Besides our current President, the other factor that has done perhaps the most to drive me from the Republican Party over the last decade has been its falling under the sway of Christian fundamentalists who want to impose their view of morality, religion, and Christianity on the nation as law. Of course, our current President is simply the culmination of nearly three decades of the party’s courting them and using them to attain power, and now moderate Republicans are shocked–shocked, I say–to find out that these folks mean what they say when they assert that God claimed the U.S. over 200 years before the Declaration of Independence and that our government should “submit” to an “absolute authority,” namely God, in how it governs. They base these claims, of course, on the concept that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation.”
But are we?
While it is true that the vast majority of the people in this country are Christian, it does not follow from that that we were founded as a “Christian nation.” There is, of course, no doubt that religion, and in particular various flavors of Christianity (mostly Protestant), were very important in the history of the U.S. No one can argue that they weren’t. However, this nation was formed specifically as a secular nation, because our Founding Fathers were acutely aware of how freedom is trampled when the power of government is fused with the power of the Church, as it was in so many nations in Europe at the time, including England. As Thomas Jefferson put it:
The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the era of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.
Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws.
Can you imagine any political candidate writing something like this today and actually getting elected to high office?
What Jefferson understood then, but that the Christian right seems not to understand now, is that religion flourishes when the state stays out of it. Indeed, if you read the U.S. Constitution, the law upon which all other laws and our government are based, you will find that neither God, the Trinity, nor Jesus is mentioned, not even once. The government’s legitimate power derives from “We The People,” not God. What you will find is this:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Sadly, although it’s in the Constitution, in practice, this is not entirely true; it’s unlikely that a Muslim, Buddhist, or an atheist will be elected to the Presidency in my lifetimeand only marginally more likely that a Jew could be elected. Indeed, it was only 46 years ago that the first Catholic President was elected, even though a significant fraction of the U.S. population was and is Catholic. Even then, there were dire intimations among John F. Kennedy’s opponents that he would be beholden more to the Pope than to the best interests of the U.S., forcing him to state that he most definitely would not be.
And, of course, in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
So, on this Independence Day, we should remember that, although the citizens of our nation are overwhelmingly Christian, the government was intentionally not formed as a “Christian nation.” Rather, in order to try to prevent the horrific tyranny that had resulted from the unholy alliance of church and state so common before the American Revolution, the government of the U.S. was intentionally designed to be secular and to show no favoritism to any religion. The United States was not founded on Christianity or on the basis of the power of God, but rather on the principles of the Enlightenment, including reason, free inquiry, and freedom of belief. We should remember that on this Fourth of July.