"I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.” – Jerry Falwell
“I think we should keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the 10 commandments, it’s pretty simple.” – Sarah Palin, 2010
It is generally agreed that the Founding Fathers and the drafters of the Constitution were learned, reasonable and passionate about their newfound country. The Convention in 1787 lasted for months while the delegates proposed, debated and drafted the very document which has stood as the central pillar of American democracy for over 200 years. They argued over specific language and even the omission of individual words. The final draft of the Constitution contained the exact wording and expressions that the delegates desired. Nobody later claimed they were misquoted or there was a typo.
Ergo, if their intention was to establish America as a “Christian” nation, one could assume that the words Christian, Christ, Jesus, God, Deity, Belief, etc. would actually appear in the Constitution. However, a close reading of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the subsequent seventeen amendments reveals that the words God, Jesus, Christian and all its permutations appear exactly ZERO times. Nor is there any mention of other popular deities or prophets. It can be safely assumed the omission of these words was not an oversight.
Also, if a Christian nation was the goal, then actually being a Christian would seem to be a prerequisite for either citizenship or holding a government office. But Article VI clearly states, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”.
Which brings us to the First Amendment which declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” which is the fount of most disputes concerning separation of church and state, a phrase which I am fully aware does NOT appear anywhere in the Constitution.
The first clause would seem to preclude any notion of a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation or a nation of any identifiable sect. The founding Fathers correctly surmised that for true religious freedom, the state must NOT ever favor one particular religion or belief over another. The original Protestant colonists from England fled persecution not from infidel Muslims or atheist Enlightenment intellectuals but from the Church of England and King James I, a Christian based theocracy.
The Founding Fathers, with a unique opportunity to establish a new form of government, were not about to recreate another society where intolerance and persecution could be exercised by the state. A secular state composed of the legislative, executive and judicial branches was specifically designed to provide checks and balances against any potential abuse or disproportionate accumulation of power.
What about the assertion that America was founded on “Christian” principles? At the time of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention the American population consisted of Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Congregationalists and other denominations which didn’t agree on various religious and civil matters. So which sects’ principles and which principles?? Love of fellow man, charity, good works, piety, self-reliance? Those are principles of many belief systems. No group has the trademark on the principles which provide the basis for a civil society and social freedom. It is quite arrogant to even make such a claim.
The judicial/legal system must have been based on the Ten Commandments, right? There is no mention of those or the Bible anywhere in the Constitution. If the Founding Fathers’ intent was a Christian nation based on Biblical laws, then why didn’t they just put the Ten Commandments in the Constitution verbatim? Besides, the Ten Commandments existed in various forms before the Old Testament (Hammurabi’s Code, Egyptian Book of the Dead); so to call the commandments exclusively “Christian” is inaccurate.
The second clause “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is less clear. There are continual clashes and disagreements over “expressions” such as nativity scenes on public property, prayers at public gatherings, “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency and the like. Certainly these are expressions of a religious type but the key, vital problem with these is the public sector or state component. While the U.S. is not a theocracy, a government at any level which allows religious based expressions on its property or at its public gatherings is tacitly endorsing that particular sect over another which is specifically what the Founding Fathers were attempting to avoid.
Millions of Americans everyday pray, congregate, attend church, read the Bible, display religious items in their homes, on their cars and at their places of work, speak at public gatherings, endorse candidates, vote, home school their children, freely associate with whomever they wish and do not live in fear of being persecuted for their religious beliefs. All those constitute free expression.
In a pluralistic society with citizens from all walks of life and with ancestries from everywhere else in the world, it is critical for everybody to understand that NO person or group will have everything the way they want or will not have to compromise in some way for the continued ordered functioning of the society. The rights to free expression, speech and a free press should be given great latitude and deference; however they are not absolute rights.
The best system of government for the protection
of religious belief and expression is a secular government which favors or endorses NO religion above any other. As soon as one particular group gains power or favor, all other groups are in danger. Human history is replete with examples of majority groups (many religious in common bond) in power exercising its might, will and force to quash dissent and retain its “natural” superiority. Jefferson warned, “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny(1)
Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs have been disputed as he wrote passionately about the need for religious freedom while penning quotes that seem to dispute a desire for a Christian based government in particular (“Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the Common Law”). Some have labeled the Founding Fathers as Deists, others have labeled them Christians. It is ironic that the current claims that America is supposed to be a Christian nation as intended by men like Jefferson at the dawn of the Great American Experiment usually come from the Evangelical right. Jefferson’s beliefs (He was called an infidel!) would hardly be congruent with contemporary hardline right pronouncements such as the First Amendment is only meant for Christians and atheists cannot be true, patriotic Americans. How would today’s Religious Right feel about the fact he wrote his own Bible, not satisfied with the original(2)
On Jefferson’s tombstone there are the three accomplishments for which he was most proud: author of the Declaration of Independence, establishing the University of Virginia and penning the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom(3)
. The Virginia Statute was an impassioned plea against state sponsored or coerced religious belief or thought. In much greater prose than I could ever write he said, “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Anyone who reads that and still concludes Jefferson desired a Christian theocracy is engaging in willfully specious revisionist history.