Friday, January 6, 2012

Not a Christian Nation

On the December 31 Longview News Journal's Forum page an editorial appeared under the rather portentous heading: "Is America a Christian Nation?" Such a question in my view displays either a fundamental failure to comprehend basic American civic law, or a fundamental rejection of it. In any case, each can be seen as another unfortunate failure in the education of a people on the core question of who we are.

At the outset, let me state that no American who is informed can deny the historical importance of religion to our society. Religion has always been, and doubtless will remain a vital and public resource for ethical conduct and spiritual sustenance for our people. Indeed, that seems to have been at least a part of the intent of the framers of the constitution and the Bill of Rights. But these men, who most, if not all were products of a culture pervaded by Christian ideas and religious practices, did not intend to build a theocracy in the New World. Thus, we can proudly say that there is no "Church Of America" to hold in comparison to Britain's publicly established and supported "Church of England."

Had they so intended, why did they not simply enshrine the intent in law? Instead, they wrote a constitution and Bill of Rights from which the word "God" is glaringly, conspicuously omitted. To those who believe that this was somehow just another stupendous oversight of history, I say on the contrary, the matter was roundly if not furiously debated by the Continental Congress prior to the ratification of our Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. Those proposing what Kramnick and Moore in their book, "The Godless Constitution," have dubbed "Religious Correctness," lost the day.

As to the victors in that debate, the authors cited above write, "Yet, so successful were the drafters of the Constitution in defining government in secular terms that one of the most powerful criticisms of the Constitution when ratified and for succeeding decades was that it was indifferent to Christianity and God. It was denounced by many as a godless document, which is precisely what it is."

But, contrary to what detractors of our founding system of law characterized as being hostile to religion, I contend that the opposite is the case. In their wisdom, I believe the founders demonstrated supreme faith in their religion not only to survive, but to flourish on its own with no need of a "leg-up" from the government. In this way, the two institutions could be free to attend to their own affairs relying appropriately on their respective and unique doctrines and modes of operation. History would seem to have confirmed the wisdom of the insight.

What makes this country great is that no Christian can be compelled to pray to Brahma. But the obverse also makes us great. No Hindu can lawfully be compelled to pray to Jehovah. The writer was correct in his assertion that much of our law has been shaped indirectly by the Holy Bible. But it is also true that our system of Democracy at least in part was influenced by ancient Greek culture, hardly a hotbed of Christian theology.

And since our constitution can be seen a living document open to the indirect influence of all the spiritual traditions adhered to by our legislators, other "influences" also can have a place in shaping our polity. All to the good. Members of congress today are Jewish, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and indeed, I suspect, some who profess no religious tradition at all.

A better question to have begun that editorial might have been, "Is America a Nation in which everyone could (potentially) be Christian?" the answer of course is, yes. But given the nature of human beings to follow their own lights on matters of the soul, it should come as no surprise that we are not all Christians. I'm certain that our founders would not be surprised in the least, because they formed a government large enough in spirit to accommodate us all.

In short, American must of necessity be a nation of all religions, and of none.

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