Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some Highlights of Rob Boston’s Talk on “The Christian Nation Myth”

By Gary Berg-Cross

In January Rob Boston, the Senior Policy Analyst, Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State, was the featured speaker at the MDC chapter of WASH. Rob spoke on the very timely topic of “The Christian Nation Myth” and one of the follow on discussion topics was covered in an earlier blog. The MDC March speaker, Edd Doerr, is likely to add to this discussion so people interested in the topic should come March to hear Edd. As a precursor to this and because some may have missed Rob’s talk, I’ve provided some abbreviated notes on the 4 main arguments from Rob’s talk with a few supplements from other sources.

1. Back to Constitution.

As noted on the AU site:

Religious Right groups and their allies insist that the United States was designed to be officially Christian and that our laws should enforce the doctrines of (their version of) Christianity. Is this viewpoint accurate? Is there anything in the Constitution that gives special treatment or preference to Christianity? Did the founders of our government believe this or intend to create a government that gave special recognition to Christianity?

We can start with the Constitution and ask what it says about religion?
First there are no references to Christianity or God in the Constitution. Indeed the words "Jesus Christ, Christianity, Bible, Creator, Divine, and God" are never mentioned in the Constitution-- not even once.

The word "God" does not appear within the text of the Constitution of the United States. After spending three-and-a-half months debating and negotiating about what should go into the document that would govern the land, the framers drafted a constitution that is secular. The U.S. Constitution is often confused with the Declaration of Independence, and it's important to understand the difference.

There are 2 special clauses in Amendments but they show no preference for religion. The 1st Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Through ratification of the First Amendment, observed Jefferson, the American people built a "wall of separation between church and state."

The 2nd came from Charles Pinckney of South Carolina who put a prohibit against a religious test as a qualification for federal officeholders office in Article Six since some states required officeholders be of a particular religion. Article VI, which allows persons of all religious viewpoints to hold public office, was adopted by a unanimous vote. (Note - Some have a different view of what the founders intended by these amendments. Supporters of the role of religion in revolutionary times argue they intended only to defuse controversy by disarming potential critics who might claim religious discrimination in eligibility for public office.

We know something of the founders feelings about religion from Luther Martin of Maryland who gave said that:

a handful of delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued for formal recognition of Christianity in the Constitution, insisting that such language was necessary in order to "hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism." But that view was not adopted, and the Constitution gave government no authority over religion.

Luther as actually a fierce opponent of ratification, and reported that the "no religious test" clause easily had passed at Philadelphia, noting sarcastically:

However, there were some members so unfashionable as to think that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and 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.

2 The American Experience and What the Founders thought

We should understand the American experience around the revolutionary time and their sense of its European history. The revolution was about breaking away from Europe, but also reforming the American approach. Americans (e.g. Franklyn and Adams) had already experienced harsh legacies of the Pilgrims and in Jefferson’s VA their was a too cozy combination of church and state.
Letters show that Madison and Jefferson’s views on the VA statute (1786) for religious liberty was not limited to Christians and included Moslems and infidels.

our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than [on] our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing [of] any citizen as unworthy [of] the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right

It was clear, and the Founders wrote, that the new role of President would be only political an not religious.

3 The Founder's Religion

Were the core Founder’s Christians? There is a big effort by Christian Revisionists to rewrite history about the Founder’s religion. But this argument has been knocked down in blogs such as Rob’s’s article on five Founding Fathers Skepticism_about_Christianity

Washington, for example, didn’t talk about Christ but was a Deist and left the church. He had a social utilitarian belief of religion – It’s good for morals. And we have Washington's Promises Jewish Congregation that US Will Practice Religious Tolerance as well as this quote:

"As the government of the United States is not in any sense
founded on the Christian religion..."-- George Washington

Adams was Unitarian with a belief that Christ was not God. He believed, however that reason and faith could be combined.

In February 1756, Adams wrote in his diary about a discussion he had had with an officer called Major Greene. Greene was a devout Christian who sought to persuade Adams to adopt conservative Christian views. The 2 apparently argued over the divinity of Jesus & the Trinity. Questioned on the matter of Jesus’ divinity, Greene fell back on an old standby of playing the mystery card:

some matters of theology are too complex and mysterious for we puny humans to understand.
Adams wrote that this mystery defense was a convenient cover for “absurdity.”

We have lots of evidence of Jefferson’s religious belief including his famous Bible on display at the Smithsonian and a subject of a previous Blog posting.
There are also pieces from his Letters to Adams (1823):

“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

We also have his 1819 letter on what beliefs he doesn't accept including:

· Immaculate Conception

· Divinity and Trinity

· Orders of hierarchy

Madison might be a theist but was probably the strictest church-state separationist among the founders. He took stands more bold than the ACLU:

· He opposed government-paid chaplains in Congress and in the military.

· As president, Madison rejected a proposed census because it involved counting people by profession.

· For the government to count the clergy, Madison said, would violate the First Amendment. (from Alternet)

Tom Paine is a Founder less often mentioned, but a rationalist and enemy of religion.

· He was also a radical Deist whose later work, The Age of Reason, still infuriates fundamentalists. In the tome, Paine attacked institutionalized religion and all of the major tenets of Christianity. (from Alternet)

4. Founding Period Discussion and Later
This period tells us how the constitution and bill of rights documents were attacked by clergy like Millennialist Reverend David Austin (1759-1831). People tried to add Christian amendment to Constitution to rectify the preamble adding key phrases recognizing Lord Christ as ruler. On the other hand there were things written into the
Treaty of Tripoli 1796 that points another way:

As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Ordered by George Washington, Signed by President Adams

One of Rob's key points was that there was more Christian push back after the civil war (1864-1874).

In that period representatives voted the amendments down recognizing the dangers of union of church-state. But there was a national myth generated that was latched onto during the social dislocation of the civil war period. People had a hunger to go back to simpler times. The result is a national myth of a golden age. Many cultures have had such things including the garden of Eden idea and the golden age that Greeks looked back to from the 500 BCE era, which was pretty golden itself.

Among the legacies we have from the 1864-1874 period is the idea of putting “God is our Trust” on to coins. This was defeated then but a variant is of recent vintage, having been slipped in during the cold war. Another legacy is the idea of American exceptionalism as an expression of God's favor and will.

So part of the gold
en story we get is “Everything fine until .. (add your own disturbance such as Gay marriage, Hispanic immigrants, Secular Humanists…)
It’s a convenient ploy which harnesses a plot of a history suppressed by secular elites. One of its appeals is that in the story Christians appear as the exceptional heroes and defenders of civilization. It all seems right that they,
rather than others, are the ones who were originally meant to be in charge of society and the myth is that they were. This is an appealing, old tale as heard in the story of God’s chosen people. The Hebrew version now has evangelical updates and a Mormon corollary that mixes myth and secret knowledge.

Recent efforts to use a religious rules for society (e.g. in PA) ignores what governance were really like in biblical times. It was not a gracious society providing a model on how a society should run (remember slavery?). But earlier efforts have left some remnants such as the legacy of no shopping on Sunday. This was an agenda item of National religious reform effort and got a start along with efforts to allow prayer in school.

Indeed the
late 19th century saw efforts to get secular plays banned and the postal service stopped shipping free thinker publications. There was also a religious move against women's rights.

Rob concluded his talk noting where we stand today including recent efforts to not only rewrite history, but also Science. You can see a list of issues that religious folks have with secular governance on many web sites. He argued strongly that:

1. we have to strongly oppose the Christian establishment myth and its associated principles, which exclude many people who now it can claim, are not true Americans. We are still struggling with our pluralism and the claim that non-believers that don't have America’s best interest at heart.

2. We need to promote the teaching of true History and Science and we have to honor our constitutional values.

3. We need to counter the bad arguments that church-state wall is against religion and imposed by courts.

The follow-on discussion of the talk was of the same high quality and I will perhaps cover some of this in a later Blog post. I’m looking forward to Edd Doerr’s talk on March 3rd at the Wheaton Library which should be equally stimulating and enlightening.

1 comment:

Don Wharton said...

Superb summary! Thanks Gary.