all about asking the right questions
by Tom Van Dyke
Friend-of-the-blog Dr. John Fea is currently writing "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Primer"
scheduled for publication in 2011.
But is that the proper question? It's always posed in those exact words, with no variation. Some very religious folks answer yes, but on the whole, even for those who argue for America's Christian, or "Godly," heritage, most admit it was not "Founded" as a "Christian Nation," if that means any level of theocracy.
Nor do they wish a "return" to theocracy. Settled early on in the debates in Virginia and elsewhere is that Baptists would rather not be ruled by Presbyterians, and nobody but nobody wanted to be ruled by Roman Catholicism.
Y'see, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" is usually the formulation used by those whose answer is emphatically "NO!"
And so, I submit we must ask better questions to get to the bottom of things, and here are a few:
---Was America founded as a secular nation, then?
---An agnostic nation?
---Since it's said we have a Godless Constitution, was America founded as a Godless Nation?
---And what do we mean by "Founded," anyway? 1787, the ratification of the Constitution? July 4, 1776, which America celebrates as its birthday?
---Was America America yet under the Continental Congress, which called itself the Congress of the United States?
---What is a "nation?" The debates over the First Amendment discarded Madison's language against establishment of a "national" church, since it was to be a federal government. [Jefferson referred to it as the "general" government.]
---Was religion left to the states under federalism, then? Did the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights change the status of Christianity anywhere in America?
---Was America already a Christian nation [at least in most states aside from Virginia] when the Constitution was ratified, and ratification changed nothing?
---Because what does "Founded" mean anyway? Oh, we already asked that one, but it seems proper to return to it here.
---And the old standby, What is "Christian?" Can you be "Christian" if you believe the Bible is the direct Word of God? If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, although not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?
---And who decides the answer to this question? Trinitarian clergy? Theologians? Sociologists? Historians?
---Was there a God of the Founding?
---Was His name Providence?
---Is this "theism," or is "theism" just a slippery term for what is the uniquely monotheistic, providential Creator-God who endowed men with certain unalienable rights, one who is unmistakably "Judeo-Christian," at least compared to all of man's other gods?
---What might Judeo-Christian mean? Anything? Everybody seems to know what it means, so does that mean anything?
Until we answer each of these questions---and many more, like What is a Founder?---we haven't even scratched the surface. And the terms, my God, the terms. We can put "scare quotes" around each one of them, because each has an arguable meaning:
Per Dennis Prager, our motto around here is that we value clarity over agreement. As we can see, our national discussion is remarkably free of clarity, since few of us are using the same terms and meanings and are asking the same questions. This is one small vote for clarity.