Beyond Good and Evil

Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings

The United States of America — A Christian Nation?

Especially now in the 21st century, you seem to hear it more and more; with every Presidential election it raises its ugly head; in the Obama administration, it is one of the mantras one hears from the Obama-bashers. What is it? The declaration that the USA is a “Christian nation.”

What amazes me is that it is said so unthinkingly. Most who spout it, from the leaders of the Tea Party to the well-meaning Church member in the local community, it seems to me, know not of what they speak. I feel like spouting a paraphrase of Luke 23:34 “Forgive them; for they know not what they say.”

It seems declaring us a Christian nation is said as if that is saying the same thing as we are a nation of Christians. Of course, these are two very different statements. It is an unfortunate muddling of two things; those who call us a Christian nation seem oblivious that “ne’er will the twain meet.”

That we are, and have always been, a nation most of whom are of some Christian persuasion is obvious. I am not taking issue with that one of the twain. That fact has nothing to do with the proposition that “we are a Christian nation.”

Anyone, in my opinion, who declares we are a Christian nation must have been asleep in history class, high school and/or college. What part of “religious world history” do these people not understand? Time after time after time, history has shown us that to mix religion with state, church with government, is not only poisonous, it is downright dangerous; sooner or later, innocent people start to die. A Christian nation is an example of a “sectarian nation,” a nation in which secular and religious law and tradition are so intertwined, a crime is heresy, and heresy is a crime. Moreover, patriotism is pious and piety is patriotic. People in power in such a nation, whether clerical or not, sooner or later believe they possess power because it is God’s Will, and, when they exercise power, they are doing God’s Will. Hence, to question them is to question God’s Will. Get the picture? In a sectarian nation, there is no check on what political power can do, for the political power is seen as God’s handiwork.

It is the same old, sad, tragic, terrible story with sectarian nations, regardless of the scale and regardless of the time: the Papal States of central Italy (754-1870), Florence under the priest Savonarola (1452-1498), The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), English Parliamentary Commonwealth (1649-1660) [under Cromwell 1653-1658], Salem Witch Trials in Puritanical Massachusetts Colony (1692-1693), the Spanish Inquisition (1480-1834), and Pre-Revolutionary France under Louis XVI (1774-1789). These are but a handful. Add more from Christianity to these, plus add those under other major world religions, and the list becomes legion. I urge you to look up and add your own examples.

Surely, those who want to add the USA to this list of sectarian governments must do so out of ignorance. But they are, for the most part, not ignorant people. They simply confuse the religious beliefs of the individual believer and the beliefs of a group of believers. The dangers of a sectarian nation, history seems to teach, can be avoided if the religious experience is delegated to the individual, not to the group, not to the congregation, not to the denomination, not to the sect, not to the order, not to the Church. Jesus spoke to individuals and collections of individuals, not to groups of one accord, not to nations.

It is merely my humble opinion, but, if Christians only took Matthew 22:21 to heart — “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” — there would be none of this spouting off about the USA being a Christian nation. Jesus, to me, seems to be saying “Keep church and state separate in the hearts of each believer.” In other words, separation of church and state is a personal matter, as is belief and faith, not a matter of the state or group.

But because so many think Jesus was wanting to establish a church, a group, our founding fathers had to couch separation of church and state in terms of groups, in political terms, if you please. This is where the perpetrators of our being a Christian nation seem to have also been asleep in American history class.

Let me give you the following names: Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Paine, Madison, and Monroe. These men paid attention to the church/state atrocities of history “across the pond” in Europe (not to mention in Salem, MA), and proceeded to find a way to found a secular state, as opposed to a sectarian state, a state in which church and state are separate, where religious belief and practice is a matter for the individual, not a matter for the group, as Jesus taught.

It all began with the Declaration: It was written, as I hope all of you know, by the first three on the list above, Jefferson being the principal author. Jefferson’s first draft read “…we hold these truths to be sacred,..” and Franklin persuaded him to change it to “…we hold these truths to be self-evident..,” setting a secular, as opposed to a sacred, tone to the matter at hand. Both Adams and Jefferson agreed.

The “matter at hand” was the winning of the Revolution against the British. I submit to you that if the American cause had been couched in any sectarian language, as opposed to the secular language in which it was couched, I do not think we could have won. Let me explain: religiously, the thirteen colonies struggling to win their independence from the greatest empire on earth at the time was a plethora of denominations and sects: Puritans, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quakers, and Deists, just to name a few of the larger groups. About the ONLY thing all thirteen colonies could be brought to agree upon was winning that independence, and, even then, we know a significant part of the population, known as Loyalists or Tories, did not even agree upon that.

Think what would have happened if there was some kind of sacred clause to the cause! We would have spent as much or more time arguing and fighting among ourselves (think how easily congregations split up over the most trivial of matters) as we would fighting the British, and, I think (pardon the expression) we would not have had a prayer! As it was, we barely won anyway, even with this secular insight our founding fathers had the genius and foresight to employ. In other words, the ONLY cause we could have agreed upon was a SECULAR one. From the beginning, then, we had to be a secular nation. No one of the founding fathers knew this better than Paine, even though he used Biblical references to reinforce his points in his writings, just as I have done in this posting; read Common Sense, written for the revolutionary cause during the fighting. And the only way to fairly be a secular nation is to treat all religions, Christian or not, the same, REGARDLESS of the individual beliefs of the citizens. That is, we had to fight the Revolution under the guidance of a fair and even separation of church and state; if God was evoked, He had to be evoked by the individual, not by the group or by the cause — all in the name of solidarity and to avoid sectarian in-fighting.

I submit we barely won, in the end, primarily because of two reasons, neither of which has to do with God or religious belief: 1) separation of church and state, providing unity on the battlefield, and 2) French military and financial aid.

When it came time to write the Constitution, separation was seen as so obvious, it was not given explicit language except in the Bill of Rights. Only later was separation spelled out, such as in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Jefferson, 1786) and in Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists (Jefferson, 1802). Also, Jefferson showed we could not be a Christian nation when he treated the conflict with Barbary pirates in North Africa as a secular one and not one of conflict of religions (1803).

But I’ve heard the argument about all the religious references, especially the Ten Commandments, on state monuments and buildings, both on the national and State level, as evidence we regard ourselves as a Christian nation. And, what about “In God We Trust” on our money?

The last six Commandments are social mores, the first four are theological. To follow the last half-dozen is tantamount to following the “golden rule,” the basis of all laws of social conduct world-wide, and, consequently, the basis of laws of jurisprudence everywhere, including the USA. (Every society has laws against murder, theft, rape, etc.) Every moral code, religious or not, contains this basis in its sacred texts or honored writings. As I have elsewhere argued, it might as well have been the Code of Hammurabi (Babylonian, 1780 BCE — or BC), which predates the Mosaic Code as its precursor, and, therefore, predates Judeo-Christian Scripture. Time honored codes, regardless of their religious contexts, are acknowledged for their inspiration of modern laws, and say nothing about the truth or acknowledgement of the religion embedded in the original code. This is analogous to the physicist Murray Gell-Mann using the Buddhist Eight-Fold Way as inspiration toward his ordering of elementary particles; his usage was no endorsement of Buddhism, just as the modern use of the Mosaic Code is no endorsement of Judaism or Christianity.

Individuals are free to religiously interpret the use of the codes any way they want, but they do not have the right to interpret by ignoring historical facts.

As for the inscriptions about trusting God on money, it seems but a weak attempt to imply a widespread religious consensus in our country, which is something we have NEVER had. Since there is nothing crammed down one’s throat — the money does the same thing with or without the writing on it — it seems harmless and pointless enough. If I lived in Canada or Australia, I would not appreciate the image of the Queen on the money I used, based upon my personal convictions, but, since allegiance to a monarch is not forced as I use the money, it seems harmless and pointless enough. In other words, separation of church and state seems not violated to me, as it is an individual, private response or non-response to “In God We Trust” involved, not a group requirement. The same goes for prayer in public places — leave it up to the individual and I have no problem; force it on a group without their consent, and that is a problem violating freedom to believe and freedom from belief.

There seems to be a “softening” of the separation of church and state in our country in recent years, especially among what is sometimes called the Republican Right, or the ultra-conservatives. To me this is anti-American, un-patriotic — an insult to our founding fathers and their great ideas that made our country great from the get-go. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, a denomination, which, along with the Northern Baptists, was the champion of separation of church and state, going all the way back to the legacy of Roger Williams. (Remember it was to the Baptists Jefferson wrote the letter in which was coined first the words “separation of church and state.” [1802]) Until recently, how a Baptist church member voted was a matter of personal conscience and choice, a matter the church stayed out of. Until recently… I was shocked during one of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns when after a church service at the First Baptist Church in Cisco, Texas, when I was visiting a service there, we returned to our cars to find under our windshield wipers circulars admonishing believers to vote for “God’s candidate,” RR! I was saddened that it seemed I was about the only one shocked and outraged — were these people who slept in their Sunday School classes? Even the Baptists seem to be “softening” on the issue of separation; they are selling out on one of their most cherished and important Baptist and Protestant birth rights!

Here’s another situation I recall in the high school in Waxahachie several years ago. The school approved Gideons handing out Bibles to students wanting them as they entered school in the mornings. Now, Waxahachie is probably one of the most Christian-riddled big towns around, as shown by the fact most thought nothing of this action. Several of us teachers wrote a letter reminding the schools they were setting themselves up for entanglement with separation of church and state. All it takes is one that is different, say, a member of the Church of Satan, or of the religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or of Islam, or of Buddhism, or of Hinduism, etc. requesting the same privilege as extended to the Gideons, permission to pass out their literature alongside the Bibles. Should the school have denied that permission (what a vast majority of the citizens would have prefered, I’m sure) and continued to allow the Gideons permission to offer Bibles, they were sure to be sued in a suit they (I apologize again.) did not have a prayer to win. Long story short, the school decided they did not want such a case against them, and the Board voted to have no religious material of any kind handed out on school grounds. Off school property, where they have a permit to do so, any material could be handed out, but not on public school grounds. It was another case where always separation of church and state means all religions have to be treated absolutely the same; no religion is better or worse, regardless of the individual religious preferences of the state’s population.

So, you think we are a Christian nation? Pray that we never become so.

Vigilance is the price of liberty, and liberty means freedom to worship as we please, and freedom from having to worship, if we so please. Wanting us to be a Christian nation is a sign of ignorance, lack of historical perspective and insight, incredible, dangerous naiveté, or equally dangerous inhumane religious zeal (or a combination of these). It could be a sign of one of Jefferson’s fears — an uneducated electorate, a situation against which we must work to avoid. We must be vigilant to see people make the distinction between their own personal religious convictions and the political power of mass religious zeal. Our very identity as the United States of America may well depend upon it.

May God bless the United States of America by never allowing us to become a Christian nation, or any kind of sectarian nation. Oh, yeah, and thanks to the founding fathers I listed above, and thanks to Hammurabi for the early start!


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2 thoughts on “The United States of America — A Christian Nation?

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