Monday, December 1, 2014

A Christian Nation?

It’s a debate that may not ever go away.  Is America a Christian nation?  Christians tend to say yes, while secularists generally say no.

In previous writing I’ve made clear my position and understanding of the historical separation of church and state, and how in our modern era that idea has been corrupted.  I stand by that opinion.  Separation of church and state was an idea put forth by religious people, not by civil authorities who definitely did not embrace the idea.  Even with that in mind, or perhaps especially with that in mind, I think we need to be careful calling America a Christian nation.  

The phrase “separation of church and state” occurs nowhere in the Constitution.  The First Amendment, to which the phrase alludes, is meant to limit the state, not the church.  Indeed, the Constitution, in its entirety, should be understood as nothing more than a limit on the state.  We are free to worship as our consciences dictate.  With regard to religion, there are two limits enumerated by the First Amendment.  One, that there will be no official religion of the state (or endorsed by the state), and two, that we citizens can not be prohibited from worshipping as we see fit (including where we see fit - including in public or in a government building).  That second part is the part a lot of people forget.

A state established religion was what our forefathers (not our founding fathers, but their forefathers) were specifically escaping when they left England to come here.  These facts appear to bring us to an impasse.  I, and people of like minds as I, believe that the “separation of church and state” has become woefully corrupted and that we should be able to worship as we want and not be prohibited at all.  On the other hand, those of a more secular mindset point out the same facts and come to the conclusion that their way is the best way to avoid returning to what our forefathers escaped.  The error they make, though, is asserting that those forefathers were not Christian and did not want a Christian nation.  They were, and they did. They simply did not want the state to dictate that all the citizens are to be Catholic, or Anglican, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or whatever.  They were saying that that’s not the state’s job.  

So, does that mean we should not allow Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or anyone else to be here and worship as they see fit?  Of course not.  

I believe we are a Christian nation in two senses.  First, in the sense that (most of) our founding fathers were either active Christians or, at least, very well versed in Christian thought.  And secondly, our legal system and our system of government are modeled on that thought.  But I think it’s a stretch, and a potentially dangerous one, to say that our government was meant to be an extension of the church, or even of Christianity.  

I’ve said this before, but again, it’s a bit complicated.  Our ancestors were not as compartmentalizing with their religious beliefs as we are.  We tend to keep our religion in its own little box - partly out of a misunderstanding that’s been promulgated about the First Amendment, and partly out of convenience (meaning a lack of ethical fortitude).  They did not do that.  All of life - everything - was viewed through the filter of their religious beliefs.  However, their ability to see distinctions and nuance was far superior to ours.  They knew, in a much different way than we know, where the church and state converged and diverged; and knew from personal experience the danger of improperly mixing them.

If you want to know why there’s a New England, then study history.  Look to old England in the 1620’s and 1630’s.  Look at King James, and especially his son, King Charles I.  Look at William Laud, Alexander Leighton, Edward Coke, and all the vitriol between the Puritans on one side, the Catholics on the other, and the Church of England and the crown right in the middle.

All of the above wanted there to be an official state religion, as in fact every country in Europe had at the time.  Every one of those people and groups considered themselves Christian, and yet there was enormous bloodshed.

William Laud, one of my least favorite characters in that little passion play, actually articulated the thought process quite well.  Although there was great variance in the particulars amongst these men and groups, in general they all believed this.  Laud said that the spirit of God is one, and that whoever divides against the unity of the church practices against the unity of the spirit.  Without unity the church would disintegrate; without the church, the state would disintegrate: “It is impossible in any Christian commonwealth that the church should melt, and the state stand firm.”  

Do we really want to pursue this very same train of thought?  Do we believe that the Christian church(es) should take THAT active a role in the business of government?  Maybe the answer is yes, but we should know the potential dangers if we do answer yes.

Remember: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it!

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