A Christian Nation?

A popular theme running through conservative Christian circles these days is that the U.S. is a Christian Nation, and that was the intention of the founding fathers. Never mind that the historical record leans quite strongly against this theme. The opening lines of the U.S. Constitution should be enough to put the notion of a Christian Nation to bed. Here they are.

“We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”

No mention of God, is there? The authority for our Constitution comes from the people, not from God. As far as I know, this was the first Constitution that did not mention God anywhere in it, and even went to great lengths to build a wall between religion and government. Probably had something to do with the French experience, which was still underway at the time. Modern Christians, never at a loss for spin, say Christianity was so basic to the founding fathers that they saw no need to put God into the Constitution. Again the historical record says otherwise. A fair amount of debate was held at that time on the lack of God; the founding fathers were not stupid or blind; they knew exactly what they were and weren’t doing.

Most of the individual states already had a sanctioned church. Massachusetts, now regarded as a den of iniquity, perhaps had the strongest church-state relationship, left over from the Puritans. All of these relationships and the many of the laws that resulted were swept away by the new Constitution. This was not done lightly, or without rancor.

Predictions were made at the time that the U.S. would have God’s reckoning to deal with, and 70 years later (threescore and ten, right?) many believers thought the Civil War was that reckoning. There was a delegation to Lincoln in February 1864 that wanted him to support an amendment that would fix this oversight. It would replace the above with these lines.

“Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government…”

Needless to say, it never went anywhere. Please, all you believers reading this, please tell me you see the danger to everyone who happens to not be in power with that type of language. You only have to look to the theocracies in the middle east to see what can happen. And please don’t hand me the line that Christians are somehow more tolerant than Muslims. History tells quite a different story.

But if the founding fathers really wanted a Christian Nation, don’t you think they would have written something like the above, instead of what they actually did? Wouldn’t they have had religious tests for office holders, when instead they explicitly banned them?

Another detail that leans against the Christians’ attempts to rewrite history – the Post Office. Yes, you heard that correctly. The founders were so eager to show that the government was separate from religions that mail service ran 7 days a week. No Sunday holiday! As you can imagine, there were lots of complaints about this. Eventually Sunday service did go away, perhaps more for economic reasons than religious ones.

These little details are contained in the book Freethinkers – a History of American Secularists, written by Susan Jacoby. As I continue to read the book, I’ll include other tidbits.

July 11, 2005

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