Original letter by Bruce Gourley:
Don't cling to myth of U.S. as Christian nation (12/22/08)
I would like to second Tom Stonecipher's excellent comments on the myth of America as a Christian nation.
Many Christians in America today have forgotten their own history, both religious and national. In 2009 Baptists will celebrate their 400th anniversary. In the 17th and 18th centuries Baptists, heavily persecuted by colonial theocracies, led the way in embracing a pluralistic society and insisting upon full religious liberty and separation of church and state.
Baptists' perseverance in the face of religious and state persecution led to the founding of America as the world's first secular nation, including the adoption of separation of church and state in the First Amendment. England was so mortified, when the new nation left God out of its Constitution, that some English leaders accused America of being an atheist nation.
Why did Baptists (and some other Christian groups) insist that America be founded as a secular nation? Because they realized that true religion is voluntary, not coerced. This fundamental belief is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. Christians of the late 18th century clearly understood that our country was founded as a secular nation (although not all were happy about the matter; some wished for a theocracy). Clinging to the historical myth of America as a Christian nation is historical dishonesty, as well as a slap in the face of our spiritual forefathers (and foremothers).
Bruce Gourley Churchill
Blake Dunlop's response:
U.S. is indeed a Christian nation (12/28/08) Bruce Gourley (Dec. 22 letter, "Don't cling to myth of U.S. as Christian nation") must think that if he repeats his "secular nation" mantra enough, he'll bludgeon people into believing it, but the idea that the early republic was a secular nation would have astonished our founders.
If Gourley were right, he'd have a hard time explaining, among other things, why the first Congress purchased Bibles for distribution in the Northwest Territory (most of today's Great Lake states), why Congress opens its daily sessions with a prayer, and why many states had established (i.e., tax-supported) churches, some persisting well into the 19th century.
Above all, Gourley would have to tangle with John Jay, who wrote approvingly in Federalist No. 2, "that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, ..." (Note that Jay's famous words were decisively no paean to "diversity," which many of our contemporaries seem bent on imposing as the national religion.)
The First Amendment, as originally understood, merely stipulated that there be no established national church--no denomination favored by the federal government nor supported by federal monies. And the Constitution's Article VI assures that there's no religious test to hold national office.
But the founding generation took it for granted that Americans were predominantly Protestants of various denominations, with a few Catholics and Jews mixed in. They didn't think America was a society of non-religious people, a "secular nation." Jewish writer Ilana Mercer understands all this: Recently, defending Christmas displays on public property, she referred to Christianity as "America's founding faith."
Indeed. Merry Christmas to all, from an atheist.
Blake Dunlop Bozeman
Bruce Gourley's response:
America was founded as a secular nation (1/1/09)Blake Dunlop's (Dec. 28 letter, "U.S. is indeed a Christian nation") assertion that America was founded as a Christian nation does not square with historical fact. Christians of the late 18th century would be astonished that contemporary Christians believe our nation was founded as a Christian nation.
Yes, theocracies existed at the colonial state level prior to the American Revolution (and persecuted Baptists, Quakers, and non-Christians). However, at the insistence of Baptists, Deists, and many others, our founding fathers rejected theocracy and chose a secular government structure. Yes, some states continued to collect taxes for churches into the early 19th century, because some Christians yet yearned for some degree of theocracy. And yes, people of all manner (not just Christians) in the late 18th and 19th centuries spoke to the vague notion of "providence." John Jay's reference to "providence" is akin to the deism of most of our founding fathers, as is the formal offering of prayer to a distant universal force or supreme being.
Baptist leader John Leland declared, in 1794, that the state has no reason to care whether "a man worships one God, three Gods, 20 Gods, or no God." Baptists as a whole helped ensure that America's founding principles, in terms of religion, were religious liberty, separation of church and state, and pluralism.
In short, America, like most other nations throughout history, has always been a nation of religious persons (as Tyler Mills in a Dec. 29 letter, "Why try so hard to downplay religion?", correctly notes). But unlike all other nations prior to the late 18th century, America is a secular nation that believes the best way to honor religious faith--and lack of faith--is to separate church (and mosque and synagogue) from state.
Bruce Gourley Churchill
Blake Dunlop's reply:
America substantively a Christian society (1/17/09)In his letters (Dec. 22 and Jan.1) about the religious character of the early Republic, Bruce Gourley hammers us with boilerplate--"America was founded as a secular nation"--as though sheer repetition will convince. His boilerplate is based on the false premise that the Constitution was co-extensive with America itself, so that if the national government was secular, then America was a secular nation. But the Constitution merely created a federal governing structure, leaving most of the substance of the society, including religion, to the states.
Further, it's not even correct to say that the national government was secular: Congress has always held daily prayers, and the First Congress mandated distribution of Bibles in the territories. So the correct description of our national government isn't that it was secular, but that it didn't establish one Christian denomination over others.
Gourley's underlying conceptual mistake is to characterize a polity without a religious establishment as "secular" and a polity with a religious establishment as "theocratic." Thus, nonsensically, he derides all colonies and states with religious establishments as "theocracies." A religious establishment doesn't mean that the government is run by God, saints, or holy men, as in a theocracy. "Establishment" simply means that one denomination is supported by taxes and that membership in it is required for public officeholders.
Also, I didn't say that the U.S. was "founded as a Christian nation," a phrase implying that the Constitution declared America to be Christian. I said that, in the Founding era, America was substantively a Christian society, its common beliefs, morals, and religious practices being Christian, and with Christian religious establishments in many states. The Constitution added atop this Christian society a national government that was barred both from establishing a national religion and from interfering with the states' religious establishments.
Blake Dunlop Bozeman
To say that America is not a Christian Nation is true in the sense that the federal government, or the Constitution, makes no direct mention of Christianity, and the First Amendment obviously prohibits any establishment of religion by the federal Congress.
A key point to remember though, which is constantly overlooked, ignorned or just forgotten, is that the federal government is not supposed to be considered the totality of the United States. The federal government is a system created to support the states, to help them handle certain indispensable governmental functions that the states could not handle themselves, the states thus delegate certain powers to the federal government. The states, which comprised the actual substance of what American society was and is, were certainly founded on religion and many of them even had established religions by this point. By contrast, the federal government was seen as a neutral voice and shell to hold together the disparate states. That's why the First Amendment prohibited any establishment of religion by the federal Congress, even as the states continued with their religious establishments. Since the states had different majority religions and different established religions, the federal government, in order to hold the states together, had to be neutral as regards religion.
In 1620 for instance, the Puritans made there religion the official faith of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
They made membership in their congregations a requirement to vote in civic elections. They charged all citizens – members of the congregations or not – taxes for the support of the clergy and the congregations. And they could arrest citizens who “absented themselves from the Ordinances of Publicke Worshipe,”.
The Pilgrims with there Puritan Congregational Church were aloud to tax, arrest, and expel Baptists, Catholics, Quakers and Jews with the appoval of there state.
It wasn't Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” nor the First Amendment, that changed this system. It was the peoples views on tax politics that eventually caused the change.
If you read the First Amendment carefully you will see that it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
At the time the First Amendment was signed, Massachusetts was one of two states with what are called established churches – official state churches, supported by taxes. And the First Amendment was carefully worded so that Congress could not make any law that would interfere with those official state churches. The Congregational Church lost its preferential status in Connecticut in 1818; in Massachusetts (which for most of this period included what is now Maine) in 1830.
So as often as later legal decisions would cite the “wall of separation” phrase, this concept is simply not there in the First Amendment.
It comes from this passage from a letter Thomas Jefferson's sent to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802:
... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
His equating of non-establishment of religion with separation of church and state, was personally how Jefferson wished the Constitution had been conceived and how he wanted it to be interpreted, but it was not how it had been originally formed and agreed upon collectively amongst the founders.
Further, even at the time that the Treaty of Tripoli was being made, written up and signed, the Congress started its sesssions with prayers, the Congress had Bibles distributed to the federal territories, and did other things that directly promoted and expressed a connection with the Christian religion. What the Congress did not do was establish any Christian denomination as a favored denomination, favour one over the other, which is what was and is meant by an the term "establishment of religion".
The prohibition against establishment of religion by the federal Congress was obviously later distorted, manipulated and then turned into a direct prohibition not only of establishment of religion in the states and localities, but a prohibition against any form of religious expression by the states and localities. The absence of any reference direct or indirect to religion or Christianity within the federal Constitution was ultimately turned into the idea that America as such was a secular country/nation and was designed to be one; and with the destruction of the states' reserved powers, the federal courts gained the power to impose secularism or at least a form of Anti-Christian secularism on the entire country.
Also to note is that the preambles of the Constitutions of all 50 states make some reference to God. Attempts were made in the 19th century to add language acknowledging God to the U.S. Constitution by amendment, but they failed.