Conservatives were upset when President Obama remarked that America was not a Christian nation. On April 6th, during a press conference in Turkey, Obama explained that, "One of the great strengths of the United States is … we have a very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values”. I think he got it just about right.
To really understand why America is not a Christian nation, we need to learn a little more about what the people who founded this country believed. What we know about the founding fathers’ personal beliefs comes only from their writings. The first thing we notice from these writings is that it is unlikely that the founding fathers were all practicing Christians. There is also a small amount of evidence that leads us to believe that they were agnostics, or even atheists. What is mostly supported by their writings is that they subscribed to a common Enlightenment ideal called Deism. Deism acknowledges that the universe was created by a deity but that he removed himself entirely from it upon its creation, leaving it to operate on purely natural principles. They did not believe in Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the power of prayer, the validity of the Bible miracles, or even the divine inspiration of the Bible. As an example of this, Thomas Jefferson had modified the Bible by getting rid of the supernatural passages and the things he considered misinterpretations by the Four Evangelists.
These men were not the Christ warriors that they are often made out to be: quite the opposite actually. They knew the dangers of not keeping the church and state separate. These men were trying to break away from a country that persecuted its own citizenry precisely because, in the United Kingdom, the church and state were one.
The early American leaders, as well as the founding fathers, had a few things to say about how we aren't a Christian nation.
The Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11 states: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (muslims); and, as the said States never have entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
The treaty was signed by President John Adams, and ended the Barbary Wars in the early 1800's. I would like to point out that Article VI of the United States Constitution establishes that treaties are the supreme law of the land.
John Tyler writes, in an 1843 letter: "The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent -- that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions."
How about some George Washington. This is a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790: "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy -- a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support ... May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants -- while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."
These quotes give us some insight as to the original intent behind those that led our country in the early years as well as those who founded it. So, what about the arguments made by Christians? What merit do they hold, if any at all? Well, here's the first argument that is often brought up.
The majority of Americans are Christian. This must be because we are a Christian nation. This can be answered with a single statement: the ratio of Christians to non-Christians is absolutely irrelevant to the theories and concepts behind the founding of the country. A majority of people in this country are white too, does that mean that we are a White Nation? Of course not, the two are not related.
Wait, didn't the Constitution create the United States as a Christian nation? Nope, it's just more idiocy. The Constitution had no religious intent behind it, because as we know the founding fathers were not Christian and clearly desired a wall of separation between the church and state. Article IV, Section III (which was written before the 1st Amendment) is a good example of this intent. This specific clause is also called the "No Religious Test Clause", and it reads something like this:
"no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
This was an attempt to make sure that religion did not make it's way into the government. If one religion did, and wanted to consolidate power, all they would have to do is bar others from taking office by using tests and taking other obstructive measures. This effectively blocked any chance of that happening.
The 1st Amendment should also quell any lingering beliefs that the Constitution made us a Christian nation. I won't go into it, as it's pretty common knowledge what it says, but it builds us a stronger wall of separation between the church and the state.
And, as a third point, since when did Christian victories in the courts mean we were a Christian nation? They like to point to the fact that because we have "In God we Trust" on our money, and "under God" in our pledge, we must be based on Christianity. They fail to remember that those things were artificially inserted by conservative Catholic lobbyists in the mid 50's. These victories do not in any way imply that we are a Christian nation. They came 150 years after America was founded, so how could they?
Another claim that is often made is that religion is necessary for turning out good and moral citizens. This is utter crap. The most stable democracies in the world right now are the post-Christian, secular governments in Europe. When religion is combined with government, it is most often used as prop to guide their citizens in the direction they want to go. This is what creates some of the massive social differences between, say, the European governments and the governments of the Middle East. Religion did not give birth to morality, therefore it is ridiculous to assert that having religion intertwined with the government will somehow create morality. All you will get is oppression (Iran).
Jefferson, a Lockean liberal himself, did not impose any philosophical or religious test on good citizenship. In his "Notes on the State of Virginia," he wrote: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
How about the date that was signed onto the end of the Constitution? Isn't that proof that we are a Christian nation? Well, take a look for yourself:
"the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our LORD one Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty Seven."
This one is very easy to cast aside. AD, the date designation that was most common in the 18th century, means "In the Year of Our Lord". They didn't have secular dating designations, so that was just how you signed the date back then. It wasn't anything special and certainly did not expose the supposed religious intent of the government.
Finally, the last major claim made by proponents of the Christian nation "theory", and probably the most interesting one to refute, is that the Constitution is based on an idea called Lockean natural rights, which they believe to be supported by Christian theology. This comes mainly from the line in the Declaration of Independence which reads:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …"
Their reasoning is that Lockean natural rights acknowledges a Creator who gives rights to the people. The rights of the people is one of the most important concepts behind the Constitution, so logically they assume that because Lockean natural rights, which allow for a creator, are part of the Constitution and therefore must mean it was inspired by Christianity.
The first problem with this argument is that the founding fathers did not specify that the "Creator" mentioned in the Declaration was the Christian God. This is due to the fact that most of them simply did not believe in a personal god, like the Christian god, but rather a Deist god. They didn't specify because they didn't know who or what the creator god was, just that there was one.
The second problem is the idea that Lockean natural rights are based on Christian theology. This is so fundamentally untrue that it pains me to have to clarify this. The ideas of the Enlightenment were based not on theology, but rather the works of the Greek and Roman philosophers in antiquity. In fact, in the third and fourth century, a lot of the ideas that were popularized by the Enlightenment were theorized and thought of by the Greek and Roman scholars. Some of those scholars even banished entirely the idea of divine intervention in the world, favoring a naturalistic world view. It is this naturalistic world view that really led to the Enlightened theory of Lockean natural rights. As an example, one of the most important concepts postulated by the Greeks, Romans, and Enlightenment thinkers is that justice is an agreement by the people, not by its rulers. The Roman jurist Ulpian even had this statement placed in Roman law:
"Quod ad ius naturale attinet, omnes homines aequales sunt"
Translated from Latin, it means:
"According to the law of nature, all human beings are equal."
And that's it. All human beings are equal, that is the real idea behind Lockean natural rights; in fact, it's the FUNDAMENTAL concept behind it. It is also the fundamental idea behind both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The idea that power rests in the hands of the people because people are part of the natural world, and therefore are equal and not meant to be ruled over. These equal peoples come together and mutually approve of a government that does not violate the natural rights that made them equal in the first place.
The founding fathers had a very simple message for the nation. It was the unofficial motto voted on by the US Congress in 1782.
E pluribus unum. "Out of many, one."
That is the true message of unity that the founding fathers wanted to spread throughout our great nation. There was never any room for religion, only people.