The often quoted claim that the United States of America is a “Christian nation” is not an attempt to link the percentage of the population who identify themselves as Christian, with how the Country should be governed; but is in fact a suggestion that the Country was founded by devout Christians, developing a country on the Christian system of belief and values.
This simply isn’t true.
The true genius of America’s Founding Fathers lies in their commitment to the separation of Church and State. It is impossible to quantify how huge an experiment this was. Church and State had been intrinsically linked without question for at least a thousand years. The merging of the two, was based on religious authority. To question that, was to question the legitimacy of religious rule itself. A truly revolutionary concept.
It is true that none of the Founders were Atheists, many were deists and highly critical of Christianity, and few were devout Christians. None were Theocrats. Christianity cannot claim the Founders as their own, nor can they claim the intention of a Nation built on Christianity. We Atheists, similarly cannot claim the Founders as our own. Neither have a strong case. To understand the brilliance of the Founders barrier between Church and State we must examine the context of the period in which they lived. We must not view them through 21st Century Atheism/Christian Right tinted specs.
1776 was a time far before Darwin produced the greatest scientific discovery of all time, the greatest story ever told; The Origin of Species. It was a time when, up until very recently, to question Church doctrine was punishable by torture, imprisonment, or even death. For over a thousand years the basis of government was questioned very periodically and with very little acknowledgement of the fusion of Church and State. The two were the same thing. Kings and Queens derived their ‘right’ to rule from God. That they were the middle men between God and humanity, and so they were not accountable to anyone other than God. Powerful barons at times tried to overthrow the Monarchy; Simon De Montfort (power hungry, had no intention of popular rule), Oliver Cromwell (Puritan; as fundamental as Christianity gets). But the logic that the Monarch derives their power from God was left unchallenged, and was still at the heart of the understanding of how Government works by 1776.
The Church was at the centre of the community. Education was predominantly Christian by nature. And Capitalism was developing in the Northern States whilst the Southern States seemed poised to hold onto an economic system built on slavery; the two systems would one day clash violently, resulting in the triumph of Capitalism. We almost instinctively link the birth of modern Capitalism to the United States. But Capitalism has its roots in Christian thinking. Weber once argued that the type of Protestantism that made its way to the United States in the 17th Century differed vastly from the old Catholic powers, in that it exhalted the importance of the individual and his/her duty to improve the materialistic needs of those around them. Before the Constitution officially separated Church and State we can see that the new Protestant work ethic surrounding the materialistic desires of the individual was helping to foster the atmosphere of a nation built around the individual. In this respect, Christianity played a pivotal role in the building of America.
During their schooling the Founders would have attended Catechism classes, sang hymns, and made to learn and recite Bible passages as was the norm for the education system at the time. The majority of the population would have been subjected to Christian literature, and not much else. And this is where the Founders differ.
They were all, without exception, members of the upper classes. Their education would have been mixed. It would certainly have included the necessary Catechism classes and hymns and Biblical recitals, but it would also have been mixed with new Enlightenment ideas coming out of Europe around the time. It is important to note that Thomas Jefferson was schooled in Latin, Greek and Classical Literature. His Philosophy teacher was a man named Professor William Small; himself a child of Enlightenment ideals. Jefferson’s philosophy lessons covered morality, ethics, and the study of early Greek atheist writers.
Benjamin Franklin was a student of the Socratic method, and idolised the Ancient Greek Atheist. Franklin himself states quite openly:
“I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life, I absenteed myself from Christian assemblies.”
Franklin exemplifies Socratic reasoning with:
“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”
– We may call Franklin a Deist, but I’m pretty convinced he’s as close to Atheist as the 18th Century could ever produce, given the lack of scientific understanding for much of how the World, and human biology worked.
It would seem that the United States of America, as a political entity is wholly secular. The Constitution itself is a beautiful piece of Enlightenment literature. It unequivocally states the end of the Divine right to rule. A 1000+ year old settlement that not even the Magna Carta could break. It gives power to the people in a way that had never been considered before. But whilst the political resolution was indeed secular, the majority of the American public in the 1780s, were Christian. But that is largely irrelevant to our understanding of what America “is”. For that, we have to understanding the Constitution, and the people who framed it. As already noted Franklin was pretty much an Atheist. Jefferson on the other hand, was simply anti-Christian. He was Deist:
“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.”
“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.”
“Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.”
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”
And, I think most importantly of all Jefferson’s writings…. a letter he penned to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
– In fact, the Christian Right in Jefferson’s time attempted to block his Presidency based on the belief that he was an Atheist. Jefferson is a deist. He believed in a creator, but not the God of Christianity. He believed more strongly in the principles of the Enlightenment; individual freedom, the supremacy of human reason, and a binding separation between the Church’s ethical positions, and the State. He believed in certain teachings of Jesus (but denied his divinity) that supported the golden rule seen throughout the World and not limited to Christianity; treat others as you wish to be treated. This is where the new Christian Right and the Founding Fathers part ways.
The 1950s saw a new strand of Christian thought, moulded to political agenda with the Christian Right. This took on three branches:
In short, it was a response to the massive changes economically, socially and politically taking place during the middle of the 20th Century. Science and technology were becoming ever more necessary and sophisticated. Darwinism was being taken seriously. Women were ever more liberated, working and forging careers. Immigrants from non-Christian backgrounds were arriving. Communism was supposedly threatening property and individual freedoms. The Christian Right could vastly broaden their appeal, if they aligned themselves with a political and economic view point that Government = bad, Corporations = great. Suddenly poorer people struggling to put food on their tables will vote Republican to uphold traditional Christian values, not realising that economically their neighbourhoods will be ignored, investment dried up, and any sort of Welfare help cut to within an inch of its life…. all for the benefit of a few wealthy tax cuts under the almost hilarious – if it weren’t so curiously dangerous – rhetoric of “Well, they’re wealth creators”. So, the Christian Right has a broader appeal.
This merging of Christian fundamentalism with the Right Wing can be most clearly seen with its most revered members. Billy Graham managed to link Christian dogma with anti-communism and as a result, ranks a record 41 times between 1948 and 1998 on Gallup’s poll of Most Admired Men in America. The agenda seems obvious; align Christian Right Winged thinking with the National identity; make America a Christian-Right country, and claim it has always been so. And it’s had its successes….
In 1979 Ronald Reagan appointed a man named Paul Laxalt as his campaign manager. Among the campaign team, and later the White House staff, Laxalt was known as the “First Friend” for his close relationship to the President. Laxalt, in 1979, whilst Senator for Nevada, introduced a Bill called the ‘Family Protection Act’. Note the naming of the Bill. Point three on my list above, points to opposition to social liberalism. This Bill is a prime example of that. ‘Family Protection’ is worded to suggest there is an imminent attack on YOUR family. Be afraid. Where does this attack come from? Well, according to the Bill; pretty much everywhere that isn’t fundamentally Christian. It restricted access to abortion, restricted gay rights, and offered tax incentives to stay at home moms. It is a curious paradox of the Right Wing; they claim to be anti-big government, yet enact very anti-Constitutional, anti-separation of Church and State, anti-individual rights, where ever those individual rights don’t suit their very narrow vision of what being an ‘American’ truly means; (Christian, white, rich, male).
Like the rest of the Right Wing, Christian America holds Reagan up as a great President. The perfect Christian Conservative. It seems Christian voters are happy to overlook his disastrous Presidency (truly one of the worst in history – as I have noted in a previous blog), simply because his values were Christian by nature. Reagan’s legacy was one of homelessness, selfishness, arrogance, lack of compassion or empathy, hate, Corporate greed, death, and misery. All in the name of an economic policy disastrously known as “trickle down”. History will remember both him and Thatcher as little beacons of horror and misery for the majority. That’s all.
Thankfully Laxalt’s Bill never made it past Committee stage, but the fact is that as small Christian Right pressure groups popped up during the 1960s as a way to counter the social liberalism of the day…. by the 1980s, they had members in both Houses of Congress, and very close to the President. This says three things to me about the nature of the American identity by the 1980s; people are willing to vote based on religious conviction, ignoring the economic implications of their vote. Two, most people in the US considered their faith to be of great importance. Three, those who do vote based on religious conviction, are anti-Constitutional in their belief that religion should play a part in the legislative process, and not simply be kept between the individual and their ‘God’. And Reagan was the ideal candidate to play on this anti-Constitutional religious dogmatic approach to politics. He was quite willing to break down the wall that was so brilliantly erected between Church and State some 200 years previous. In 1984, Reagan gave a speech the National Religious Broadcasters. The only President up until that point to agree to give a speech to them, in which he states:
“Let’s begin at the beginning. God is the center of our lives; the human family stands at the center of society; and our greatest hope for the future is in the faces of our children. Seven thousand Poles recently came to the christening of Maria Victoria Walesa, daughter of Danuta and Lech Walesa, to express their belief that solidarity of the family remains the foundation of freedom.”
– This irritatingly nasty little manipulative quote stands to try to define what it means to be a human being. God must be the centre of our existence. The family, can only possibly be a religious concept. To a Christian public angry at the social liberalism and apparent moral relativism born out of the 1960s, this must have sounded wondrous. It is also, of course, nonsense. The entire paragraph, utter garbage. Let us not forget that whilst Reagan stresses the importance of ‘our children’ for the future of the Nation, he was busy cutting away all social programs, oversaw the closing of schools and libraries on a huge scale, creating a legacy of child poverty that still hasn’t been fixed, ensuring that the gap between rich and poor widened beyond anyone’s expectations. This wasn’t a man who cared about humanity, or “our children”. But he believed in God, and so the public warmed to him.
In 1988 Reagan completely destroyed any trace of Enlightenment thinking that brought around the creation of the secular United States of America with his State of the Union address, in which he states:
Well now, we come to a family issue that we must have the courage to confront. Tonight, I call America — a good nation, a moral people — to charitable but realistic consideration of the terrible cost of abortion on demand. To those who say this violates a woman’s right to control of her own body — can they deny that now medical evidence confirms the unborn child is a living human being entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Let us unite as a nation and protect the unborn with legislation that would stop all federal funding for abortion — and with a human life amendment making, of course, an exception where the unborn child threatens the life of the mother. Our Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes the right of taking a life in self-defense.
And let me add here: so many of our greatest statesmen have reminded us that spiritual values alone are essential to our nation’s health and vigor. The Congress opens its proceedings each day, as does the Supreme Court, with an acknowledgment of the Supreme Being — yet we are denied the right to set aside in our schools a moment each day for those who wish to pray. I believe Congress should pass our school prayer amendment.
– Here, he completely reasserts the link between Church and State. He includes the famous phrase from the Declaration. He appears to be trying to link himself to the Founders. Suddenly political America has a “Judeo-Christian tradition”. This is a Theocratic President, not a secular, democratic, constitutional President. This is a Christian that the Founders specifically wanted to keep away from Government.
The rewriting of history to suit Christian America is a regular occurrence from the 1950s until the present day. Somehow, it has managed to convince a Nation that “One Nation, under God” was always a part of the Pledge, or that “In God We Trust” always appeared on the dollar bill. Both of which are a product of the rise of the Christian Right in the 1950s. Jefferson and Franklin would have reacted with anger at the inclusion of “One Nation, under God” on any public institution.
The rewriting of history doesn’t stop there. The Christian Right are experts at rewriting the Bible to appear to support their prejudices. As noted above, anti-social liberalism is a key ingredient in the making of the Christian Right, and this social liberalism extends to homosexuality. We see the influence of the Christian Right in the passing of the ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ – again… using ‘defence’ to hide the fact that they are slowly breaking down the barrier between Church and State, slowly eroding individual rights, replacing them with Christian theocratic ‘values’. The ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ states:
“In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
-If this isn’t a restriction of human rights, by a bunch of homophobic anti-constitutional theocrats, I don’t know what is. This is the ultimate in Government power over individual rights. It is a restriction on ‘love’. Which on the surface, appears to be based on Biblical principles, but underneath it is clearly a case of prejudice making its way into law. I say this, because if marriage were in fact based on Biblical principles, we could all marry our sister’s as advocated in Genesis 20:1-14. Or we could, by law, have a right to take concubines as advocated in 2 Sam 5:13
and 2 Chron 11:21. Or that we’d be forced to shave our wife’s head as advocated by Deut. 21:11-13. Or a wife would be banned from offering an opinion of her own, especially in Church as advocated in I Corinthians 14:34-35. Or if a man rapes a virgin, as long as he pays, he is entitled to marry her as advocated in Deut. 22:28. Or we may take a child of a foreigner, and marry her, because by law she’d be our property, as advocated by Leviticus 25:44-46. And so it goes on. The ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ is simply a Bill of prejudice, and nothing else.
What The ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ shows is how vast the Theocratic Christian Right has managed to penetrate a Government that was built on anti-Theocratic, Enlightenment principles. Language like “Defence” and “Freedom” and “Individual” when linked to Christian-inspired changes to the law, are an attempt to provide a direct link using secular language, to the nature of the Founding documents and the people who penned it, whilst being vastly incompatible with the ideals set out by the Founding Fathers as they seek to limit the rights of anyone who doesn’t fit the narrow band of “Christian” that they attempt to perpetuate. It is within this context that it isn’t surprising that the Republican Party requires the Christian vote to be electorally successful, and so with that need comes deeply anti-constitutional, anti-freedom policies designed to placate Christian extremists with regard to abortion, homosexuality,and the teaching of evolution above creationism (I refuse to call it ‘intelligent design’).
The growth of the Christian Right seems to be a reaction to a perceived ‘threat’ to their understanding of how a moral society should work. It is true that Protestantism, as noted by Weber, set the ball rolling for the freedoms that would paradoxically come to shatter the grip that the religion had on the Country. The attempts by Reagan, and later by Presidential candidates like Santorum to make sure the wall between Church and State be forever knocked down have had their successes when trying to define the United States as a ‘Christian Nation’, but luckily the principles of the Enlightenment and the atmosphere created by the Constitution seem almost always likely to prevail, unfortunately the Christian Right will always have an incalculable affect on the nature of National identity within the very secular United States. It is the nature of a secular Constitution, a secular system of Government, contrasting with a majority Christian population.
Nevertheless, it is within the atmosphere of an almost entirely Christian Nation, in 1776, before Darwin, before Einstein attempted to provide a theory of everything, before anyone had even suggested the model for the Big Bang; that a few men came together, and questioned the prevailing notion that a society should be based on religious values. People who insisted that reason and inquiry were key to progress, and who told us all to question everything, including the existence of a God. Were they influenced by Christianity? Of course. It would have been impossible not to be. But breaking the chains that Christianity had forced upon its subjects for so long, was an act of great rebellion. To build a country around these new principles was ground breaking, and without any precedent. To them, they were not building another Christian nation. They were building something that transcended religious belief. It is something the Christian Right have attempted to destroy time and time again over the past sixty years. For my part, I am with the Founders. Religion should be kept as far away from the public sphere as notably possible.