One nation under God

Sam Hart

2007-11-19 21:24:28

My wife is having surgery this week. It's a moderately routine surgery, everyone assures me that it will go well, but it is not without some risk.

For this surgery, several relatives have come into town to show support. I'll be open and honest in saying I can't really see the point of them coming. One set of relatives are only coming for the day of the surgery, arriving after she's gone under the knife and departing before she returns from her medicated recovery, meaning she wont even see them. Another set came a couple of days before while my wife has been on an all liquid diet (to prepare for the surgery) and leaving the day my wife gets out of the hospital, meaning they wont be around to help during the few weeks of recovery thereafter. I guess the "support" they are giving is the kind where you don't actually do anything, but whatever. I appreciate it. Sure I do.

Anyway, one set of relatives are staunch Christian Conservatives, or more accurately, Christian Fundamentalists. They view the Theory of Evolution as an attack on their beliefs and refuse to even try to understand what the theory actually says, instead they spout the same tired and misinformed rhetoric that persons like them have spouted for decades. They make horribly off color jokes about Terrorists threatening to burn Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama while Christian Fundamentalists go door to door to collect gasoline donations (the sorts of jokes that somehow wind up offending on multiple levels including being sexist, racist, and morally reprehensible). They also sit there watching Fox News every waking moment of the day without giving a second thought to the hate and lie laden faux news filling their closed minds.

Well, I usually try my best to keep my mouth shut around these relatives, mostly because they are quite old and it doesn't do any good to debate with them anyway (save your strength for the school boards that are trying to insert Intelligent Design into Biology classes). Yet, somehow, something is invariably said that is so grating on my intellect that I have to speak up.

Last night, it was a discussion about how America is a "Christian Nation", founded by Christians, for Christians, and nowhere does it say our founding fathers felt that church and state should be separate. Well, naturally, that made my blood boil, and I had to say something.

But before I begin, it's caveat time. I'm LDS. I have been my entire life. I've served a mission for my church, and attend church weekly (or, as near as I can considering I do travel more with my current job than in past jobs). I consider myself a "Christian" in that I try and follow the teachings of Christ. Whether you think Christ was the offspring of a Deity, just a dude with long hair, or a reappropriation and amalgamation of countless earlier man-made myths, you can't deny he had some awesome teachings. There's a whole lot of love, forgiveness and not-condemning others because we're not perfect ourselves sort of stuff that he taught. Really, he kicked ass, Deity or not.

Recently, I've become to identify myself more and more as an agnostic theist. I know a lot of my fellow LDS people, and a lot of Christians in general will see that word "agnostic" and immediately think "godless atheist", but that's just ignorance on their part. A good explanation of what an agnostic theist is comes from the Wikipedia entry:

Agnosticism states the inability to prove or disprove the existence of a deity. Theism is the belief in god. It can be said that an agnostic theist has no way of proving or disproving God but has a "feeling" that He does exist.

Yep, that pretty much sums me up. The one modifier is that the tenets of the LDS church are ones which feel extremely right to me. As an added bonus, on a technical level, the teachings of the LDS church actually lean to agnostic theism as I've defined here. As missionaries for the church, we're actually told we cannot and shouldn't try to prove to people that our beliefs are true (or that their's are not)- Instead, we give them the evidence we have (the scriptures), and ask them to read it and pray about to find out for themselves. I know a lot of LDS missionaries screw this up (more than most LDS members are willing to admit) and wind up coming across as pushy and confrontational, but at least they are taught the right thing at the Missionary Training Center. So, in the end, we're not supposed to be trying to prove or disprove anything. We're supposed to just tell our beliefs, and let others decide for themselves.

Anyway, with that caveat out of the way, let's return to the question as to whether or not America was founded as a "Christian Nation", and specifically, if this notion of the "separation of church and state" was ever the intent of our founding fathers.

The one thing that every Christian Fundamentalist loves to point to when this debate comes up is the following entry from the Bill Of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

They point out (correctly) that there is no mention here of that famous phrase "separation of church and state", and thus, it's not something that was even considered or intended.

So where does this separation of church and state thing come from? Hell, where does the phrase itself come from? A lot of Christian Fundamentalists tend to attribute the phrase to court cases in the last 100 years (or so) which have dealt with the issue (such as Everson v. Board of Education, or Wallace v. Jaffree). Often they are speciously called attacks on Christianity itself. However, these court cases are not where this term comes from.

The Bill of Rights, which I quoted above, and which is often the first argument used by Christian Fundamentalists saying church and state were never intended to be separate, was ratified in 1791. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists where he said:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Here, he clearly states that the original phrase from the Bill of Rights stating the Government shall"make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" was intended to build "a wall of separation between Church & State".

Wall of separation... That sounds pretty separate to me. He didn't mention a window in the wall whereby religious doctrines can creep into the classroom. Nor did he say there was a secret trap door around the side where using texts other than the Bible (like the copy of the Koran that Thomas Jefferson owned himself) in Congressional swearing-ins would be a serious no-no.

So here we have it, straight from the horse's mouth: This little passage that Christian Fundamentalists love to use to say that the founding fathers never intended a strong separation between church and state apparently did mean that religion and government should be separate.

The Christian Fundamentalist's argument then usually proceeds to point out all of the references to "God" in these early American documents. For example, in the Declaration of Independence we read:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

So, here we see God mentioned specifically in the document. Bam! Christian Nation, right? Wrong.

Look very carefully at what was said there, "...the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..", is that how a Christian would refer to their God? Of course not, you'd find a phrase like "the Lord", "Our Saviour", maybe reference Jesus Christ himself, or even just use the plain "God".

Furthermore, in the original version of the Declaration of Independence we actually see a pretty Anti-Christian statement (italicized is text that was removed in the final draft, bold is text that specifically uses the term "Christian"):

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Geez... not very nice, no? Had that wound up in the final form of the Declaration of Independence there'd really be no debate as to whether or not this was a nation founded by and for Christians. In fact, I'd wager that Christians from around the world would have had a hard time coming to a place that had such language in an important document like this. Doesn't look very welcoming to me.

And see, that was the problem. That's why this particular fragment was removed from the Declaration of Independence. Had it been left in, there wouldn't be as strong of a separation of church and state. You'd have a separation of church and state.. just not for damned followers of "the Christian king of Great Britian". You'd most definitely be favoring all other churches. Since that's obviously not what they wanted (as we saw in Thomas Jefferson's letter above), this passage was removed.

So why all the mentions of "God", whether it's "Nature's God" or "One Nation Under God"? Well, as has been pointed out elsewhere much of what the founding fathers wrote is obviously Deistic. "Nature's God", in particular, is a dead give-away of Deism.

So, no, America was not founded by Christians, for Christians. The founding fathers never intended us to be a Christian Nation. And, yes, they did want a strong separation of church and state.

In closing I'd really like to plead to any and all Christian Conservatives, [sic] Fundamentalists, reading this to please do the research before leaping into a heated debate. Especially when leaping into a heated debate with someone like me... someone who never debates unless he's done some intensive research on the subject. Mmmkay?