Is America a Christian Nation?
At a press conference in 2009 in Turkey, President Obama took issue with the idea that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation. Some were taken aback by his statement.
“One of the great strengths of the United States,” the President said, “is … we have a very large Christian population — we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
The problem is that, today, Americans are confused about by whose “set of values” are we to be bound? In 2007, the Culture and Media Institute did an in-depth study of Americans’ beliefs and attitudes. Like most studies, it found that the vast majority of Americans believe in God. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that when the study also probed further, to understand how those beliefs translated into ethical choices, what became clear is that Americans are increasingly ambivalent or confused about values. This study reached the following conclusion: “America no longer enjoys cultural consensus on God, religion, and what constitutes right and wrong.”
The spiritual principles that once formed a values consensus in America no longer hold sway. In its place, we’ve created a society of confused values with uncertainty about what constitutes right and wrong. When we have no standards, we are a ship without a rudder and compass. We lose the cohesion that binds the nation together. This is why we are witnessing such upheaval in America today. We have lost our ethical and moral clarity.
I think we need to be extremely accurate about the Founder’s idea with regard to religion and what religion was to contribute toward the stability of the nation, that is, its rightful role in the public square.
The Founders were emphasizing religious principles, the “self evident” truths as the foundation of our nation. They, generally, saw religion as absolutely necessary for our form of government to operate. Religion provided the virtues. ..the cultural consensus, the national morality. ..that was essential for liberty. It was essential for liberty because freedom required the personal discipline of self-government. ..and thus, a virtuous populace. This is why John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Benjamin Rush, member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence explained even more clearly, “The only foundation for a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.“
There is no question that it was the Founder’s Christian faiths that brought them to these universal truths about liberty. But it was also the idea of “civil religion,” as expressed by the 18th century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, that gave them the perspective that “self evident truths” transcendent of the dogmas of any sect or religious body, pertained to the behavior and values of good citizenship. Our “ideals and set of values” as President Obama refers to them, were transcendent principles, “self-evident truths” that were rooted in a public affirmation of God, the Creator, from which we received the endowment of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I do not believe the Founder’s would have asserted that it was only the Christian religion from which could be derived the transcendent principles of good citizenship or would they insist that America take on an official Christian identiy. James Madison warned in Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
In that respect, those that say “we are not a Christian nation”. . . are correct. However, this does not mean the Christian religion and perspective had no essential role in the Founder’s efforts to formulate the principles upon which the new nation would be based; it most certainly did. Likewise, when it is then further asserted that the Founders saw no public role for religion in the affairs of the nation, this would, also, be entirely not correct.
It is especially a problem today when virtually all religious influence is to be separated from the “State,” on the one hand and “The State” keeps expanding it range of sovereignty on the other.
Today, separating church and state, means also separating traditional virtue from an exclusively secular and expanding State. An example of this, recently displayed, is the circumstance of the reaction to the invitation extended former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy, to participate in the President’s Faith-based Council.
Josh Gerstein from Politico reports:
Dungy’s potential appointment drew flak from liberal groups such as People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who said Dungy’s vocal opposition to gay marriage made him an inappropriate choice for the panel.
“The Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships council shouldn’t be used to reward voices of intolerance like Tony Dungy,” PFAW’s director of public policy, Tanya Clay House, had said in an earlier statement.
“It is extremely important for the advisory council to uphold civil rights and civil liberties and I am concerned that Coach Dungy is far from the best person to do that,” Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United, said.
Both groups pointed to Dungy’s endorsement of a gay marriage ban in Indiana and his involvement with a conservative public policy group, the Indiana Family Institute.
For most people, especially for those who know him, Tony Dungy is a living saint, a man of God and an embodiment of integrity. Dungy strongly supports the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman. It should concern everyone today if the traditional moral system that upholds marriage between a man and woman is not deemed worthy of “faith” councils that advise the Chief Executive.
I make this point because peoples of all faiths must come together today to affirm that the nation must turn, once again, to transcendent principles that embrace the idea of God. Religious bodies will never agree on the various components of dogma. ..but with regard to “civil religion” . ..that is, the “virtues” rooted in transcendent principles. . .a new cultural consensus on values can be and must be forged.
Such a movement is desperately needed at this time and it should involve peoples of all faiths. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
There is no freedom, without practiced virtues – virtues that find their origins in the tradition of faith. This is our problem today and we are moving toward tyranny. . .and by tyranny, I don’t mean just in the political sense. . .but in the sense that our nation is losing the awareness that God is relevant to the experience of freedom. If the nation embraces tyranny, it is only being pulled along by the vacuum created where God has left.
“Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. . .a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.” Patrick Henry.