UPDATE, August 11: It appears historian John Fea impresses Americans United with his scholarship:
…Jon (sic) Fea, author of Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, has also been highly critical of Barton’s work. Fea, associate professor of American History and chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., can’t exactly be described as a raving secularist…
It would be nice if Americans United did a little less “raving” itself and adopted rather more of an historian’s stance when holding forth on history. Unlikely, though, one suspects. As we know, usually it is easier to be more clearsighted about others’ shortcomings than about one’s own:
…we all know that lots of folks have a deep ability to engage in self-delusion and believe what they find comforting, heedless of the facts…
* * *
ORIGINAL POST, August 9:
A few months ago, the good folks at Free Inquiry magazine asked me to write an article debunking the “Christian nation” myth. I decided to pen a breezy piece listing five reasons why the United States is not an officially Christian nation, but I could have left it at just one: The Constitution doesn’t say we are.
Despite what regular visitors may think, I have not made it a mission to plow through every inanity that emanates from that organization’s web site. Perhaps I should simply stop reading it? Easy in theory, but it is much like trying to pass the proverbial traffic accident without rubbernecking: you just can’t look away.
So here we go. There, Mr Boston debunks something … no one really contests anyway. If anyone seriously believes Christianity is “established” as the “official” religion of the U.S., the fault would appear to lie squarely with our U.S. public school system, in it somehow not getting across how that is not the case.
That said, there is a clarification to be made here. For example Turkey has no “official” religion. Yet it is a country composed mostly of Muslims, hence Turkey is reasonably referred to as a “Muslim nation”. And that is not the same as an “Islamic state”, or “Muslim Nation”.
Similarly among most Americans their Christianity has always been, and remains, a core personal identifier. This is where matters become blurrier. For that is not about “establishment”, but Americans United overlaps the state — “establishment” — with the social reality of Christianity’s U.S. numerical preponderance and unsurprising cultural imprint.
Capitalization matters. Historical and social fact is what it is. But Americans United just prefers its own blinkered version.
The lack of references to Christianity in the Constitution has to me always been fatal to Christian nation adherents. Nevertheless, the myth is still widely believed and in Religious Right circles has taken on near-cult status. Just as Religious Right leaders invented a phony “science” because they refuse to accept evolution, they have also crafted a made-up “history” of our glorious Christian character.
Confining ourselves here actually to history. Again, the Constitution is “law”; it is not a “social” study. Mr Boston tries to leverage that “law” into cover allowing an omission of an entire aspect of the American pageant. And he is actually proud of that whitewash, capping it off worst of all with a full-on dose of know-it-all sarcasm.
Yet presumably he is also at least vaguely aware it is not “myth” one of the 3 ships that crossed the Atlantic to the Virginia coast in 1607 was named Godspeed? Surely he has heard of the Mayflower Compact and the Portsmouth Compact? Somewhere he has come across how Maryland was founded by Catholic English aristocracy? And that Pennsylvania was settled by the Quakers?
And the list could go on. In pointing those out, is that a “Religious Right” disinformation effort at work here? Or is it merely reminding us all of other facts some like Americans United appear determined to overlook?
Thankfully, not everyone is falling for it. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) recently surveyed it leadership and asked if they believe we are a Christian nation. Sixty-eight percent said no…
“Falling for” what? If one reads the linked piece, one sees a variety of responses, including that the U.S. was once a “Christian nation” but is no more because of the immigration of millions of non-Christians and a growing numbers of non-believers; that a nation cannot be “Christian” anyway; and that it was hoped the U.S. could be more “Christian” in the future.
What seems the case is Americans United sees “state”, “nation”, and “Nation”, as pretty much casually interchangable. But are they really?
Bingo. If you want people to follow your religion, tell them about it and set a good example through your own life. Don’t expect the government to impose theology on anyone. Not only is that wrong, it rarely works out in the long run…
Bingo? How exactly noting most European settlers and post-independence Americans considering themselves Christians suddenly jumps to the state demanding everyone convert to Christianity is apparently obvious to Americans United. If not to the rest of us.
…No “Christian nation” can guarantee freedom like that. Such liberty comes only from an officially secular government backed by the separation of church and state.
Moving on to “the way we live today” about which Mr Boston lectured us recently. That claim above means then that “officially Christian” England is “unfree.” In fact, given terminology Americans United likes to use, it must be a “theocratic” nightmare where no one may practice a faith aside from that of the established Anglican Church.
The English likely had no clue that was their plight until encountering Mr Boston’s insights here. Locally I suspect I should inform our Roman Catholic parish down the road. And the word should be gotten out also to all the other UK churches and synagogues and mosques and temples…
No, the United States is not an officially Christian nation. Our founders knew better than to try that. All Americans – evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, etc. – should be thankful for their wisdom.
Try what? Try to create a “religious establishment”? The Constitution did not, of course, create one.
So the point is what exactly? Neither did “our founders” imagine that they could pretend that most voters were not Christians. Or did “our founders” believe the state should slap church if given the chance?
And what “wisdom” do U.S. Roman Catholics have to be thankful for of late? A bull in a china shop state intrusion into their faith consciences? Or for tax-exempt lobbying groups supposedly dedicated to defending Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state, yet who see nothing wrong with state assailing church and actually applaud doing so as “progress”?
“Progress” is an important word, for Mr Boston’s piece is revealing how Americans United’s U.S. history is synonymous with a Whig interpretation. That is seen especially in how Americans United’s “hero-worship” on religious liberty is reserved for only “key founders” like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Meaning it is a decidedly partisan and ideological take.
But how about, say, “key founder” John Jay? The first U.S. “foreign minister,” a Federalist Papers’ author alongside Madison and Hamilton, and later Chief Justice of the United States, the brilliant Jay had strong views also. But they clearly do not fit neatly into Americans United’s narrative, so in line with that Whiggish approach Americans United simply acts as if the likes of Jay were not there.
Perhaps with good reason. Not only did he believe Roman Catholics should be barred from office, but Columbia University’s bio of him tells us how in his retirement he became “President of the American Bible Society.” It is not hard to see why, based on this observation of his:
…In a letter addressed to Pennsylvania House of Representatives member John Murray, dated October 12, 1816, Jay wrote, “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war. Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.
What? “Christian nation” uttered by one of “our [key] founders”? Americans United may want us to think it was coined in a post-Civil War burst of religious lunacy, or even better if by a Rev Pat Robertson or a Rev Jerry Falwell. However, as the above shows, both are plainly incorrect.
Did locating that require wading for weeks through dusty archives? No, it is found in a 10 second web search. But, naturally, not mentioning such at all means not having to engage with it.
Americans United functions from the premise “our founders” were “deists” and/ or “rationalists” floating “enlighteningly” (but secretly because they had to) above the superstitious masses imprisoned below by their clergy. That is not just history for simpletons, but it hardly gets more Whiggish than that. What Jay demonstrates for us there is that “our founders” actually did not march in lockstep, but held a variety of opinions about faith and state.
So it was actually not only about Jefferson and Madison. They did not sweep all before them. And with strong views out there like Jay’s as well as Madison’s, it is easy to understand why Christianity received no mention in the Constitution.
The 1st Amendment was ratified — and Madison had thought a bill of rights was unnecessary — because some, like more “traditional Christian” Patrick Henry, distrusted the Constitution without it. “Establishment” was expressly banned and “free exercise” protected not because they were all of one mind, but because there was so much essential disagreement about religiosity among “our founders”. As slavery’s similarly non-mention also shows, the one universal on which “our founders” seemed to have agreed was to keep excessively divisive issues out if the Constitution in order to hold the nascent American union together.
Such is also why Alexander Hamilton noted in “Federalist 69″ that the President had no official religious duties. It was not because Hamilton agreed wholeheartedly with Madison’s religious worldview. Indeed in 1802, Hamilton would propose the creation of a “Christian Constitutional Society … “to combat irreligion and democracy“. Curiously while trumpeting “Federalist 69″ in his “Free Inquiry” post, Mr Boston has nothing to say about the Hamilton of 15 years later.
Forwarding to 2012, since August 1 one may reasonably suggest there is less religious liberty in Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” United States now than in the “Christian state” United Kingdom. Why? Here in Britain at least religious charities are not coerced by the state into underwriting secular initiatives those religious charities consider immoral. Taxes pay for UK state programs, whatever their morality, and not underhanded “mandates”.
Interestingly, the Thomas Jefferson who Americans United cites as near “god-like” on religious liberty, is the same man who was “liberal” enough to believe that some black men may have been white men’s intellectual equals. But not women. Women in public office was not something he was prepared to see.
It may be a surprise today given his “Francophile”-leanings also to learn that during his five years in France Jefferson fretted over young Americans there being ensnared by the “arts” of French women. He believed their tendencies towards “intrigue”, “infidelity” and perhaps worst of all, “politics,” would “corrupt” American youth far away from home and unaccustomed to Parisian “sophistication”. So when his young assistant William Short fell in love with Rosalie La Rochefoucauld, Jefferson was not pleased, and Short’s pain at the long affair’s end only reinforced Jefferson’s opinion.
Jefferson’s was a common view among American men of his time and class: a women’s role was primarily to maintain “domestic felicity” and produce children. He and his wife certainly practiced what he preached, having at least six children in ten years (with only 2 surviving to adulthood) before her death at age 33 (due to complications from childbirth). Evidently he afterwards also had several more with enslaved Sally Hemings (who may have been his wife’s younger half-sister).
So even with its decidedly narrow-scoped U.S. history, Americans United would have a tough sell pushing that Mr “Wall of Separation” Jefferson would have deemed it the proper function of the federal government to extract funds from religious entities to pay for a national “contraceptives mandate.”
Although, then again, one does wonder? Based on his own apparent personal behavior especially after his wife’s death, had the technology existed perhaps Jefferson would have?