Monday, October 8, 2007

Without Christianity, We Are Not America

Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor, has a really fine, well informed and nicely balanced essay in the New York Times, "A Nation of Christians Is Not a Christian Nation" (October 7, 2007), responding to Sen. John McCain's remark in a recent Beliefnet.com interview that, "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."

He begins by stating what is called the Theologico-Political Problem, the inescapable limitation on Christian political allegiances on account of a Christian's prior allegiance to the holy God who transcends and judges all nations.

According to Scripture,...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.”
He reviews some noteworthy counterfactuals from the historical record, including the Constitution itself, Thomas Jefferson (who was not at the Constitutional Convention), and George Washington. (It is interesting that the editor of Newsweek, to determine what "the Constitution established," looks in large part to the expressed intention of the Framers and of the Founding generation. He must be a judicial conservative.)

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. ...

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.”
Meacham shows his sobriety on the subject when he recognizes the good conscience these Founders had when speaking of God in public pronouncements. He even points to the fundamental and vital connection between God and "the founding principle of the nation -- that all men are created equal...."

He closes with a classic "original intent" argument, relating how the Senate in 1790 established in law a denial of Sen. McCain's proposition.

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.
Touché.

The article is sweet music to my ears as far as it goes. But it does not settle all questions. He tells us that, "Abraham Lincoln buried a proposed 'Christian amendment' to the Constitution to declare the nation’s fealty to Jesus." America rejected it, but does Psalm 2:10 require it?

Though the Constitution studiously avoids a religious foundation for the regime, is such a foundation presupposed? For example, does the American republican system of electoral accountability, separation of powers, and checks and balances presuppose a Christian view of human depravity?

Does the Constitution require a particular sort of character in most citizens? Since we're quoting Washington, we should remember his Farewell Address (1796): "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports....And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." Granted, he says "religion," not Christianity in particular. But shouldn't we recognize that some religions are more supportive of individual self-restraint, mutual respect and industrious habits than others?

Also, some religions are so inherently political, such as Islam, that with a critical mass of adherents they would, by their very nature, present a popular threat to the Constitution.

So while Meacham makes an excellent point, it is still fair to ask, were Christianity to disappear entirely from this land and be replaced by atheism, could we maintain the protection of our liberties (as well as civil decency at the social level)? Were Christianity to be replaced by Islam as the dominant religion, would we have the same attachment to our Constitution?

"Christian nation" can mean different things. We are not an officially Christian nation. We are a nation of people affiliated with predominantly Christian traditions. As Meacham says, the Founders "wanted faith to be one thread in the country’s tapestry, not the whole tapestry." I would strengthen the claim, changing "faith" to Christianity specifically. American may not be a "Christian nation" as such, but without Christianity, we are not America...or least we will not be for long.

2 comments:

Dumb Ox said...

Your point is well taken: a nation that denies or even repudiates is religious identity does so at its own peril... any nation. Every society is made a coherent people by their shared beliefs, the religion is binds a people together. Abandoning Christianity does not leave the playing field neutral, it leave hedonism and relativism as supreme.

Great blog.

Welcome to Conservative America!

Feel free to leave links to your posts anytime at Dumb Ox Daily News.

Pax,

D. Ox

David C. Innes said...

Thanks for the comment and invitation!

Yes, and that hedonism and relativism appear to be embraced as gospel by some. But that gospel has been refuted not only countless times by thoughtful Christians and non-Christians alike, but even by common experience over the last 50 years.