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June 14, 2004

Is America a "Christian Nation"?

Tony Soltero

There is no shortage of religious denominations that are fond of making the claim that America is a Christian nation. And they're partly right, in a very narrow sense.

The multitude of Christian churches in this country (including the Roman Catholic Church) count a higher number of adherents than non-Christian churches. In a strictly demographic sense, America is indeed a "Christian nation".

Along the same lines, one could just as easily argue that America is a white nation; after all, whites greatly outnumber blacks in our country. Or that the United States is a fast-food-consuming nation. Or that we're a car-owning society.

All of these things are true. Most of us are Caucasian. Most of us duck into a McDonald's at least occasionally. Most of us have wheels. And a plurality of us affiliate ourselves with one of the many Christian denominations.

Now, imagine if a group of European-American supremacists attempted to parlay this demographic advantage into a legal code that only recognized white Americans encapsulate the true values of the nation, and accordingly granted them the corresponding privileges.

We had this kind of system in many parts of our country for over a century and a half -- first through slavery, and then through Jim Crow -- but its legal underpinnings ultimately collapsed, and for good reason; it was incompatible with our professed beliefs in freedom and equality before the law. Anybody who tries to revive that kind of mentality (and many continue to, but that's another story) is rightfully scorned and dismissed as un-American.

Somehow, though, certain religious groups seem to have missed the memo. They believe that the fact that more Americans than not belong to a Christian church automatically confers them the right to dictate our laws and shape and interpret the Constitution to serve their agendas, which, in any case, are only tangentially (at best) related to Jesus' teachings. They allege that America is a "Christian nation," while ignoring the reality that this concept has no relevance beyond population figures.

Fortunately for the rest of us, our Founding Fathers anticipated that certain denominations would try this, given enough wealth and power. And so they crafted the Bill of Rights.

Acutely aware of the horrors of religiously motivated wars and pogroms in their European ancestral lands, they were quite worried about the church injecting itself into the state -- so concerned that the very first clause in the very first sentence of the very first amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

With this brilliantly succinct statement, the framers protected both the church and the state. The first half of the clause ensures that no organized religion can use the power of the government to advance and enforce its teachings. Likewise, the second half of the clause protects the churches from government interference.

The amendment respects the churches' right to dictate codes of belief and behavior for their adherents, based on the sources and traditions they choose to follow. Likewise, it specifies that the American government rely upon reason and rationality, and not upon any particular religious tradition, in the crafting of laws that apply to the citizenry.

In short, "because the Bible says so" might be a valid reason for a church to establish a particular law, but it is NOT a legitimate reason for the government to enact the same law. The state needs to find its OWN rationale and its OWN valid basis for any restrictions on its citizens' freedom, independent of any church teachings.

We have laws against murder not because it is prohibited by the Fifth Commandment, but because it is an infringement upon another citizen's right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, rights that are the government's duty to protect.

If the Ten Commandments were the basis for our laws, we'd have edicts against coveting one's neighbor's Mercedes. Obviously the rational basis for having such a law in America is weak (not to mention that such a law would be unworkable and unenforceable), so we haven't adopted one.

If the Bible were the basis for our laws, it would be illegal to eat a cheeseburger. Check out the Levitical prohibitions on combining meat and dairy products.

Of course, there is considerable overlap between religious laws and secular laws. Stealing, for instance, is expressly prohibited in virtually all religious traditions; it is also in the state's interest to protect the property of its citizens. The religious and the secular are by no means mutually exclusive. They just come from different places.

To draw a line under this distinction, Ben Franklin and his buddies added another little clause to Article VI of the Constitution: namely, that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States".

And thus originated our secular, non-religious state. A novel, if not radical, concept at the time, but one that has helped shape the greatness of our country.

The wall of separation has served us well in countless ways. The Catholic Church is free to require its followers to attend Mass every Sunday - but our Constitution prevents it from going through the local, state, or federal government authorities to enforce its canons. If the Muslim faith enjoins its adherents from eating pork, it is perfectly free to use its internal mechanisms to ensure compliance among its adherents -- but it cannot employ Congress or the Maryland State Police to do the mullahs' work for them.

Conversely, if the government wishes to, say, pursue a war of dubious merit, it cannot expect or force churches to offer their blessings. This separation of church and state, so misunderstood by so many, is one of our critical distinctions from repressive "religious" societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Those who wish to breach this wall of separation between the church and the state completely miss the point of the First Amendment. It is precisely because of the non-establishment clause that faith and religion have flourished so dramatically in the United States -- free from government meddling, and free from worry that other churches will push them aside, America has been the home of myriad religious movements, many of which have become quite entrenched, and many of which have contributed positively to the American experience.

The great majority of religious people in America don't need to be reassured daily by our secular state that their faith is sound. That is as it should be; our government exists for reasons other than promulgating church doctrines. If certain churches look to the government to spread their teachings, what does that say about their own effectiveness in delivering their messages?

There is no virtue in coerced religiosity. To codify the laws of any church into our government is to codify joyless, by-the-numbers "belief" into our society, and indeed stifles genuine expressions of faith and spiritual development.

The First Amendment protects every religion, Christian and non-Christian. It protects the non-religious. It is a shame that some vocal "religious" groups are so insecure in their belief systems that they feel that they need the government to validate them by making misleading pronouncements about us being a "Christian nation."

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