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Theological Notebook: NYT Op-Ed "A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation"

Here's a pretty good New York Times op-ed on the Founder's intentions regarding Church and State, and their vision of balance between maintaining religion in the country and maintaining the neutral, secular nature of the state. I wonder, though, where the invocation of the Founders here as against the contemporary Evangelicals' language of America as a "Christian nation" is entirely relevant. I look at efforts today to get the Christian heritage of Europe named as a basis of European culture in the preamble to the Constitution of the European Union, and the ferocious opposition put up to that acknowledgment, despite the willingness to show a debt to other cultural factors, like the Greco-Roman heritage of Europe and the secularizing philosophical movement of the 18th century that dubbed itself the Enlightenment, from which the American Constitution sprang.

It seems that there have been a change in our culture since the 18th century that is relevant to this question of the identification of the Christian roots of both Europe and America, and that has to be taken into account beyond just a "chapter and verse" quotation of either the Bible or the records of the Founders. We have to understand that the nature of the Enlightenment itself has changed. In the 18th century, the process of secularizing government was one that all religious people could support because of the benefits to their faith itself in a religiously-neutral state. The various faiths were guaranteed protection from the power of the State, and could compete freely in a culture of ideas, laying out their various claims to and arguments for truth, that the State refrained from adjudicating. In this way, religions were treated in much the same way that the State refrains from interfering in scientific or technological processes to determining what is true.

In recent decades, however, the nature of that movement that was the Enlightenment has evolved from seeing religious neutrality as an artifice to a dogmatic position of its own. That is, to the Founders' minds, the religiously-neutral orientation of the State allowed a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, or a Unitarian the equal opportunity to be a member of Congress and to try to persuade other members to support their legislative vision, inspired by whatever religious faith the legislator professed, as long as the others could be persuaded of the common good which would result from that person's bill. Today it is different. Today the Enlightenment philosophy has morphed and become its own position, an anti-religious one rather than a religiously-neutral one. Legislators are now not to speak from any ideological perspective that has a basis in a religious faith. You cannot be a Catholic who has persuaded his heavily Catholic and Jewish constituency to support her because of a mutually-shared vision: you are only to speak from a non-religious base. This is, of course, to win an argument by disallowing any other positions. The Enlightenment heirs today invoke "neutrality" with religious fervor, but in fact mean that their dogmatic orientation is the only allowable one. You must think as they do: non-religiously. Any religion you want to invoke or play with after that is allowable because it is banished from the public sphere.

It is from this change in what the contemporary force of the Enlightenment has come to mean that the American Evangelical inclination to speak of the United States as a "Christian Nation" springs: America was indeed once a country that allowed the various religions and denominations a voice in the public sphere. There they could succeed or fail on the basis of whether they persuaded others their positions were to the public benefit. Now, they are on the receiving end of a relatively new, later-20th century spin on Constitutional interpretation that moves the First Amendment to a position that is hostile to religious motivation in the public sphere, instead of neutral toward it. Their very motives, expressions, and thoughts are being politically disenfranchised. It is small wonder that they can look to the more distant American civil past and see a country more characterized by Christian faith. Even if was never a "Christian Nation" in law itself, it was a nation where Christians could be active and vocal in their politics in a way they are increasingly being told is illegitimate. A purely secular, anti-religious state, if that is what America is moving toward, is one Christians will not be able to support. A disenfranchising Secular Left will thus continue to create the Religious Right they so complain about.

Op-Ed Contributor
A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation

Published: October 7, 2007 in The New York Times

JOHN McCAIN was not on the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University last year for very long — the senator, who once referred to Mr. Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance,” was there to receive an honorary degree — but he seems to have picked up some theology along with his academic hood. In an interview with last weekend, Mr. McCain repeated what is an article of faith among many American evangelicals: “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”

According to Scripture, however, believers are to be wary of all mortal powers. Their home is the kingdom of God, which transcends all earthly things, not any particular nation-state. The Psalmist advises believers to “put not your trust in princes.” The author of Job says that the Lord “shows no partiality to princes nor regards the rich above the poor, for they are all the work of his hands.” Before Pilate, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And if, as Paul writes in Galatians, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then it is difficult to see how there could be a distinction in God’s eyes between, say, an American and an Australian. In fact, there is no distinction if you believe Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles: “I most certainly believe now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is welcome to him.”

The kingdom Jesus preached was radical. Not only are nations irrelevant, but families are, too: he instructs those who would be his disciples to give up all they have and all those they know to follow him.

The only acknowledgment of God in the original Constitution is a utilitarian one: the document is dated “in the year of our Lord 1787.” Even the religion clause of the First Amendment is framed dryly and without reference to any particular faith. The Connecticut ratifying convention debated rewriting the preamble to take note of God’s authority, but the effort failed.

A pseudonymous opponent of the Connecticut proposal had some fun with the notion of a deity who would, in a sense, be checking the index for his name: “A low mind may imagine that God, like a foolish old man, will think himself slighted and dishonored if he is not complimented with a seat or a prologue of recognition in the Constitution.” Instead, the framers, the opponent wrote in The American Mercury, “come to us in the plain language of common sense and propose to our understanding a system of government as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it, not a God appears in a dream to propose any part of it.”

While many states maintained established churches and religious tests for office — Massachusetts was the last to disestablish, in 1833 — the federal framers, in their refusal to link civil rights to religious observance or adherence, helped create a culture of religious liberty that ultimately carried the day.

Thomas Jefferson said that his bill for religious liberty in Virginia was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination.” When George Washington was inaugurated in New York in April 1789, Gershom Seixas, the hazan of Shearith Israel, was listed among the city’s clergymen (there were 14 in New York at the time) — a sign of acceptance and respect. The next year, Washington wrote the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., saying, “happily the government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. ... Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Andrew Jackson resisted bids in the 1820s to form a “Christian party in politics.” Abraham Lincoln buried a proposed “Christian amendment” to the Constitution to declare the nation’s fealty to Jesus. Theodore Roosevelt defended William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, from religious attacks by supporters of William Jennings Bryan.

The founders were not anti-religion. Many of them were faithful in their personal lives, and in their public language they evoked God. They grounded the founding principle of the nation — that all men are created equal — in the divine. But they wanted faith to be one thread in the country’s tapestry, not the whole tapestry.

In the 1790s, in the waters off Tripoli, pirates were making sport of American shipping near the Barbary Coast. Toward the end of his second term, Washington sent Joel Barlow, the diplomat-poet, to Tripoli to settle matters, and the resulting treaty, finished after Washington left office, bought a few years of peace. Article 11 of this long-ago document says that “as the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” there should be no cause for conflict over differences of “religious opinion” between countries.

The treaty passed the Senate unanimously. Mr. McCain is not the only American who would find it useful reading.

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, is the author of “American Gospel” and “Franklin and Winston.”
Tags: america, church and state, constitutional, historical, new york times, philosophical, political, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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