on the Christian Nation
In his book The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, historian Frank Lambert of of Purdue University discusses the different religious sentiments surrounding America's planting -- i.e. the Puritans, early colonists -- and America's founding -- i.e the Founding Fathers. In the introduction to his book Lambert writes:
In 1639 a group of New England Puritans drafted a constitution affirming their faith in God and their intention to organize a Christian Nation...The opening lines express the framers' trust in God and their dependence on his guidance: "Forasmuch as it hath pleased the All-Mighty God by the wise disposition of his dyvine providence so to order and dispose of things...[and] well knowing where the people are gathered togather the word of God requires that to mayntayne the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affayres of the people." Moreover, the aim of the government so instituted was religious: "to maytntayne and presearure the liberty and purity of the gospell of our Lord Jesus which we now professe, as also to disiplyne of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospell is now practiced amongst us."Personally, I couldn't agree more with Dr. Lambert's assessment of the "Christian Nation" debate. As he states in the final paragraph above, both sides in this "tug-o-war" are armed to the teeth with quotations, historical examples and other scholarly material to keep this fight raging on for another 300 years (which I guess is good news for this blog!). Having debated this issue ad nauseum with a various assortment of people, I have witnessed first hand just how emotional and passionate this debate can become. The influx of partisan politics and passionate religion have, in many cases, distorted the basic historical truths that surround this issue.
Those Puritan fathers exemplify two of the most enduring views of colonial America: America as a haven of religious freedom, and America as a Christian Nation. First, the Puritan settlers had fled England, where Archbishop William Laud had persecuted them because they refused to subscribe to religious beliefs and practices they deemed to be unscriptural. Now in the American wilderness, they were free to worship according to the dictates of their consciences, governed only by the rule of God's word. And, second, those Puritan Fathers organized a Christian State. They established their Congregational churches as the official religion of Connecticut, supported by tax revenues and defended by the coercive arm of government. The churches defined "heretics" and the state punished them, even to the point of executing those found guilty of "direct, express, presumptuous, or high-minded blasphemy." Moreover, citizenship in the state was directly tied to one's religious faith. The authors of the Fundamental Orders meant for only godly Christians to rule, and intention embodied in the oath of the governor, which committed the chief magistrate to govern "according to the rule and word of God."
One hundred fifty years later, George Washington took another oath, swearing to "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States" and pledging to the best of his ability to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The constitution that he swore to uphold was the work of another group of America's progenitors, commonly known as the "Founding Fathers," who in 1787 drafted a constitution for a new nation. But unlike the work of the Puritan Fathers, the federal constitution made no reference whatever to God or divine providence, citing as its sole authority "the people of the United States." Further, its stated purposes were secular, political ends: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." Instead of building a "Christian Commonwealth," the supreme law of the land established a secular state. The opening clause of its first amendment introduced the radical notion that the state had no voice concerning matters of conscience: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In debating the language of the amendment, the first House of Representatives rejected a Senate proposal that would have made possible the establishment of a Christian religion of of some aspect of Christian orthodoxy. There would be no Church of the United States. Nor would America represent itself to the world as a Christian Republic.
Just as 1639 represents a defining moment in Americans' religious heritage, so does 1787. While the Puritan Fathers gave us the symbols of America as a haven of religious freedom and America as a Christian Nation, the Founding Fathers provided enduring legacies that define the place and role of religion in American society. Their bequests were the ideas of separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion extended to people of all faiths or no faith. Their achievement can be understood only against the backdrop of the American Revolution. Clearly, they were the architects of a political revolution, throwing off constitutional monarchy for a democratic republic. But they were also framers of a religious revolution, rejecting the idea of an established or official religion, which was the organizing principle informing church-state relations in the vast majority of countries, as indeed it had been in most of the American colonies. Never before had there been a total separation of religious and political institutions. But the ban on establishment was not the Founders' only legacy in church-state matters. Regarding religion as a natural right that the governed never surrendered to government, they prohibited any interference in citizens' right to the free exercise of religion.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, Americans have engaged in a culture war that informs the country's discourse in the new millennium. On one side of the debate are those who insist that has been since its conception a "Christian Nation," and that somewhere along the way, as such it has lost its bearings. They blame "liberals' for not only turning their backs on the country's religious heritage but openly attacking those who embrace "traditional" Christian values. To support their claims, these conservatives often conflate planters -- such as the New England Puritans and the Chesapeake Anglicans -- and the Founders into one set of forefathers who came to America to plant "true" Christianity and to practice it in freedom. Further, they insist that the Founders never intended a separation of church and state.
Each side of the cultural debate finds ample scholarly support for its position. Much of the work produced by legal scholars and constitutional historians focuses on the first amendment and the Founders' "original intent," concerning the dividing line between church and state...Accomodationists oppose such a restrictive reading of Church-state relations and charge separationists with assigning the federal government an anti religious position. They believe the founders recognized the importance of religion in society and intended for the government to support religious instruction and practice as long as it favored no particular sect.
So where does all of this leave us?
Having read Lambert's introduction several times (I believe it to be quite insightful) in conjunction with Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, I am convinced that the "Christian Nation" thesis has generated a palpable and legitimate movement that can and should be considered an imagined community. If we stop and set aside the arguments for and against the legitimacy/absurdity of the Christian Nation thesis and simply see it as a perceived political/religious movement to define a nation's character, then the idea of America as an imagined "Christian Nation" community comes to life.
Once we consider this movement in this light, the arguments for or against its legitimacy become irrelevant. After all, many if not most nations -- i.e. imagined communities -- are and were constructed under false beliefs. Germany's construct for their imagined community consisted in their shared belief that to be German was, among other things, to be pure, Arian, superior in battle, etc. A number of Islamic nations construct their sense of "nation-ness" by relying on the teachings of Islam to exalt their imagined community over the rest. Heck, we could even go back to the Romans and see that their empire was, at least in a small sense, an imagined community. Their shared belief in Romulus and Remus as the God-like founders of their society gave Rome a sense of superiority over their non-Roman neighbors. Simply put, the basic "building blocks" of a nation, in this case the "Christian Nation" do not have to be true in order to legitimize and advance the cause of an imagined community.