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A Christian Nation?

The January 28, 2008 issue of the Nation featured a disturbing article entitled “Christianizing U.S. History.” Its author, Chris Hedges, reported on the latest maneuvers to (mis)represent the Founders—even the skeptical, unorthodox Jefferson!—as conventional, even evangelical, Christians. Political campaigns include similar rhetoric. Mike Huckabee has been running for president as “a Christian leader.” And John McCain has joined the many evangelicals who believe that the Founders intended for the United States to be “a Christian nation.”

Although he must have attended law school, Judge Roy Moore, who wanted to post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, confused our complex legal system with a rather simple moral code. He seemed to know nothing of Anglo-Saxon law, with all its attention to property rights and other matters that lie outside the realm of morality. Yale Law School has an interesting site on the subject at here.

I went to high school in the state where Judge Moore made national news. When I took Civics, I was not introduced to John Locke, Roger Williams, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, or the Bill of Rights. Instead, our class was assigned to read issues of U.S. News & World Report -- Time having been discontinued as “too liberal.” What I mainly remember about the class is that our teacher would say to the boys, “you are cruising for a bruising.”

Ignorance of science and of intellectual history is endemic in this country, but it is exacerbated by home-schooling and religious schools, with their “Christ-centered” curricula.

The Christian-nation myth can be debunked by a little reading of original texts. In one of his letters Benjamin Franklin tells how he found the Calvinism in which he had been raised incomprehensible, so he abandoned it. He tried another church, was unimpressed by the sermon, and decided to spend his future Sundays reading at home. Franklin was not an atheist; he believed in a God and in an afterlife in which evil would be punished and good rewarded. He expressed some doubts about the divinity of Jesus, but said he was agnostic on the subject. And of course, unlike our evangelicals, Franklin was fascinated by science.

Jefferson, who belonged to a younger generation, was not an atheist either, but he took a harder line than Franklin. Famously, he did disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus, making his own version of the New Testament. He wrote a friend of his “creed of materialism,” dismissing all notions of miracles, angels, and other supernatural beings.

On the subject of religious orthodoxy. Jefferson’s letters are often scathing. To a Mrs. Samuel Smith, he wrote on August 6, 1816:

I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives ... for it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest.

Like Franklin, Jefferson rejected Calvinism. On November 2, 1822, he wrote, “The blasphemy and absurdity of the five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them, render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone to denunciation.” He complained that Presbyterians were meddling troublemakers, and stated that he looked forward to the day when all Americans would be Unitarians.

In a burst of eloquence, he wrote to Joseph Priestly in 1802:

The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion & government, by whom it has been recommended, & whose purposes it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure.

In 1819, James Madison expounded on religion in a piece entitled “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments.” In it Madison praises Virginia’s 1786 statute of religious liberty, written by Thomas Jefferson. “This act is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier against usurpation on the right of conscience.” (The act can be read here .)

In his reference to “conscience,” Madison is echoing John Locke, arguably the thinker who exercised the most profound influence upon our Founders. Locke’s famous essay, “Letter on Religious Toleration,” can be read here.

Madison proceeds to remind his readers of “the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government.” He launches into a long argument against congressional chaplains. If their salaries were paid by the federal government, congressional chaplains would constitute “a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” If members of Congress want chaplains, Madison writes, they should pay for them out of their own pockets.

Alluding to the long-standing theological differences between Christian sects, Madison asks rhetorically, “Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious, or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.”

This passage articulates a primary concern of the Founders: to prevent what Alexis de Tocqueville later characterized as “the tyranny of the majority.” “Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many,” warned Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few.”

Madison then embarks on a critique of presidential proclamations of thanksgiving, prayer, or fasting. “Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.” (There's a sentence for Huckabee to ponder.) Madison points out that such recommendations “tend to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect.” Americans live, he observes, in a nation of “various sects, some alienated widely from the others.”

The last observation refers to a bloody history that contemporary evangelicals overlook. In Europe, Catholic and Protestant monarchs made war upon one another. They ordered executions and permitted, or even encouraged, massacres of members of the religious opposition. Furthermore, Protestants persecuted one another. In England, the Anglicans regarded Dissenters (Puritans, Anabaptists, Seekers, etc.) as heretics. Calvinists and Lutherans had serious theological differences.

Our separation of church and state was intended to prevent religious disputes in the public sphere.

Madison alludes critically to a proclamation of John Adams that “called for a Xn [sic] worship.” He mentions a more general proclamation of George Washington which, because of its very generality, annoyed certain Christian denominations “for not inserting particulars according with the faith of certain Xn [sic] sects.”

Most importantly, James Madison observes that presidential proclamations of thanksgiving or prayer “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion." (His italics.)

That’s the smoking gun. The fourth president of the United States, the man known as the “Father of the Constitution,” Thomas Jefferson’s chief ally, and a co-author of the Federalist Papers, declares the idea of a national religion to be “erroneous.”

Copyright Carol V. Hamilton