On July 4, the Idaho State Journal carried a full-page message by a local business. The title, beneath an unfurled American flag, was “ONE Nation Under GOD.”
The page featured quotations from a number of prominent Americans of the post-revolutionary era, including several early Presidents and Supreme Court Justices and two mid-nineteenth century Congressional Committee Reports.
Taken together, the statements reminded us that these individuals and institutions were god-fearing, and that their religious beliefs were an early part of America’s history and values.
But threaded among those chosen quotations was the repeated assertion that Christianity specifically is THE indispensable element in our ongoing democratic experiment and therefore should be privileged in our national life. That mindset strikes me as xenophobic and could be interpreted as follows: since this “nation is Christian,” Muslims, Jews, and people of color generally are outsiders and not entirely welcome here on an equal footing.
Consider the following excerpts:
n “ . . .Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government — and all blessings which flow from them — must fall with them.” Jedidiah Morse
n “ . . . it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” John Jay
n “I verily believe Christianity necessary to the support of civil society.” Joseph Story
n “We are a Christian people . . . and in a land thus universally Christian, what is to be expected, what desired, but that we shall pay due regard to Christianity?” Senate Committee report, 1853
n “ . . . in this age there can be no substitute for Christianity. That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.” House Committee report, 1854
n “ . . . These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declaration to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” Supreme Court unanimous decision declaring America a Christian nation, 1892
These statements are all drawn from a period when the accepted Christians in America were white/Anglo-Saxon/protestants (WASPS). Even Catholic Christians (the Irish, Italians, Greeks, etc.) were at first despised and widely mistreated. As for the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, don’t even ask. In short, WASP Christianity through much of American history was characterized by pervasive intolerance.
The quotations above, presented without context, oversimplify our national history. Clearly they ignore present day realities. Let’s analyze some of their assertions specifically.
BY WHAT MEASURE IS A CHRISTIAN NATION TO BE IDENTIFIED?
Not superficially by census-determined majorities. If “Christian nation” is to mean anything at all beyond a hollow claim of numbers, there must be widespread evidence of Christian faith and practice, privately and communally. What if declared Christians and their government don’t behave like Christians. “Christian is as Christian does.” Were Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy — overwhelmingly Protestant and Catholic — really Christian nations?
Have the historical fruits of Christianity in America been consistently desirable? Some interpretations of the faith have shamed our expressed national ideals. Consider those superstitiously religious New England puritans who burned “witches” at the stake. Consider those Southern slaveholders (a number of our founding fathers among them) who dehumanized their Black “property” and justified it from the Bible. Consider the Ku Klux Klan who exhibited their crosses zealously, and our contemporary white supremicists who invoke Christianity in their hatred of “the other.” Easy, low-hanging fruit to be sure, but truly, in the history of our nation the manifestations of Christianity have been mixed.
How well does contemporary America meet that qualitative test? Think for example of the humanitarian crisis at our southern border just now. The situation is complex, but the response of our government has been woefully inadequate, indeed cruel, if viewed in Christian terms. Consider the egregious misdistribution of wealth in America today, cavalierly accepted or ignored by half of our politicians, while many among us live in poverty, while very many children go to school hungry. Is that consistent with Christianity and a “Christian nation”?
WERE CHRISTIAN BELIEFS PRIMARILY RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR DEMOCRACY AND THEREFORE INTENDED TO BE PRIVILEGED AND DOMINANT IN OUR NATIONAL CULTURE?
In fact, the founders, if born and raised Christian, varied considerably in their ultimate views of the faith. Some remained orthodox, but a considerable number were greatly influenced by 18th European Enlightenment philosophy and grafted elements of it onto their Christian roots.
The religious thrust of the Enlightenment was contained in Deism, in which the source of human understanding was held to be not direct revelation from God but reason and scientific observation of nature and experience. For Thomas Jefferson and others that meant rejecting the supernatural, miraculous, and dogmatic dimensions of Christianity. Jefferson famously published his version of the New Testament gospels in which he retained only the moral teachings of Jesus — compatible as they were with the morality of Deism. (See “The Founding Fathers, Deism, and Christianity,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia.)
Thus it was the moral, rational elements of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, that most profoundly shaped the making of our constitution and our national values (including individual human rights, liberty and equal justice for all, representative government, toleration, fraternity, opportunity). Immigrants have been motivated to come to our shores primarily because of our Enlightenment ideals, not for Christian dogmas of salvation in an afterlife.
GIVEN THE CHRISTIAN MAJORITIES, SHOULD CHRISTIAN OBSERVANCES, RITUALS, AND SYMBOLS BE PRIVILEGED IN OUR DEMOCRACY?
For good reason the founders clearly were intent on separating church and state. And they clearly did not wish for majorities to tyrannize minorities. It follows that religious majorities and minorities should not be treated differently.
IS CHRISTIANITY INHERENTLY SUPERIOR TO OTHER RELIGIONS IN RELATION TO OUR NATIONAL LIFE AND THEREFORE TO BE PRIVILEGED?
Passionate adherents of most religions believe theirs is the “true way.” But anyone who pays attention discovers that the moral underpinnings of major beliefs have more in common than otherwise. That common denominator is where our focus should be. In the matter of living peacefully together, we can all learn from Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists. They too bring much of value to our democracy. To regard them prejudicially as second class citizens, as “less than,” is on the face of it both un-Christian and un-American.
MUST WE NECESSARILY SELECT LEADERS WHO ARE CHRISTIAN IN ORDER TO PROTECT OUR AMERICA?
The qualities that matter in choosing leaders are vision, judgment, fairness, courage, tolerance, personal integrity, the capability for leadership — not one’s religious label or lack of it. If the current occupant of the White House, nominally a Christian, and more than a few of those nominal Christians around him are the measure of Christian leadership, they set the bar very, very low!
From the beginnings of human history, peoples have been moving about the globe in order to survive. Larger pressures — environmental, economic, political, social — have necessitated such movement from time to time. This will continue as long as humans inhabit this planet.
Such historical forces as these combined to set in motion our existence as a nation. Those forces dictated that — Native Americans aside — our early settlers would be predominantly white northern Europeans, then southern and eastern Europeans — and mainly of Christian background. But such pressures have continued steadily to bring immigrants to our shores from every region of the world. As a result we are increasingly a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-faith nation. That trend cannot be arrested. The demographics of 1776 or 1876 or even 1976 are gone.
Acceptance of this fact is difficult for many among us. We are at a juncture when selfish distrust of the “other” has again reared its ugly head, when racism and bigotry more openly stain our common life, when even our President, with deliberate calculation, appeals almost daily to our worst instincts and openly, cynically promotes intolerance.
We certainly do not need at this juncture divisive claims, however veiled, that in America (white) Christians deserve inherent precedence and privilege.
Especially now Americans need to reaffirm our nation’s moral, democratic, liberal ideals. And here is where genuine Christians and Christian institutions have an opportunity to demonstrate their real relevance in this democracy — as many of them even now are doing — not by advocating for unique recognition, but rather by affirming the inclusionary tenets of their faith. Let them acknowledge unambiguously the valuable contributions of other religious traditions, other ethnicities, other races. Let them denounce bigotry where it exists. Let them declare boldly that the sheltering umbrella of these United States truly represents “liberty and justice FOR ALL.”
H. Wayne Schow, a native Idahoan, is a professor of English emeritus at Idaho State University. Schow lives in Pocatello.