Is America a Christian Nation?
This essay was previously published on AlterNet.
In a campaign speech in September, Rick Perry hit upon some familiar Republican themes:
Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, in an appeal to evangelical voters, said “Christian values” and not “a bunch of Washington politicians” should be the touchstone guiding how Americans conduct their lives.
…”America is going to be guided by some set of values,” Perry told a crowd of 13,000 students and faculty members yesterday at a sports arena on the school’s campus. “The question is going to be, ‘Whose values?'” He said it should be “those Christian values that this country was based upon.”
It’s worth calling attention to Perry’s obnoxious rhetorical ploy of using “Christian values” to refer only to his own very specific, right-wing set of beliefs – preemptive war, gay-bashing, tax cuts for the rich, creationism in schools, deregulating corporations, dismantling the social safety net, the standard Republican package – as if he owned or had the right to define all of Christianity. In reality, there’s such a huge diversity of opinion among self-professed Christians past and present that the term “Christian values” could mean almost anything.
Christians have been communists and socialists (including Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance); Christians have supported empire and dictatorship (including Mussolini, who made Catholicism the official state religion of fascist Italy). Christians have advocated positions across the political spectrum, from environmental preservation to environmental destruction, from pacifism to just war to open advocacy of genocide, from civil rights to segregation and slavery.
This broad range of opinion comes about because the Bible never mentions many of these issues, and addresses others in only vague or contradictory passages scattered throughout its individual books. This gives individual Christians wide latitude to find support in the text for virtually any political position you’d care to name.
However, there’s one area where there’s much less room for debate, and that’s the question of political organization. The Bible sets out a very clear picture of what its authors believed the ideal state would look like. Coincidentally, this is the same subject Rick Perry was speaking to: “those Christian values that this country was based upon”. We can compare this statement to the dictates of the Bible to see what it would mean to have a government based on “Christian values”. Then we’ll be in a better position to decide whether America has such a government.
According to the Old Testament of the Bible, after escaping Egypt and reaching the promised land, the twelve tribes of Israel were united into a single country under David and Solomon. After Solomon’s death, there was a rebellion, and the country split into two separate kingdoms, Israel and Judah, which lasted until the Assyrian empire destroyed Israel and carried its people off into exile. Both these kingdoms survived for several hundred years, and therefore there’s more than enough written history to tell what the Bible’s authors thought of as a good state or a bad state.
But right away, there’s a problem. The Bible never even mentions democracy – that concept was completely unknown to its authors. The system of government it enshrines is divine-right monarchy – and not just monarchy, but kingship. Under normal circumstances, the Bible is very clear that the throne passes only from father to son. (The sole exception was Athaliah, a queen of Judah who came to power in a bloody coup and whose reign lasted only six years.)
Even more to the point, the Bible’s ideal government is unequivocally a theocracy: a country where the church and the state are one, where there’s an official religion which all citizens are required to profess, and where law is made by the priests. There was no religious freedom in the ancient Israelite kingdoms: all people were required to worship the same god in the same officially approved ways, on pain of death. For instance, when Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and finds the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, his immediate response is to order the butchering of everyone who participated in idolatry (Exodus 32:27). Many of Israel’s subsequent kings do likewise. The Bible goes so far as to say that, if pagan worshippers are discovered in any city, the entire city should be burned down and everyone who lives there should be killed (Deuteronomy 13:12-16).
The Bible also puts a high value on racial purity. The Israelites were the chosen people of God, and were instructed to keep themselves separate. Time and again, they were sternly warned against marrying people of another race, tribe or ethnicity. For instance, the Old Testament pronounces a perpetual curse on the neighboring Ammonite and Moabite tribes, saying that any person descended from either one, even down to the tenth generation, “shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:3). In one of the Old Testament’s most gruesome stories, a priest named Phinehas finds an Israelite man having sex with a Midianite woman, and impales them both on the same spear (Numbers 25:6-8). For doing this, he’s praised as a hero of faith, and God rewards him with “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood”. When the Israelites invade and conquer neighboring lands, God instructs them to massacre all the captives, including women, so that they’re not tempted to intermarry with them (Deuteronomy 7:2).
By the time of the New Testament, much of this had changed. Christians weren’t all of one ethnicity, nor did they have their own country. They were scattered throughout the powerful, militaristic Roman Empire, governed by absolute rulers who were brutally intolerant of dissent. In light of this, it’s little surprise that the New Testament teaches the virtue of submission to the authorities. It states unequivocally that earthly rulers, even when they act unjustly, are ordained to their position by God and that Christian believers should obey them without question – in fact, it states that those who resist are in peril of eternal damnation (Romans 13:1-2).
All these ideas, so clearly advocated in the Bible, are utterly contrary to what this nation stands for. The idea of divine-right kingship is what our founders successfully rebelled against in bringing forth this country. America is a democracy where the people choose their leaders, a constitutional republic where the powers of those leaders are strictly defined and limited by law. America is a multicultural, multiethnic nation founded on the idea of welcoming immigrants, the homeless and tempest-tossed of every land. Submission to the established authorities, of course, isn’t an American value: Americans have a long and colorful history of debate, protest, and civil disobedience, and the right to criticize our leaders is sanctified in the Constitution. And most of all, America is a secular nation with a separation of church and state. We have no official faith, no national church as many European countries still do.
But America’s Constitution is more than just a secular document; it’s literally godless. It doesn’t claim that the ideas it contains were the product of divine revelation. It states that governing power comes from the will of the people, not the commands of a deity. It doesn’t assert that God has specially blessed this nation or shown it special favor – in fact, it never mentions God at all. And it mentions religion in only two places, both of them negative mentions: in Article VI, which forbids any religious test for public office, and in the First Amendment, which forbids Congress from passing any law respecting an establishment of religion.
If America’s founders had meant to establish a Christian nation, this is where they would have said so. But they said no such thing. And this leads into a historical fact that the religious right would dearly love to forget: the godlessness of the Constitution was a point of major controversy in the debate over ratification. When it was drafted, the fact that it made no explicit mention of God or Christianity wasn’t a minor oversight. It was a major, deliberate omission that was obvious to all. Religious language was omnipresent in other legal documents and charters of the day, including the ones that inspired the Constitution in the first place.
For example, the Constitution’s precursor, the Articles of Confederation, explicitly gives God the credit for making the state legislatures agree to it: “…it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union.”
Going back further, the 1620 Mayflower Compact, made by the Pilgrims just before their landing, begins, “In the name of God, amen” and describes the purpose of their voyage as “for the glory of God and advancements of the Christian faith”.
Another foundational legal document, the 1689 English Bill of Rights, was based on the political thinking of John Locke and may have been part of the inspiration for our own Bill of Rights. This document calls the U.K. “this Protestant kingdom”, states that “it hath pleased Almighty God to make [King William III] the glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery” and declares that no Catholic will ever be allowed to hold the throne of the U.K.
And lastly, there’s the document at the root of the Western legal system, the Magna Carta. Like the others, it’s woven throughout with religious language: its preamble begins “Know that before God…” and states that it was created “to the honor of God” and “the exaltation of the holy church”.
In the light of these documents, it’s easy to see just how unique, unusual, even unprecedented the Constitution is. The United States of America was the first modern republic that was created on the foundation of reason, without seeking blessings from a god, without imploring divine assistance or invoking divine favor. And, as I said, this fact was not overlooked when the Constitution was being debated. Very much to the contrary, the religious right of the founding generation angrily attacked it, warning that ratifying this godless document as-is would spell doom for the nation.
For instance, at the Constitutional Convention, the delegate William Williams proposed that the Constitution’s preamble be modified to read: “We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws… do ordain, etc”. A failed Virginia initiative attempted to change the wording of Article VI to say that “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil”. The Maryland delegate Luther Martin observed “there were some members so unfashionable as to think that… it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism”.
However, the Constitution’s defenders held firm, and all the attempts to Christianize it failed. And the religious right of the day bitterly lamented that failure. One anonymous anti-federalist wrote in a Boston newspaper that America was inviting the curse of 1 Samuel 15:23 – “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee”. In 1789, a group of Presbyterian elders wrote to George Washington to complain that the Constitution contained no reference to “the only true God and Jesus Christ, who he hath sent”. In 1811, Rev. Samuel Austin claimed that the Constitution’s “one capital defect” was that it was “entirely disconnected from Christianity”. In 1812, Rev. Timothy Dwight, grandson of the infamous preacher Jonathan Edwards, lamented that America had “offended Providence” by forming a Constitution “without any acknowledgement of God; without any recognition of His mercies to us, as a people, of His government, or even of His existence”.
What the religious right failed to achieve at the Constitutional Convention, they kept trying to do in the following decades. The National Reform Association, founded in 1863 by a group of clergy, proposed a constitutional amendment which would have changed the preamble to read, “We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, they repeatedly brought this proposal before presidents and congresses, getting turned down each time. As recently as 1954, the National Association of Evangelicals was still trying to amend the Constitution with language such as, “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God”.
Only within the last fifty or sixty years, now that they’ve finally accepted they have no realistic hope of changing it, has the religious right flip-flopped and started claiming that the Constitution meant to establish a Christian nation all along. This staggeringly dishonest, wholesale rewriting of history has become their stock in trade, to the point of having full-time propagandists who obscure historical fact and promote the Christian-nation myth. These falsehoods filter into the political mainstream, until we have absurdities like Rick Perry claiming that the United States, a secular and democratic republic, was based on the legal code of an ancient theocratic monarchy. We, as liberals and progressives, should know better than to accept this falsehood. We have every reason to speak out and uphold America’s proud history as a secular republic founded on reason and governed by the democratic will.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons