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A Christian Nation?

By Daniel J. Webster

 

I've had it with all these letters and commentaries about “under God” and the pledge of allegiance, and the founding fathers being Christian, and this being a Christian nation. Even a Utah sculptor revised history depicting three founding fathers kneeling at prayer – a scene historians call unthinkable.

If folks are going to argue something they should get the facts right. If some want to claim that this should be a Christian nation or they believe God should be included in the pledge, the Star Spangled Banner, prayed to in all schools, then they should be up front and say that's what they're are trying to do.

They should not be invoking the memory of those who worked so hard to keep religion and government separate. They shouldn't claim that because the founders were “Christian” that gives Christians today some sort of preferential status in the country.

When the panacea broke out about the pledge I went back to my seminary textbook. Edwin Scott Gaustad in A Religious History of America (HarperCollins, 1990) tells a fascinating account of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry.

In 1777, then-Virginia Gov. Jefferson proposed a “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” It would assure that no one religion would have government approval in the Commonwealth. Henry countered with his own “Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” which would have acknowledged no one denomination but would recognize Christianity as the official state sanctioned religion.

With Jefferson's move to France as ambassador for the new nation, the cause was picked up by Madison. He argued that no religion should have any established position.

[Patrick] Henry made his case before the delegates. As word of this effort spread, Baptists and Presbyterians opposed it. Some thought it a ruse that would eventually favor the Anglicans who were a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Henry made his case before the delegates. As word of this effort spread, Baptists and Presbyterians opposed it. Some thought it a ruse that would eventually favor the Anglicans who were a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Madison said that not only should there be freedom of religion in the commonwealth, there should also be freedom from religion.

In 1786, Madison won. It set the stage a year later for the crafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No religion would have a favored status as far as the government of this new nation would be concerned.

As for calling this a Christian nation, that puzzles me. If this country were a Christian nation its citizens and government would be working tirelessly to make sure no one went to bed hungry tonight and that everyone would have a home. Universal health care would be a reality and not just a political debate. The 43 million people without health insurance would have basic medical care.

If this were a Christian nation, the minimum wage would be a living wage, not a poverty-level subsistence. Our criminal justice system would work to bring people back together in right relationship, not just lock up criminals.

If you are curious about such scriptural foundations for these points, start with the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. Then go to Matthew 22:37, where the lawyer tried to trick Jesus asking him which was the most important commandment. “Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself,” he retorted.

Jesus' response to that question is clearly Jewish. He quotes the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). He didn't make up anything new. What is often called the “Greatest Commandment” is not uniquely Christian.

What has been called the “Golden Rule” attributed to Jesus (Luke 6:31) can be found in some form in most major world religions. It is not found in much of what this country has been doing in domestic and foreign policy for too many years.

If we truly loved our neighbor as we love ourselves, the United States, with 6% of the world's population, would not be eating up 23% of the planet's natural resources. We would not be contributing to the atmosphere most of the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. Our neighbors in island nations are losing coastal land because of melting glaciers and icecaps and rising sea levels. Our government would not be walking away from international agreements that most other nations are signing.

Call the United States of America a democratic nation. Call it a republic, if you like. Call it “the land of the free and home of the brave.”

But please, don't call it a Christian nation.

 

The Rev. Daniel J. Webster is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. A media veteran and peace activist in the church, he writes a regular column for “A Globe of Witnesses.” Dan may be reached by email at dwebster@episcopal-ut.org .