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The United States – A Secular Government, a Christian Culture March 13, 2010

Posted by Bill in Christianity, Church and State, Current Events, Politics, Religion, Religious Right, Schools.
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In Texas we have had our Texas School Board discussing what our social studies and history curriculum should be.  Given that this standard will stay for 10 years and that as one of the largest consumers of textbooks this decision could have a national impact. 

 Needless to say, since this is Texas, the religious conservatives have a nice majority on the Education Board.  Which means that this is not going the way that I think it should. 

 For example, there was a proposal to teach students about why our Founding Fathers considered the separation of church and state of such importance.  It was promptly shot down since the majority of the School Board considers the separation of church and state a myth and the United States a Christian nation founded to be so by our Founding Fathers.

 As evidence they point to several utterances of various Founding Fathers supporting the virtues of Christianity or their actions in supporting religion.  However there are three historical facts that to me shout out very loudly that these people are wrong:  our Founders meant for the United States government to be secular and not a Christian one. 

 The first of these facts is that nowhere in the Constitution, other than a dating convention, is there a mention of God.  There is no mention of Christianity or Jesus.  Nowhere.  This is especially telling since there was a motion to mention Christianity or at least God somewhere in the Constitution.  This motion was not acted upon.  Rather a strange thing to do if they had intended for the United States government to be a Christian one.  Especially considering the fact that every state constitution at that time did mention either God, Jesus, or Christianity. 

 The second fact is that the Constitution barely, and I mean barely, passed.  It was voted on by conventions in every state and in each and every state it was a political battle; one that was lost in some and won in others.  One of the criticisms of the Constitution brought up by many who were against it was that it did not include a mention of God or Christianity.  Yet despite the closeness of the vote and the importance they placed on enacting the Constitution none of the Founding Fathers tried to modify it to gain a few votes.

 The third fact is the Treaty of Tripoli.  This treaty was signed on Nov 4, 1796.  After having been read in its entirety on the Senate floor it was unanimously (23 or the 32 Senators were in attendance) ratified by the United States Senate on June 7, 1797.  The treaty was signed by President John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers, on June 10, 1797. 

 Of interest here is article 11, which states:

 “Art. 11. 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,—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.”

At a time when George Washington, Thomas Jeffereson,  James Madison, and many of the other founders were still alive this government document explicitely states that the “Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.   It passed without protest, without debate, and unanimously.  And was signed by another of our Founding Fathers, President John Adams. 

When you put these three facts together it is very hard to see how it could be claimed that we are founded as a Christian government.  Especially when you toss in a couple of other supporting facts:

–         There is no religious test for public office.  In fact it was explicitly prohibited.  And this at a time when the state constitutions often did require a religious test to hold public office.

–         The state governments over the years gradually dropped those religious requirements and also mention of God and Christianity; following the lead of the United States Constitution.

–         That there were several attempts to change the Constitution to include a mention of God or Christianity.  There was a large push during President Jackson’s Presidency as well as again after the Civil War.  All failed.  

 Then how can the quotes and actions those who oppose the seperation of church and state be reconciled with these facts.  There are several items to keep in mind here:

–         Not all of our Founding Fathers thought alike ( After all, one did present a motion to include God in our Constitution even though it was not acted upon).  In fact they often disagreed with each other with a ferocity that makes it even more amazing that they managed to find compromises that allowed them to create our Constitution. 

–         There is a difference between a nation’s culture and its government.  While it is undoubtedly true that our culture is Christian it is also undoubtedly true that our Founders set up a secular government as the best way to protect the religoius rights of all.

–         At the time of our Founding the states were not required to follow the Bill of Rights.  That was a limitation on the Federal government and not on the State governments.  What would be proper for a State official to do would not for a Federal one. 

o       This can be most clearly seen in regards to the abolition movement.  Many of the southern states outlawed any books or tracts promoting abolition and arrested those who spoke out against slavery.  Free Speech only applied at the Federal and not the state level. 

o       It was the passage of the 14th Amendment after the civil war which changed this and made the Bill of Rights apply to the State government as well as the Federal government. 

In summary then our Founding fathers did indeed set up a secular government amidst a Christian culture. 

The reason why? 

That is my next blog “What Most Have Forgotten”

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