Thursday, April 08, 2010


Political Mayhem Thursday: Is the U.S. a "Christian Nation?"

Is it fair to call the United States a Christian nation? Should the dictates of the majority faith shape the laws of the country?

I will take some comments before weighing in myself.

American law is based on the Ten Commandments, and our nation was founded by Christians on Christian principles. Most people in the U.S. are Christian. Of course it is a Christian Nation, and should follow the law of God.
Oh, good. I think I will invite some of the commenters from the Waco Trib and Dallas paper over for this one.
Why align a "nation" with a specific religion?

What is a "nation"? By nation, are we implicitly discussing the state, and if so, what about the separation of church and state?

Originalist arguments -- either in the bible (is it ok to stone my neighbor for burning meat on Tuesday? or sell my daughter into slavery on Thursday?) or in the constitution (3/5 clause) -- fail to recognize that society's change over time, and the nation (and it's laws) must change with them.

So whether the US *was* a Christian nation at its founding or not (a claim I think all those native Americans might contest, given that they claimed most of the land as their own, and weren't Christian, and outnumbered colonists by a fair number), it's quite irrelevant to whether we are one today.

I think we are neither a Christian nation today, nor should we claim a particular religion as a determining cultural center for such a diverse and evolving nation.
Septimus! Good to see you back.

But aren't the majority of Americans Christian? And doesn't that mean that our views will naturally dominate in a democracy? It seems that if there is a religious majority, the only way of denying that majority their will is to limit democratic action.
Without reading any comments, my short answers are:

1) Yes.

2) No.

Back later to read and comment and elaborate.
Farmer-- interesting. My answers are:

1) No
2) Yes.

We will have to compare notes later. But in short, here is my take:

1) The Establishment clause of the First Amendment bars a religious identity for the nation's government. Importantly, the Constitution also bars any religious test for holding office, something that would have been allowed had the framers wanted to have a religious identity for the nation. As for the Ten Commandments as the basis of law here... I have already written about that.

2) The majority of voters in this country are Christian. I think faith should be the basis of a person's principles (for people of faith). Thus, people of faith should vote and hold political views that are consistent with their faith, at least insofar as that faith is instructive on a political issue. Therefore, the laws should (and do) reflect the religious views of the majority faith.
Are we a Catholic nation? A Mormon nation? Protestant? Evangelical? Methodist?

We are a nation of a majority of religious people, with a large amount being some stripe of self-identified Christian. But Christians cannot agree on a standard doctrine or what a Christian identity means for politics or law. So, sure, we are a nation of majority "Christians," but that term is so broad as to effectively be meaningless.

This is all aside from First Amendment issues, and historico-critical issues regarding whether our law owes it's genesis to Judeo-Christian moral codes (hint: no).
This may be all semantics, but it seems to me the 1st Amendment says that we cannot be a Christian state, because we cannot have government sponsored religion or a state run church or the like, but it does not prohibit us from being a Christian nation, which we very much are. The majority of this country is Christian, the country was founded in large part on Christian ideas about fundamental and inalienable rights, the Declaration of Independence makes reference to God, the Creator, and divinity, we are "one nation under God" and only a few people seem to be bothered by it.

We are very much a nation with a strong Christian identity, but of course that could change. Nations are not static concepts.

As for whether we should let Christianity, or any particular religious faith, guide our laws, I think the answer is both yes and no. Should we be informed by and influenced by our religion as a code of ethics and morals when we are deciding what laws we want to govern us? Sure. Absolutely.

Should we design our laws to parallel God's law? No. Because I don't want stonings to come back into style and whatnot. And because we don't want to go through what people go through in Muslim countries governed by Sharia law.

Christianity may inform and influence law making, but it should be only one of the many things that should have that role.

Oh, and Lane, do our laws owe their "genesis" to Judeo-Christian moral codes, well, thanks for the hint but it is fairly obvious the answer is no since Christianity wasn't around when people started drawing up legal codes and certainly the genesis of our laws owes at least some debt to those laws. However, if the question is, have Judeo-Christian moral codes influenced the development of laws in the United States of America, and will they continue to do so, then the answer is certainly different. (hint: yes)
I don't think America is a Christian nation. I say that because there are some that will say they are Christian but don't practice or really believe, they say it because they were raised that way but has subsequently changed.

Christians frequently don't follow the "law of God" so why should the rest of us be forced to share in the same hypocrisy?

Even saying that America was founded by Christians is misleading. When speaking of those that founded the country, it is best to be correct and realize that it was founded by certain denominations rather than just a huge group of Jesus fans with no inner differences.
The problem with thinking so broadly as to say that it is a Christian nation is that it ignores the varying creeds and how those clash with one another.

Faith shouldn't be determinative because you don't need faith to be a good person. It'd be a mistake to think that the only murderers are atheists or just not Christians.

My short answers:

No, it's not fair to call the US a Christian nation. Even if the majority of Americans are Christian, I think it's an oxymoron to call a country supposedly built on separation of church and state a Christian or Muslim or Wiccan or atheist or any-religion country.

And should the laws of the US be built on those of the majority religion?
For me, no, for the same reason, but it's probably inevitable that they will be. Luckily (with the exception of the death penalty, in my mind) most of the laws and punishments such a justice system spawns are not egregious violations of human rights.

But, for example: What about countries where Muslim fundamentalism is in the majority, and sharia law dictates that women are stoned to death for supposed adultery? Even though that's the majority faith, it doesn't make the laws it spawns "right" in terms of human rights.

I think Septimus said something like that; just barely had time to glance at the responses . . .
Rhetorical Question:

What about when the President crafts a speech designed to address the Muslim World? Do we somehow know what he means by that? Do we have the same qualms about that kind of characterization?

Still coming with a more fulsome thought...
. . . and a coda to my previous post: I think the Prof's point in his book is that the death penalty is NOT a Christian thing to do, even though some Christians espouse it and it's in our laws.

All debatable, I'm sure . . .
"American law is based on the Ten Comandments." - Tris

I enjoyed your paper, Prof. Osler. A couple of small quibbles: first, is the prohibition of bearing false witness against one's neighbor really equivalent to a prohibition on all lying? I understand that to be a prohibition on perjury, basically, or more general things like slander, libel, false report to a law enforcement agency. If I'm correct about interpreting the commandment, then perhaps that commandment should join murder and stealing on the list of legally-recognized prohibitions?

Second: on the sabbath. You say it was commerce that allowed Sunday blue laws to fall away. But I think you could make a case that they have also been ruled specifically unconstitional. I suppose it depends on whether you think McGowen and Braunfeld survive the more recent Estate of Thornton v. Candor.

More directly on Tris's point: for the reasons explained in the paper, I think your premise is incorrect as to present law. But I also have come to doubt the historical claim. Seems like Blackstone or similar characters would have a better claim to being the foundation of American law. But I'm willing to be persuaded that the 10 Commandments specifically exerted strong influence on the development of early American statutory or common law. Anyone have any source material to support that proposition?
AWF -- seeing as how presidential communications with the Muslim world specifically are something we've been doing for a while, no.

While I agree it's unfair to see Islam as a monolithic religious enterprise, it's also fair to state that many Muslim countries do not have the best of relations with the United States, and especially given the tenor of the past administration/that administration's supporters and their willingness to use rhetoric that the US is at war with Islam and Islamic nations, a speech clarifying that the US is not religiously or ideologically opposed to the idea of Muslim statehood is good diplomacy.

RRL, what does it mean for Judeo-Christian moral codes to influence the law? For instance, Mosaic Law is not fairly reflected in our laws (I routinely enjoy lawful dinners of shellfish, pork products, and shaving my sideburns, for instance). While some arguably Christian values might enter in to our law (like on the issue of abortion) I don't think it's fair to say that those values are either (1) uniquely Jewish/Christian or even (2) universal to all Jews/Christians. So what do we make of that? I think that a great majority of religions might find common cause on a legal issue like marriage equality (Mahayana Buddhists, some Hindus, conservative Muslims, Christians and Jews, for example, all agree on this issue), but diverge wildly on other issues, such as recitation of prayers in school.

What I find telling (very telling) in the history of litigation on establishment clause issues is that they are 99% about Christianity and whether we can "establish" Christianity or a subset of Christian beliefs as having government support. If you'll pardon my use of an anecdote as a datum, my high school had the (brilliant) idea that they could have a prayer every morning if a student volunteered to give it. Most students said a very generic, non-denominational Christian prayer. Then, being the young smart ass I was, I signed up. I had a hard time choosing whether I wanted to read a prayer out of the Koran or perhaps a traditional Celtic chant, but in the end I decided on reading the first few sections of the Diamond Sutra, a central text of Cha'an/Zen Buddhism. Unsurprisingly, this was seen as objectionable by my school and the practice of student-led prayers stopped thereafter.

I'd hypothesize that the reason we see Christianity cited as the basis for so many of our laws is that members of other religions do not feel the same need that certain Christian legislators/executives/judges do to interject the Christian label on to their actions. I have never heard of (not to say it doesn't exist, but rather that I cannot find examples of it) a deist or Buddhist legislator saying that they are working to put God or the Buddha into schools, or to make sure that our law has a sound basis in deist/Buddhist ethics.
I am not quite sure why that is; I imagine that a large part of Christian identity in America comes from public professions and actions that call attention to the faith which are not often present in other faiths, particularly non-Abrahamic faiths. For example, we know that Prof. Osler is a professed, open and dedicated Christian, and that I am not. Yet if we were given a legislative task, I think our results might come out very similar due to both of us sharing rather similar views on ethics (his from a Christian perspective, mine from a deontological one) and our ethics would similarly inform our legislative decisions.

But I do not have a religious mandate to practice a faith, or to evangelize through my actions, which a Christian does. Therefore, it's important for the Christian to let people know that she acts the way she does because of her beliefs regarding the transformative nature of spirit and the good news of grace. It is not important for me, in contrast, to let people know that I read Kant's three Critiques and find it rationally necessary to be a deontologist and to make my actions capable of being willed as universal law.

I am not saying the Christian's self-identification in this case is wrong; it is part of living with the dictates of the religion and therefore, more power to you. But where it goes wrong, I think, is that it is going to trigger an establishment clause issue most of the time. Some things, like McCarthy and Co.'s adding of "In God We Trust" to currency and the pledge are clearly EC violations, as their stated purpose was to differentiate us from the godless USSR. However, they are de minimis violations, as are most laws with religious motivations, if they are violations at all.
Also, in regard to history and culture: regarding the history of the original 13 colonies, sure, they were largely Christian, but what of the cases of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island (which were started as rejections of the majority-Protestant denominations in the other colonies)? And what of intensely Catholic French and Spanish Western America, or the territories established for Mormon believers?

And, as we have always been a nation founded on immigrants, can we really grant Christianity a unique place in our history since it played a large part in the formation of the first government, when other religions have played parts in the continued expansion and development of the nation? Must we ignore the beliefs of the First Peoples, or the Asiatic religions of the Chinese immigrants that built our railroads, or the folk beliefs of the European settlers that helped settle the West?

What about founders like Thomas Paine, or Thomas Jefferson, or the Presidents Adams, who were deists and humanists?

I don't think we should sanitize American history of its connections to Christianity, but what I am concerned about is that we over-emphasize the primarily Anglo, Protestant part of that history, when it is but a single, large part of that history. I would rather that we study the history of the United States with no particular emphasis given to any religious character of its history, but neither should we attempt to secularize history that is not secular.
Two polls to read:

Why not consider America to be a "Godly" nation rather than a Christian one? That would include those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Buddhists, Hindus and some Unitarians among others would not fit into this idea, obviously, but it would be more telling of what America is at this point in time.

I say this without sarcasm--your three volumes affirm my point more often than yours.

Why was everybody okay with the individual Christian prayers at your school? Why was there such an outcry over your use of the Koran?

Because we are an inherently/predominately Christian culture.

More than establishing that we are not a Christian nation--you are merely complaining about the fact that we are a Christian nation.

We can have all the academic discussions we want about the way it ought to be--or the credit we don't give to Tom Paine--but I have submitted some historical facts that are not being addressed.
AWF, I think you misunderstand my point. I know we're a Christian nation... I just don't think that's a complete descriptor of what we are, and I object to the Christian tendency to think that being a nation filled with Christians means we necessarily exclude the other religions and irreligious parts of our history.

If the criticism is that secularizing our history is valid, so is "Christ-washing" our history.

You are right. I misunderstood your point.

I think we are in complete agreement. We are a Christian nation. We have a tradition of tolerance for minority religions that is a very important part of who we are--and we should fight any effort to roll that back.
More to the point, most of the disparate religious groups that fled to the United States (along with the assorted criminals and opportunists) were members of persecuted minority religions -- Quakers, Puritans, etc. And then when they got here, there was an even greater tendency in some of the colonies toward segregation (all those ring kissing papists can go to Maryland!) and ostracizing people that didn't quite fit in (the early Baptists, Roger Williams) so much that many colonies, like Virginia, instituted much broader First Amendment-type protections. I think it was keenly felt that a nation could not call itself free if a man could not worship (or refuse to) as his own conscience called, and hence this tension was created between the government (that did not want to violate that precept) and the churches, who could not (and should not) give up their central place in the community.

Judge Black's famous line from Engle v. Vitale is still the most appropriate statement of the US's government's position as I can find: a marriage of church and state degrades government and destroys religion.
Why is this such a sensitive topic? I mean, ultimately who cares really?

I agree separation of church and state is part of the founding principles of our country. And hence, we are not a Christian STATE. We have no STATE religion. We have no officially sanctioned STATE faith. But that does not mean we are not a Christian nation. And we undoubtedly are. Our entire history is wrapped up in the Christian faith, from the persecution of those that founded the colonies that drove them to this country, to the founding documents of this country, to the abolitionist movement in this country (which sprang up to a great degree in chuches), to the civil rights movement in this country (again, led largely by church leaders), and the list goes on.

The history of our country, up to this point, is tied up with and to the Christian faith.

That doens't mean you have to be Christian, or have to like it even, but to stick your head in the sand and deny it is just failing to see the obvious.

A lot of people make this point about multiple denominations, and disagreements they have (like Lane, who I have lots of disagreements with, but will only address this one briefly). True, Catholics don't agree with Methodists about everything, but all of those denominations share core truths that wrap them up in a larger category of Christian. Lane mentions Mormons, who self-identify as Christians, who started in this country, and now are a global faith. Again, our history is tied up with the church, with churches of many different denominations.

If you had no understanding of Christianity then it would be almost impossible to understand, no it would be impossible to understand, the history of our nation. And that is all the evidence I need to know that we are a Christian nation.

I think your colonial history here is pretty close to being right on. Let me add this: the decision at the Constitutional Convention to do something incredibly radical for the time and NOT institute a state religion is really a decision born out of necessity.

That is, there is so much religious diversity by state (as in original thirteen) at the time that it would have been impossible to unify the nation under one religion. Therefore, the decision NOT to establish on the national level is really a "punt" on the part of the Framers.

A few years later, the First Amendment can be understood as RELIGIOUS FEDERALISM. Rather than a commentary on the propriety of a state-sanctioned religion, which, as I said above, IS institutionalized in a lot of the thirteen states at the time, the promise NOT to establish a national religion is more importantly understood as a promise not to take away any state's already established religion.

As for separation of church and state--no argument here. I am very happy not to have a national church collecting taxes or any religious test for office holding...
Prof -- thanks! Good to be back...

Not enough time to read all the tomes in full, but a few quick points:
1) Agreed with RRL's parsing of the difference between a "state" and a "nation," though I'd problematize the simplicity with which we're all accepting the idea that the US is and has always been a Christian nation even. My note about Native Americans was parenthetical, but quite serious; slaves were forcibly converted, and only with time came to Christianity -- so at our founding the majority were not in fact Christian, just the oppressive rulers with guns. And today (to echo someone's point from above...Lane I think) the concept of Christian runs the gamut from Sarah Palin's to Rev. Wright's to Catholicism's Liberation Theology (if we're even including Catholics are Christians) to Unitarian Universalists to Christmas Christians.

2) This is dangerous waters for a lit scholar to tread, but no one has yet mentioned Federalist 10. Even if we ARE a majority Christian nation, and even if we then DO follow that to vote in a majority Christian government (which I don't think necessarily follows, disagreeing slightly with Prof Osler here -- I think faith is one of many bases for one's potential political views), then it is the obligation to protect minorities from majority faction (Am I remembering this correctly from Poly Sci in college many years ago?). Because Religion can be such a divisive issue, it is one that requires protection of religious minorities more than other political issues, I think.

I'd agree with AWF on most points here though: if you want to subsume the diversities of Christianities into one totalizing sense of unified belief systems, then we've been a pretty damn accepting state for religious minorities...
I've enjoyed reading through the comments. While I don't have time this afternoon for a full discussion, let me say that as a Christian pastor, I do my best to dispel the idea that we are a "Christian Nation.” While it might be demographically correct to call the country a Christian nation, I believe the term does much harm to both the state and the church. Each has different missions and purposes. While these purposes may often overlap so that the two find themselves working for similar causes, they are dissimilar enough that a total merger of the two (as the term might imply) will undoubtedly destroy the mission of one or the other or both.

Let me add that I would argue for the term "Christian Nation" correctly understood.

As for the term "Christian Nation" erroneously and malevolently applied, I am against it.
For Septimus:

Analogy is the weakest form of argument--but allow me to offer one anyway.

You say that you are uncomfortable with the notion of a "Christian Nation" (in the cultural sense) at the founding for the geographic borders of the United States encompassed Native Americans who were not Christian.

Would also object to the notion of America founded as a "republic" in that Native Americans along with African Americans and women and others were not represented in the representative government?
Analogy is the weakest form of argument? Isn't all language analogic? (OK...separate discussion!)

To your question, AWF: wow -- that's a fantastic, and complex question. I'll do my best.

A republic is a form of government that, in 1787, had a different definition than in 2010. So no, no problem with that.

That the US was "Christian nation" in 1787 is a presentist claim about a historical moment that necessarily excludes or is blind to a historical reality (that there were tons of people who weren't Christian).

In other words, a "Christian Nation" is a claim about a population, and so to argue that the population wasn't Christian then refutes that claim. A "republic" is a political system, so the definition is more historically situated.

I'm clearly struggling with this good question; one last try. A "Christian nation" is an atemporal concept; a "republic" is a temporally defined concept.

Maybe this is also, to be repetitive now, the difference between a "nation" (the people) and a "state" (the political system)?

What do you think?

Does it help if we go back to my distinction between a clearly intentional secular government on top of an undeniably Christian culture (my 2:59 comment)?

My Christian culture/republican government analogy seeks to compare the reality of not just a majority of the population but an ethos or a description of the predominant influence.

I actually think that the "Christian Nation" is a time-dependent claim. I think the nation is and always has been a Christian nation (in terms of culture), but the level of "Christianness" surely varies over the course of our history (eg, the USA is much more Christian fifty years after the founding than it was during the Constitutional Moment).
Is the U.S. a Christian Nation?

What is a Christian? A Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc... Or does it a represent a perceived value/ethical system? Must you practice/observe a religous belief to be a moral ethical person? This question just makes me ask myself more questions. Honestly I would rather be watching golf.

The earliest explorers and settlers claimed to be Christian and came to the US from countries with practicing Christians (Catholics, Angleicans, Lutherans, etc...); yet they killed many of the native people they encountered. Most of us would not think of this as being a very 'Christian' thing to do.

I would prefer to think that I live in a nation where people 'try' to be moral and ethical and treat people the way they would like to be treated - with respect.
Another Angle.

Please consider this statement:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Lincoln, of course, 2nd Inaugural--1865.

Here is what I mean: how could a non-Christian nation ever comprehend this sentiment? Why would a politician the caliber of AL ever offer a statement like this to an audience unprepared to comprehend it?

Not a theocracy. Not a pre-modern state in which religion and government are dual coordinates of authority. But a secular government of people, by people, and for people who feel Christianity so deeply in their bones that they involuntarily see through the world through that particular lens.
Lawyers are so universalist! (or at least clear-minded...)

He was speaking to white men. He knew his audience.

Many people didn't hear him. couldn't hear him. His language excluded many, if not most. And these are not written in the history textbooks except as iconic cases that form the easy narrative of our history, that fit to the way we want to see ourselves today.
Why this matters to me (personally) is that I don't like seeing my country defined solely by one group. America's greatest strength is its eclecticism, the ability to merge many disparate peoples, creeds, beliefs and viewpoints into a single nation, that there's room enough on this big ol' rock for all of us to work together for a better world.

And when we call ourselves a "Christian nation" or a "secular nation" or anything other than just a "nation" we're excluding people that are every bit as American as the rest of us.

1. A couple of times you have made general comments about lawyers. I am not sure if your last assertion addressed the fact that Lincoln was a lawyer, which he certainly was--or Prof. Osler--or the many lawyers who comment on this blog. Just for the sake of clarity, you should know that I am not a lawyer.

2. As for a "white male audience," this really comes back to my larger point attempted in the analogy. The c. 19 is the era of "universal white manhood suffrage." It also happens to be an era of America as an indisputably Christian culture.

We can argue whether that was a good thing. We can argue about much "progress" we have made as a nation during the second half of the c.20 moving away from these "ignortant superstitions." But there really is no argument about where we have been.


I simply disagree with your premise that by somehow admitting something so obvious about our history is a source of division.

!) Fair enough -- but my generalized comments about lawyers are generally very positive, and in the case of the last one totally joking. I completely understand that it is absurd to make such a totalizing claim about an endlessly diverse group of people who happen to broadly practice the profession. If I ever do offend anyone, let me know and I'll stop. If I'm being self-critical, these sorts of comments are more about me positioning myself on what is (not at all wholly, but mostly) a lawyers' blog. (But thanks -- I WAS assuming you are a lawyer as well!)

2) I think we agree, and disagree. a) I'd agree that a large proportion and probably a majority of white men (voters, Lincoln's audience) were Christian. b) I'd disagree that that means that we were a Christian nation. This logic excludes massive populations of people who lived within the national borders.

Yes -- my logic subscribes to a particular view of Historiography, most popularly akin to Howard Zinn, but I would venture to say it agrees with 99% of Historians on the university level today, i.e. those who write history books.

I wouldn't argue whether we've made "progress" in the second half of the twentieth century because I don't think there's an argument (we did) -- there I'M the universalist (as I've shown before on this blog)!

But now we're on to haiku, and maybe we are back to respectfully disagreeing! Thanks as ever for stimulating, and thought-provoking, discussion!

Are you saying I am mostly, but not wholly, a lawyer?

Probably true....

FYI: I do not take any offense at at your assumption that I am a lawyer. I think lawyers are just fine. Some of my best friends are lawyers.

As for "respectfully disagreeing," I think it is one of the things you and I do best. Very enjoyable.

As for Howard Zinn historiography, I do not have any statistics to refute your claim that his perspective on American history is now the prevailing view among university-level history professors. But I hope not. I hope a more balanced approach holds sway.

A little Howard Zinn makes for a tastier broth--but Zinn as the dominant ingredient makes for a bitter concoction.

Well done, friends. I will count the days until we meet again to exchange our ideas.

I will let you get on to the haiku.
Deep thoughts, well played
Something good is happ'ning here
Play it again, Sam.
The constitutional republic was founded by deists, unitarians, broad to low Church Epsicopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, the occasional Baptist, pietist Lutherans and German Reformed, one or two Methodists, and one or two Roman Catholics give or take.

Did that make us Christian?

Today, the U.S. population is approximately:

50% Protestant (including all varieties from very liberal to very evangelical)

25% Roman Catholic

2% Jewish

3% Muslim

%5 Non-Reporting

15% None (This by the way if the fastest growing self-identified group).

Does this make us a Christian nation?

Like I said, I think we are a secular nation (under the Constitution) with a Christian majority.
If Scott is correct doesn't that make almost all (if not all) of the founding fathers Christian, and 75% of our population Christian?

Yes, that makes us a Christian nation. Much like Qatar is only around 78% muslim, yet I don't think there is a question it is a Muslim nation.

It isn't about percentages of the population. It isn't about whether every person identified with Christendom. It is a question of culture. And the American culture is one that is heavily influenced by Christianity.
But what should that mean? What does it profit us, to use AWF's term, to acknowledge that? As a statement of fact with no attendant value judgment attached? Fine, sure, the majority of people in the United States are some form of Christian. But that does not tell us anything about the nation. Do we, as a nation, accept the trinitarian doctrine? Sola fide? What is our national view on biblical interpretation? What books even make it in to the Bible? Do we, as a nation, recognize the Apocrypha? The Book of Mormon?

At a minimum, we could say only that the majority of Americans believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, was crucified, and rose from the dead to fulfill the promise that all who experienced a rebirth in the spirit would have their sins atoned for through Jesus' sacrifice.

That tells us nothing about national character, because the character of Christians varies from denomination to denomination and believer to believer.

Further, I don't think we make such observations as "the US is majority Christian" without attendant value judgments. In the case of most people who say that we are a "Christian nation," it is because they wish to legislate some religious precept of Christianity, such as blue laws, having public institutions bear the slogans and symbols of Christianity, or to attempt in some way to disparage the religious freedoms of minority religions.

Don't get me wrong, as I said, when it comes to studying history, the religious nature of the United States cannot and should not be denied. But to draw from that history that we are a "Christian nation" is offensive to those of us that belong to minority religions. It says that as Americans, we are defective and second class because we don't belong to the natural and proper religion of the American people.

Sorry, I don't mean to sound upset. I had a bad experience yesterday with someone at a CLE making fun of the faith of my friends and family, and that small bit of negligent cruelty reminded me of just what is at stake here.
For Scott:

1. What you describe did not make us Christian--but we were Christian. In 1787, we were a series of distinct but connected Christian communities that had existed for more than 100 years on the continent. Coming together politically, we hammered out a constitutional republic as a form of government. There was an interplay between the two things (politics and religion)--but our innate Christian character did not necessarily dictate our form of government; neither did our form of government erase our Christian character.

2. Yes. Another way to think about this question: Why do we celebrate Christmas and Easter as national holidays and not Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah?
For Mark:

Rather than a secular nation with a Christian majority, I prefer Christian nation with a secular form of government (which includes a strong tradition of religious tolerance).

Food for thought: picking up on RRL's idea--but perhaps a better analogy: would we consider Turkey a Muslim nation?
AWF, my Muslim friend (American ex-pat living in Turkey) says that no, Turkey is a secular nation populated by a lot of Muslims.
For Lane:

Thanks for being open about your assumptions.

I think the "wall of separation" zealots envision something like you describe. And, if some reasonable person states a fact of history, such as the USA has been since its founding a Christian nation, they hear them saying we want to institute a Baptist version of "sharia" law.

Reasonable people will disagree--but I think that fear is vastly overblown.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that most people in the country want to establish religious law (e.g., you don't donate your 10% to the Southern Baptist Convention, you get caned), but rather that if a public school in Texas wants to say a denominational prayer to Jesus over the PA before the game, that the government can sanction that and it be OK because traditionally there are lots of Christians.

I actually don't have problems with things like blue laws (well, except when I want to buy vodka on a Sunday). That's one of those things that strikes me as a minimal thing. If Chick Fil A wants to stay closed on Sunday and deny me fried chicken-y goodness, well, that's their prerogative.

But what is the logic behind such a recognition? Why does it matter that we have traditionally been a nation full of Christians? What does it gain Christians to have that recognized?

My concern, partially motivated by an intensely selfish desire to worship according to the dictates of my own conscience, is that I do not want to be compelled via participating in public processes to support Christianity or any other religion. I don't want my wife, or my friends, or myself to feel like we're not "true Americans" because we're not Christian, that somehow the history of the nation doesn't apply to us because our beliefs are different.

A description of Turkey you hear a lot:

"Turkey -- a secular Muslim democracy"
For Lane:

how would honesty benefit us in this case?

I think we would be better served honestly discussing the evolution over the last 60 years on this issue. We are perhaps in the process of throwing our Christian culture overboard--or at the very least softening it at the edges to accommodate the great diversity of c. 21 America. I think we can have a discussion whether that is a good thing (surely--we would find a consensus on the latter proposition)--and how much further we need to go.

On the other hand, I just don't see how it helps us to press for an understanding of American history without the primacy of Christianity. If we are so dead-set on retroactively building a "wall of separation" that we cannot even place Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural within the context of a predominant Christian culture--does that really move us forward toward an open and intellectually honest society?
"But what should that mean?"

All it means for me is that Christianity has played a very important role in the development of our national identity. It has shaped the culture of our nation, the history of our nation. For both good and bad.

"What does it profit us, to use AWF's term, to acknowledge that?"

I think it helps us understand Americans, and their history as a people, better, but that is about it.

"As a statement of fact with no attendant value judgment attached?"

Absolutely, that is all I mean it as. I don't think that it is necessarily a good or bad thing. It just is.

"Fine, sure, the majority of people in the United States are some form of Christian. But that does not tell us anything about the nation."

I disagree completely. I think of Great Britain as a Christian nation. Just like the United States, it isn't the only defining characteristic. Now, I don't even know if the majority of Brits still self-identify with the Church. But, the history of the British peoples is inseperable from, and their culture is wrapped up in, the history of Christendom, and the morals, values and ethics of Judeo Christian philosophy. So, does it tell us something about that country? Absolutely. Same thing here.

"Do we, as a nation, accept the trinitarian doctrine? Sola fide? What is our national view on biblical interpretation? What books even make it in to the Bible? Do we, as a nation, recognize the Apocrypha? The Book of Mormon?"

I don't think those questions matter to determining whether we are a Christian nation. Nor do I think the fact that there are disagreements about those things mean we are not. Saying we are a Christian nation, meaning that our culture, laws, politics, national identity, history, social structure, etc. have all been impacted by and influenced by the Christian faith does not require that our nation accept some particular dogma. Nor does it require that our nation enforce that dogma upon others.

Oh, and nations are not statitc concepts. They can change, morph, adapt. We may very well have been a Christian nation, and continue to be one. But that doesn't mean we will be that way in 50, 100, or 1,000 years.

"My concern, partially motivated by an intensely selfish desire to worship according to the dictates of my own conscience, is that I do not want to be compelled via participating in public processes to support Christianity or any other religion."

I don't want that either. Which is why I don't support a state church. Or state sanctioned religion. But, we can be a Christian nation, and also be a diverse, open, and accepting one as well. And I don't think acknowledging the history of this country, and the impact that Christendom has had upon it, and continues to have, changes any of that.
"if we're even including Catholics are Christians"

Really!? Are there still people that believe that Catholics aren't Christians?!? Really?!
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?