the early immigrants to the colonies came here seeking the right to practice their own particular forms of Christianity- sects that were not welcome or tolerated in their native lands. American children learn in school that these colonists came here for “religious freedom”, but that isn’t really true. In many of the early colonies, there was less religious freedom than in the European countries the colonists came from. All that was different in those colonies was which religion was the official (and generally required) one. Religious laws and brutal punishments for religious infractions were the norm. One need look no further than such ogres as Increase and Cotton Mather to see that. Any attempt to exercise true religious freedom could merit a death sentence.

But this America was not yet a nation- just a collection of colonies with various degrees of allegiance to, and control by their host European countries. The United States of America came about through the unlikely intersection of a group of Enlightenment intellectuals- those men that we now identify as “founding fathers”- who were for the most part not Christian, nor even religious at all.

To understand the philosophy of these men it is necessary to understand something of the intellectual environment they were born into. The ideas of thinkers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were molded by the writings of Spinoza on philosophy, of Locke on politics, of Newton on physics, of Voltaire on history, and of numerous other thinkers whose views centered on one key concept: that reason is the most powerful tool for advancing knowledge. These people eschewed superstition, and the abuses of religion in a state setting (if not religion entirely). It was the writings of these luminaries of the Age of Reason that inspired Jefferson, Franklin, and most of the other influential founders of America. If you believe passionately in the power of reason, it is nearly impossible to be religious. And indeed, many founders were not. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Monroe- all were what we would today consider deists to various degrees. Deists share a religious philosophy that any creator plays no role in the operation of the Universe or in the affairs of Man. They believe that everything in nature is understandable in terms of discoverable natural laws. They don’t believe in inspired scripture, in miracles, or in organized religion. My own view is that there is a better term for the beliefs of most of these men: atheism. I doubt there is a single one who, today, would not be an atheist. The only reason they weren’t so in their own time was because science had not quite advanced far enough for an intelligent person to conceive of a Universe without some sort of creator. In the next century, Smith, Cuvier, Darwin and other scientists changed that forever. Had America’s founding fathers known such ideas, they would surely have shed even the rudimentary creator that most only maintained to explain original causes.

It is not hard to see how the personal philosophies of these men led most to oppose organized religion, to write out against Christianity in particular, and to found a nation that was deliberately secular, and in its principles actively anti-Christian in many respects (by which I mean contrary to Christian principles, not to Christians themselves).

Our law is rooted in Judeo-Christian principles

When I hear this, I wonder just what law is being referred to. It is true that some individual laws clearly derive from the Judeo-Christian tradition: our earlier laws supporting slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, for instance. At one point, many states had laws against blasphemy or failing to attend church. Laws against certain sexual “perversions” were rooted in religion. Religious laws survive to this day which limit the rights of homosexuals, or the rights of women to certain medical care, or the right of a compos mentis adult to take her own life. Most of these laws have fallen over the years, with the last ones poised to do so soon. Why is that? Because our little laws must conform to the true law of the land: the Constitution and its accompanying body of legal interpretation. And in that law, there is nothing to be found of religious principle. Instead, the Constitution provides a road map for the operation of our legal system based on an Enlightenment interpretation of English common law, as well as the then new idea of natural rights. Good luck finding any concept of natural rights in the Judeo-Christian tradition!

For those who state, or believe, this myth, I offer a question: what exactly constitute Judeo-Christian principles, anyway? Certainly, the legal principles found in the Old Testament are savage and brutal by modern sensibilities (and were similarly so in the late 18th century). Jewish principles are rooted in the idea of a covenant between God and his chosen people. They are inherently exclusive and divisive, with a complex set of (rather unpleasant) rules meant to distinguish “us” (the Jews) from “them” (the other 99% of humanity). Happily those principles are not enshrined in the Constitution!

Christian principles are rooted in the notion of original sin, sin in general, and in the idea that forgiveness can be granted by proxy. None of this is to be detected in our founding principles. When pressed, those who argue for the existence of a religious basis to our law often point to injunctions against murder or stealing- as if the Ten Commandments were the source of these constraints, and not merely a reflection of intrinsic human morals, evolved over millions of years. What religion does not generally condemn murder and theft? What society has not done so? What uniquely Judeo-Christian principle or ethical standard is found in our Constitution, or was utilized by our founders in structuring the American system of government and jurisprudence? The answer is none at all.

About Chris

I'm an astronomer and rancher, living in rural Colorado. My primary research interest is meteoritics- I run a network of allsky cameras in partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which monitor the night sky for meteors over much of Colorado. I'm interested in politics and public policy, and how these are affected by education, critical thinking skills, and religious beliefs.
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