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The United States – A Secular Government September 5, 2009

Posted by Bill in Politics.
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In Texas it is time to decide upon school curriculum again. Last time it was science standards. This time it is social and history standards. And, as is unfortunately usual, the committee assigned to review the textbooks and advise on the curriculum has a significant number of “experts” from the religious right.

One of the “experts” is David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders. Wallbuilders purpose is to:

“WallBuilders’ goal is to exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena. ”

Further, in regards to education:

“In the first part of this goal, we develop materials to educate the public concerning the periods in our country’s history when its laws and policies were firmly rooted in Biblical principles.”

Both quotes are taken from the Wallbuilders website:   http://www.wallbuilders.com/ABTOverview.asp

Barton’s qualifications – other than having some very factually challenged opinions? He graduated from Aledo High School and received a BA degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University. His lack of knowledge about our history and founding is evident.

What I would like to address here is not a point by point refutation of his misuse of the ideas and words of our founders, or even what he and compatriots on the board are recommending, but instead deal in general with the whole concept that we are a Christian nation. Something that many on the religious right claim and whose support Barton is both riding and leading.

The idea that we were founded as a specifically Christian government is not just oversimplistic but wrong. And dangerous. What this claim does is pervert and distort much of our founding history by only providing a very small part of a much greater and much more complex history.

First I would like to make a distinction between government and culture. We are a Christian nation in the sense that the vast majority of our population is and always has been Christian. Our holidays reflect this. Our landscape dotted with Christian churches reflect this. Our many cultural references to Christianity reflect this.

However it is important to note that even though our culture is Christian, our government is not. It was purposely set up by our founders to be a secular government providing no preference for any religion over another. Our founders, quite rightly, saw this as the best way to protect the religious liberties of all its citizens. Given the carefully selected little quotes and facts given by Barton and others you would never know this. Let’s look at some of the facts that belie the idea of our founders having created a Christian government.

First the Constitution itself. Aside from a dating convention (in the year of our Lord) at the end, it does not mention God, Jesus, or Christianity. This is an astounding fact. All governments at the time made mention or reference to some sort of religious ideals. Even most of the state constitutions of the time mentioned Christianity, God, or Jesus. Many even had very specific religious tests for office. For the United States Constitution to not make mention of religion, except to prohibit religious tests for office and prohibitions on the government from making laws regarding the establishment of religion or the free exercise of religion by its citizens was something new. Something very different from any other government, even that of the individual states.

In fact during the Constitutional Convention delegate Luther Martin stated that since some delegates believed that “in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” This view was rejected. Instead there was no endorsement of one religion over another and an explicit rejection of any sort of religious test for office.

How does this great difference fit in with the idea of us being a Christian government? It doesn’t.

Especially since the Constitution was criticized by many at the time for its lack of references to Christianity and God. This was used as an argument for those who argued against its ratification. But the founders, despite the closeness of the vote, never tried to insert God or Christianity into the Constitution during the ratification process.

It also should be noted that nowhere in all the notes taken by the founders during the Constitutional Convention were there any mention of Christianity or of Christian values. There were no discussions of how to apply the words of the Bible to the workings of the government. The works of Locke, British laws, Greek and Roman governments and much more were mentioned and discussed but not the Bible or Christianity.

Many mention Benjamin Franklin’s resolution to start the day with a prayer. What is not mentioned is that when he urged prayer the convention had already been meeting a month without prayers. The records of the Constitutional Convention also show that after Franklin made his resolution the delegates voted to adjourn rather than debate the resolution. The matter was never brought up again and the Constitutional Convention continued on without opening prayers. This too does not fit in with the idea that our government was set up to be a Christian government and not a secular government.

Another item that does not fit this idea is the Treaty of Tripoli. This treaty between the United States and Tripoli was ratified by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797 and signed by John Adams on June 10, 1797. There was no controversy or dissent in the whole process. Article 11 of this treaty states:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never 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.”

This is about as blatant a statement about the intent of the founders to create a secular government and not a Christian one as can be possible. How then to reconcile the seeming meaning of the quotes used so often by those claiming that our founders set up a Christian government?

First we need to recognize that these statements were made by individuals. They did not all think alike, reason alike, believe alike. It is a mistake to talk about the intent of the founding fathers as if they all spoke and believed alike.

Second, many, if not most of our founders, made a distinction between what they believed would be good for society and what they believed the government should do. While many believed that religion and Christianity might be good for individuals and society, they did not believe that the government should be in the business of favoring one religion over another. In fact they believed that such actions by the government would actually result in the destruction of religious liberty.

Third, many of the quotes selected do not tell the whole story. For example, most people who read some of the quotes from Thomas Jefferson that are used to support the idea that we are a Christian nation would assume that he believed in the Christian God. He did not. He was a deist who believed that God created the universe and then let it run its course without any more actions on his part. Jefferson did not believe in a God who intervened in human affairs, he did not believe in miracles. Reading his revision of Gospels in which he eliminates all miracles – the virgin birth, healings, the loaves and fishes, and even the resurrection – make this abundantly clear.

Another popular piece of evidence is a quote from the 1892 Supreme Court ruling in Church of the Holy Trinity v U.S. which states that the Supreme Court ruled that the United States was a Christian Nation. However this comes from the writings of Justice David Brewer and his statement occurred in dicta. This is a legal term meaning that what he writes reflects his own opinion and not that of the court and that such writing is not an official court ruling that sets precedent.

What is also interesting here is the question of what did Justice Brewer mean when he stated that the United States was a Christian Nation? Did he mean Christian government or that our society and culture are Christian? In light of an 1897 ruling of his in L’Hote vs New Orleans, I rather think the latter and not the former as the insert is trying to claim.

In the L’Hote vs New Orleans case, a Methodist church in New Orleans sought an injunction to keep the city from allowing prostitution in one area of the city. The Methodists argued that the measure would “destroy the morals, peace, and good order of the neighborhood.” They cited the Holy Trinity decision as support and argued that the ordinance allowing prostitution in one area of the city was inconsistent with Christianity “which the Supreme Court of the United States says is the foundation for our government and the civilization which it has produced.” Justice Brewer wrote an opinion for an unanimous court that completely ignored the church’s arguments and upheld the New Orleans law.

This is one of many examples showing that, whatever their personal beliefs about the value of religion and Christianity, the majority of our founders purposely and expressly set about to create a secular government as the best guarantee of religious freedom for all.

There have been movements in the past where a group has tried to change our secular government into a Christian one. In the early 1800’s, during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Pastor Ezra Stiles Ely tried to change our government to be more Christian through such things as making elected office subject to religious tests and eliminating Sunday mail. Andrew Jackson was a devout Christian. However he also recognized the value of the separation of Church and State. “Amongst the greatest blessing secured to us under our Constitution is the liberty of worshiping God as our conscience dictates – or not.” Because of Andrew Jackson and others of the time, Pastor Ely’s efforts were defeated.

Another time was during and after the Civil War. A group of eleven denominations from across the United States got together in 1863 and deciding that the Civil War was God’s punishment for leaving out mention of God in the Constitution, started to work to rectify that. They wanted to alter the Preamble to:

“We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

This movement became known as National Reform Association. It too failed. Similar proposals were considered by Congress in 1874, 1896 and 1910. They all failed.

These movements at least recognized the secular nature of the United States Constitution. Now the descendants of these groups are trying something different. Instead of trying to change the Constitution so it promotes a Christian government, they are claiming that we are a Christian government already and have always been so. Their methods are the quoting of misleading sound bites and ignoring the full scope of our history. Their hope is that our collective ignorance will be their salvation.

Finally, as some food for thought for those who say that our nation was founded on Christian values, here are a few questions.

Where does the Bible promote freedom of religion? You can find numerous instances of religious repression of those who did not believe in the same God of the Jews but there are no instances of religious tolerance.

For that matter, where is there an example of a democratic government in the Bible? Or Freedom of Speech? Or Freedom of Assembly and the Press? None of these are in the Bible. It was not until the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason and skepticism and its transformation of a hands on God of miracles to one of a hands off creator that these concepts start to become important in political thought.

To let those such as David Barton and Peter Marshall change our history to support their religious bigotry would be the start of the end of our founders grand experiment in setting up a secular democratic government. Let us not give up our secular government that has so ably protected the rights of each individual to decide what they do and do not believe. Let us not fall victim to the sound bites of those who promote a Christian government and give up the true liberty enshrined in our secular Constitution.



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