On this anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain I stumbled upon two articles. The first, written by my friend Blackiswhite, Imperial Consigliere starts off looking like a reminder that our founding fathers associated liberty with a warning against government overreach and this notion would have been fine but then BiW had to go back to the historical revisionism of the Declaration of Independence being a “Christian document”. This is a sad trend in current political discourse from conservatives who would like to see prayer in the classroom and creationism replace evolution in the science curriculum.
So it was with great pleasure that I tripped over an article on CNN’s Opinion page by historian Kenneth C. Davis entitled, “Why U.S. is not a Christian Nation“. Some choice excerpts:
While president in 1802, Jefferson wrote: “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 legitimate 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 … ”
As president, Jefferson was voicing an idea that was fundamental to his view of religion and government, expressed most significantly in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he drafted in 1777.
Revised by James Madison and passed by Virginia’s legislature in January 1786, the bill stated: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened (sic) in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief …”
— In 1797, with President John Adams in office, the Senate unanimously approved one of America’s earliest foreign treaties, which emphatically stated (Article 11): “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen (Muslims) …”
No one can argue, as “Christian Nation” proponents correctly state, that the Founding Fathers were not Christian, although some notably doubted Christ’s divinity.
More precisely, the founders were, with very few exceptions, mainstream Protestants. Many of them were Episcopalians, the American offshoot of the official Church of England. …
But the founders, and more specifically the framers of the Constitution, included men who had fought a war for independence — the very war celebrated on the “Glorious Fourth” — against a country in which church and state were essentially one.
They understood the long history of sectarian bloodshed in Europe that brought many pilgrims to America. They knew the dangers of merging government, which was designed to protect individual rights, with religion, which as Jefferson argued, was a matter of individual conscience.
And that is why the U.S. Constitution reads as it does.
The supreme law of the land, written in the summer of 1787, includes no references to religion — including in the presidential oath of office — until the conclusion of Article VI, after all that dull stuff about debts and treaties: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (There is a pro forma “Year of the Lord” reference in the date at the Constitution’s conclusion.)
Original intent? “No religious Test” seems pretty clear cut.
The article goes on to discuss the Bill of Rights vis-a-vis establishing a secular government. Blackiswhite reminds us that our framers were Christians. But as I reminded him at his blog, if a Mexican runs a Chinese restaurant it does not mean you are going to find Mexican food there. A Christian who fully understands the danger of a new nation establishing an official religion will make sure this does NOT happen. It is the founder’s very experience with Christianity and discrimination that prompted them to establish a secular government.
To paraphrase Lee Greenwood, I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free to practice whatever religion I want or no religion at all. I’m proud that in my country the government stays out of my spiritual life and sticks to governing. That is how we were founded. It is fundamental to our country and we must protect this tradition from all those who might hope to change it.
Happy 4th of July, my friends, and Happy Birthday, America!