Thursday, March 5, 2009

The "Christian Nation" Debate: Are we Simply Arguing Over Semantics?

A Few Random Thoughts and
Rants on the Primary Topic of
Our Fair Little Blog

by Brad Hart

We are rapidly approaching our 500th post here at American Creation (should happen some time this month), with most of those postings being devoted to answering the question, "Is America a Christian nation?" And over the past several months, a plethora of explanations have been presented either refuting or supporting this one question.

But I wonder, are we simply arguing over semantics? Is the definition of a "Christian Nation" simply too broad to be defined?

I am beginning to think so. For example, we have all seen how the various quotations from our key founders are thrown around like playing cards. A Christian Nation advocate may throw out the good ol' "standby" from John Jay which goes:

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.
And we've all seen the classic move by others to defend Thomas Jefferson's "Christianity" by reminding us that he sent bibles to a bunch of Native Americans. Yes, those trustworthy David Barton/D. James Kennedy one-liners are sure to convince the Average Joe that America most assuredly is a Christian Nation

And on the flip side lie the time-honored counter punches of the "secularists." The never failing quotes like John Adams' Treaty of Tripoli, Madison's quasi-S&M quote regarding the "religious bondage" which "shackles" the helpless follower, and Jefferson's insistence that the generation of Jesus will be likened to those who believed in Jupiter and Minerva. Yes, both sides have enough ammunition to keep the battle raging well into the next millennia...that is...unless the guy from the Left Behind series is right and Jesus is sure to return and smite the Obama anti-Christ.

And while I remain fully behind the belief that America was and is NOT a Christian Nation, I am forced to recognize that this term...Christian Nation...is a difficult one to sort out. For example, what does "Christian Nation" mean to a devout Catholic? Jehovah's Witness? Mormon? Muslim? Jew? You get my point.

As I begin sorting out the various quotes and other pieces of evidence for my final graduate research paper, which attempts to categorize the Christian Nation as an imagined community, I have begun asking myself two basic questions: In what ways do different groups define the concept of a nation, and how do the various sects of Christianity understand their relationship with the American nation? If we are to understand what the "Christian Nation" really is, then we need to understand how a wide variety of groups would define this term. Having focused primarily on the Evangelical side, I believe this definition can be summed up as the belief that God blessed and protected our founders, inspired them to create a nation based on Christian (that is, Evangelical Christian) ideas, which were then lost or ignored over the years, only to be saved in our generation.

From the Mormon perspective, the "Christian Nation" argument can be understood as being pre-ordained before the world was even created. The founding fathers were "chosen" individuals, who God ordained before coming to Earth to establish a new nation where religion would flourish. Thanks to these founders, who created this religious safe haven, Joseph Smith was able to effectively restore the true gospel of Christ, which had been lost. Thus, America is the beacon that brought about the restoration of Christ's lost gospel.

Anyway, my point is that when we throw around the term "Christian Nation" it is important to recognize the fact that these simple little two words can be taken in a lot of directions. Perhaps the whole thing is a matter of faith and nothing more?

26 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I just think we have to dig past the surface to try to find out how the nation saw itself!

To me, it's getting past an overreliance on Jefferson and Adams, and on the other side, acknowledging that folks like John Jay and Samuel Adams sat on the opposite pole and don't represent the "middle" either.

There were a lot of Founders. The more of them we study, the more the consensus of the time comes into focus.

[You touch on another key point, Brad---what does "nation" mean, anyhow? A problem I see is that left and right in 2008 divide over whether "government" and "society" are overlapping spheres, contingent spheres, or are simply one in the same. If you hold the latter view, then America is no more or less than what's in the Constitution, the sum of its laws. The discussion becomes, as Eric Voegelin would put it, very "compact."]

Brad Hart said...

I agree that there is a founder (not to mention a quote) out there for every belief. If you need a pro-Christian nation founder they are easy to find, and visa versa.

This is why I believe the founding documents come into play. If we want to know WHAT the founders established we should look at the charters...i.e. Dec. of Ind., Constitution, etc. because those are the things that won out in the end.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree that there is a founder (not to mention a quote) out there for every belief. If you need a pro-Christian nation founder they are easy to find, and visa versa.

That's the problem with the quote wars, which lead nowhere, especially if we use the same handful of Founders over and over again.

But it's too easy to simply split the baby in half and shrug our shoulders. That would be epistemological nihilism [hehe]. We must dig deeper into the evidence and identify where the consensus stood. It was far more God-centered than most folks are aware of, I think. More than I was aware of, anyway.

Now, many---including several of our commenters---want to change the consensus of the Founding, discard it as irrelevant to today's needs and non-foundationalist understanding of "rights," and get more secular. Which is OK with me, I guess, as long as we don't do it through a judicial tyranny that perverts the Founding consensus, attributing to the Founders principles they never held.


If we're going to change stuff, I just want us to acknowledge that we're changing it, and recognizing the dangers of tearing out the supporting beams of our magnificent edifice.

This is why I believe the founding documents come into play. If we want to know WHAT the founders established we should look at the charters...i.e. Dec. of Ind., Constitution, etc. because those are the things that won out in the end.


Agreed, especially the state charters, etc., which recognizes that federalism sits in the way---the rights of the states to diverge on legislating religious issues, a principle that virtually all the Founders acknowledged, and the Constitution establishes.

Pinky said...

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Taking the metaphor of the "city" as an individual person, it seems, brings the history of the Founding into a personal focus.
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States are able to be seen as separate entities; whereas, the United States can be seen as a joining together of men with different ideas.
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It could be hilarious is each state were to represent its own brand of religious "truth". Let's see, all the nuts would move out to California.
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Our Founding Truth said...

Agreed, especially the state charters, etc., which recognizes that federalism sits in the way---the rights of the states to diverge on legislating religious issues, a principle that virtually all the Founders acknowledged, and the Constitution establishes.>

Why did you always attack the use of State Constitutions as good evidence?

Jonathan Rowe said...

The states, let us remember legalized slavery during the time of the Founding. State establishment of religion, some argue, violates natural right as much as slavery did. Go ahead argue, "religion was left to the states" as a Founding principle. Slavery works just as well.

Our Founding Truth said...

Slavery works just as well.>

Only a small minority, who were obviously wrong, believed slavery violated natural law. The massive majority understood that, but it took a few years for the Northerners to implement abolition, which they did, almost two-hundred years of flawed institution had to be prohibited.

Even Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson incredibly believed slavery was mandated in the Bible. Two-hundred years of time was their enemy, and it took time for the remedy.

Our Founding Truth said...

Only a small minority, who were obviously wrong, believed slavery violated natural law.>

Rather, the other way around.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Go ahead argue, "religion was left to the states" as a Founding principle. Slavery works just as well.


Slavery is an effective cudgel against "states' rights," but slavery was sui generis: It never "settled in" as a resolved issue.

Slavery was the dealbreaker for the Constitution until the Three-Fifths Compromise, and was the cause of one political crisis after another in the new republic until it was "resolved" with a brutal civil war.

By contrast, like 1000 other things, the religion issue "settled in" quickly. A number of states had established churches, eventually disestablishing them voluntarily without any command from the central government.

It wasn't until the 20th century, getting on to 200 years after the ratification of the Constitution, and 100 after the 14th Amendment, that religion became a federal case.

Now, we can give our opinions about what the role of religion ought to be, but we must acknowledge that further secularization does not have the Founding or the bulk of American history on its side.

Brian Tubbs said...

Let's be careful not to hurl slavery out there as a "reason" why states can't or shouldn't be trusted with rights. I think this is unfair and frankly a cheap shot.

Brian Tubbs said...

The Founders established a secular national government with the US Constitution. They did this, with the full knowledge that the states made their own arrangements with respect to religion. And they did so, with the understanding that the entire national governmental framework rested upon a monotheistic set of values (as seen in the Declaration of Independence) and that a majority of the American people at the time believed not only in God, but also in Jesus Christ.

Our Founding Truth said...

The Founders established a secular national government with the US Constitution.>

Congress praying in Jesus' name is not a secular government. The 1st Amendment, as Justice Story explains, did not prohibit religious expression, but to stop a National Establishment of Christianity.

Our Founding Truth said...

The Founders established a secular national government with the US Constitution.>

OFT:Congress praying in Jesus' name is not a secular government.>

Either is a fast proclamation from a secular government.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'd be interested to see more evidence about the US Congress praying in Jesus' name. Not saying it doesn't exist, but the Continental Congress [which did it often] doesn't count. Pls advise.

The subject of proclamation of fasts and thanksgivings is interesting, and Mr. Tubbs makes a strong point that the US was founded on monotheism at least, [although the One God doesn't appear in the Constitution except for the "Year of Our Lord reference].

However, I must point out that in the immediate post-Founding period, Andrew Jackson, despite an affinity for Presbyterianism, agreed with Jefferson and refused to authorize a thanksgiving proclamation as being beyond the scope of his constitutional powers.

Not disagreeing with anybody here, necessarily, but these are valid objections and requests for more support of arguments.

I think the argument for the religious autonomy of the states has been made pretty well here [and I meself have advanced it], but that Andrew Jackson---who was clearly [or at least more provably] more an orthodox Christian than the first 6 presidents---demurred over such governmental expressions of faith, indicates that the matter had not quite "settled in" at the national level by the time of his presidency.

bpabbott said...

OFT: "Congress praying in Jesus' name is not a secular government."

The religious beliefs of our elected representatives is not a qualification of our government.

Our Founding Truth said...

I'd be interested to see more evidence about the US Congress praying in Jesus' name. Not saying it doesn't exist, but the Continental Congress [which did it often] doesn't count. Pls advise.>

I think it does count. The Country began with the DOI, and First Constitution, with the people and faith the same.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I think it doesn't count for much, and you can imagine how less sympathetic folks feel about such evidence. The D of I doesn't mention Christ, and there is a marked turn away from "Jesus Christ" language as we enter the Constitutional era. These are measurable facts.

I have a "side" in this, or at least am accused of having one, but that doesn't include pushing bum evidence, or ignoring valid objections. Besides, to use bum evidence discredits your own argument in the end. There is plenty of good evidence for your "side."

Our Founding Truth said...

The D of I doesn't mention Christ,>

Maybe so, but the majority of DOI signers were Continental Congressmen. As for re-hashing an earlier argument, the framers and Christian Philosophers said the Law of Nature is (All Three Persons of the Trinity), the God of the Bible. Unitarianism and any other ism were a minority.

Tom Van Dyke said...

the framers and Christian Philosophers said the Law of Nature is (All Three Persons of the Trinity), the God of the Bible.

No, that's not even close. Grotius said that even if there were no God, there would still be the natural law.

Our Founding Truth said...

No, that's not even close. Grotius said that even if there were no God, there would still be the natural law.>

We already went over that. The quote you posted is debatable as my earlier post by Grotius contradicted your post. And the other Philosophers, including Aquinas, and Hooker said the law of nature was the God of the Bible, not to mention, Calvin, Luther, Melancthon, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Prove it, without inserting "Jesus Christ" every time you see the words "law of nature."

Our Founding Truth said...

Tom,

All of them said God was the law of nature. The Bible says Jesus is God, the second person of the trinity. Calvin, Luther, Hooker, etc. believed in the Deity of Jesus, right?

Pinky said...

No where in the Bible does it say that Jesus is God.
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Our Founding Truth said...

No where in the Bible does it say that Jesus is God.>

What!!!!! Wow. Hey guy, read the first chapter of John and let me know what you think.:^)

Pinky said...

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I was raised on the First Chapter of John.
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I've heard it interpreted quite often.
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I stand on my original statement.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ironically, the Declaration of Independence makes no reference to Jesus, whereas the Constitution does. The "year of our Lord" is a direct reference to Jesus.

But...I'm not reading into that more than what's there. I just think it's interesting.