This post by Ed Buckner originally appeared at Critical Thought and Religious Liberty.
This is a free country, not a Christian nation. Of course, in some sense it is a Christian nation and in some ways it’s not a free country, but in the most important ways, the title is right.
A majority of folks in the U.S. consider themselves, at least in some superficial way, to be Christians, so if that’s all somebody means when they say this a Christian nation, then they’re right. But that’s often not all they mean. The letters-to-the-editor writers in Georgia (and I know Knoxville has some of these folks, too) often insist that the “Founding Fathers” established our government as something akin to a secular enforcement arm for the Christian religion, or that the U.S. Constitution is derived from the Ten Commandments, or both. The First Amendment, they insist, was designed only to keep government from controlling churches, and not at all the reverse. Furthermore, they insist, these framers were themselves devoted Christians and wanted a government that supported Christianity without favoring one denomination over another. Or at least not one Protestant denomination over another, Catholics not being real Christians in the opinions of some of these folks.
The idea that all of are us Constitutionally Christians, even if a few of us citizens are perhaps destined to burn in hell forever for not letting Jesus into our hearts, deserves a critical look. We shouldn’t overstate our case nor take any evidence out of context nor ignore the evidence, and there is some, on the other side of this question. Exaggerating can come back to haunt us and wreck our credibility, even the credibility of those of us who’re not the ones overdoing it. An example or two where some freethinkers have not exercised good judgment themselves:
Freethinkers occasionally quote John Adams, who wrote to Jefferson in 1817 that “this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it”—but, in context, he was referring to organized religion and Adams added, in the same part of the letter, that on second thought, the world without religion “would not be fit to be named even, indeed, a hell.” Much as I’d like it to be otherwise, Adams and Washington and possibly Jefferson did apparently believe religion and religious belief were necessary and desirable, at least among the common uneducated folk. I think they were wrong, but they did seem to think that.
Another example: Atheists quoting George Washington as writing, “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian Religion.” Use of this one has been especially unfortunate, since the true story supports rationalists’ views even better than the false one—in fact it’s the second best piece of evidence, after the Constitution itself, that the founders meant for this to be a non-Christian nation. The quote actually comes from a treaty with Tripoli that was written by Joel Barlow, a friend of Thomas Paine. It was signed in November 1796, near the end of Washington’s second term, and sent to the Senate for ratification by President John Adams in May 1797. It was ratified in a rare unanimous recorded vote, including “Yea” votes from both of the two Senators from the brand new State of Tennessee, William Blount and William Cocke. The treaty was signed by Adams on 10 June 1797 and proclaimed by him to the nation. It was reprinted in many of the newspapers of the day, one of which I’ve actually held in my hands. The treaty and its language have been controversial in several regards—but the controversies affect these facts not at all.
A third example: Atheists have claimed that Jefferson (or Paine or others) was “an atheist” (citing contemporary critics of them). Though they weren’t orthodox Christians, Paine, Jefferson, and Washington weren’t atheists, at least not in the sense we would probably use the term. Or, more precisely, none of them made any clear declaration of atheism, even privately, as far as we know. Jefferson and Paine, at least, were called atheists in their day, but it was their enemies doing the calling, and the evidence that either was an atheist in any other sense except “a non-believer in revealed Christianity,” which the term sometimes meant in the late 1700s, is scant at best. The indisputable fact that they were not in fact orthodox Christians and did not establish an official Christian government is quite sufficient to support the ideas most important to me—and probably to you—but “overclaiming” them as atheists undercuts our arguments.
As a further explanation of the dangers of careless thinking on this subject, here are three from the other side:
Jefferson wrote in a letter that he considered himself to be “a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles Thompson, 9 January 1816, according to Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View, Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1986, p. 92.) When Christians leap upon this as “evidence” that a major founder was indeed a Christian, we rationalists should quote further from Jefferson as to his definition of what a “real Christian” believes. In one of many letters Jefferson wrote to William Short, his long-time aide, he clarified: “But the greatest of all reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man… The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent morality, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects, is a most desirable object.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, October 31, 1819, according to George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, pp. 372-373.) In a footnote to that letter to Short, Jefferson listed the doctrines he finds absurd and believes to have been the work of Jesus’ false followers: “The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc.” In another letter, Jefferson even made clear that he believed that Jesus never claimed to be divine—Jefferson even used the label “deist” in describing Jesus. Two days before his 80th birthday, Jefferson added a bit more about what he did not believe about Jesus in another letter to Adams: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter…. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away [with] all this artificial scaffolding.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, 11 April 1823, as quoted by E. S. Gaustad, “Religion,” in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986, p. 287.) Good Christians may want to claim Thomas Jefferson as one of their own after reading things like that, but we skeptics have a right to tell them to report to their preachers what Jefferson said about Jesus and ask if that’s consistent with being a “Christian.” Likewise, Paine quotes about the necessity of God and the beneficial nature of religion can be easily found but as easily countered with some of Paine’s unrelenting, thoroughly politically incorrect, unambiguously scathing denunciations of the Holy Bible.
Another favorite tact of Christian-nation advocates is to quote the Declaration of Independence (“Nature’s God” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the “protection of Divine Providence”) or to note the dating of the Constitution as “in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven,” or to quote things like the heavily Christian language in the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact, America’s “first written Constitution,” was written in 1620, over 165 years before the U.S. Constitution, and has no legal tie to our current government at all; if it implies that we must be Christians to be good Americans, then we must also be loyal servants of the royal family of England, since that is also emphasized in the Mayflower Compact. The Declaration of Independence was issued 11 years before the Constitution, is not a governing charter, and includes no reference at all to Christianity. The religious references in the Declaration are unmistakably deistic: it’s clear that the references are not to the revealed God of Christianity. George Washington’s talks and writings are also full of religious references but always to “Providence” or to “the Creator” and almost never—reportedly not even once in all the many public pronouncements or even private correspondence—did Washington invoke the name of Jesus Christ. One counter to the Christians’ misuse of various deistic praise of “Nature’s” God is to argue that if Paine and Jefferson and Washington had only lived after Charles Darwin had explained his theories regarding evolution, they would have quickly abandoned even a deistic god. We’ll never know, but they most assuredly abandoned the orthodox Christian idea of God.
The best evidence for our this-is-not-a-Christian-nation argument, and it is in fact good enough to stand alone, is the godless Constitution. (For details, see Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness.) The Constitution is in fact the first significant governing charter in the history of mankind that does not invoke any deities, even impersonal ones, for support. This can hardly be an accidental omission, and the opponents of the Constitution during the ratification process made much of its godless nature. What we should remind our “Christian-nation” friends is that the framers had many documents to model their work on, including many state constitutions—remember that Independence came by 1781 but the U.S. Constitution was not written until 1787—and all of those state charters plus many from other cultures explicitly invoked God. Most were specifically Christian, some were explicitly Protestant, and some, like Massachusetts, established a specific church (the Congregationalists, descendants more or less of the Pilgrims) as the state church. If you lived in Massachusetts before 1833 you were required by law and the state constitution to support the Calvinistic Congregationalists. The Articles of Confederation, which the Constitution replaced, referred to God, and six of the states had “multiple establishments”—arrangements where government supported all religions or at least all Protestant Christian sects, without favoring any. In this context it is clear that the framers knew they were breaking precedent by ignoring God and religion, other than carefully declaring that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This was perhaps more revolutionary than the 1776 rebellion, but the godless Constitution was ratified and is still our fundamental governing document. It is certainly not a Christian document, though neither is it an anti-Christian document.
What about the “Year of our Lord” dating? Ask those who insist that our government is Christian if they worship the Germanic god Tiu or Norse gods Woden and Thor or the Roman gods Janus or Mars. If they say no, suggest that they stop referring to Tuesday (Tiu’s Day), Wednesday (Woden’s Day), Thursday (Thor’s Day), January (named after Janus), and March (after Mars). Conventional forms of dating have nothing to do with religious commitment or belief, and everything formal in 1787 was dated in the “Year of our Lord.” The absence of religious reference in the body of the document is far more significant.
Another out-of-context claim Christians sometimes use: Jefferson and Washington, as well as others framers, were vestrymen in the Church of England, implying that they were not only believers but Christian activists, devoted religious officials. The claim is, however, ahistorical. Jefferson and Washington were vestrymen in the Church of England in Virginia when there was no separation of church and state, when, if you wanted to be a community leader or if others expected it of you as a gentleman farmer, the church vestry was an essential part of the role. Jefferson and Washington were “born into” the church and those roles more certainly even than the Christians of today. But Jefferson both denounced clergymen and praised the morality of atheists and atheism. And Washington went to church with Martha but consistently refused to partake in Communion, the central ritual for Episcopalians. Those Christians, especially Baptists, who persist in claiming that this is a Christian nation should be firmly reminded that their own historical ancestors, like Baptist preacher John Leland, were among those pressing the hardest for a First Amendment and for complete separation of church and state, for their own self-interests. Leland wrote, “The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils.” (As quoted by Samuel Rabinove, “Church and State Must Remain Separate,” in Julie S. Bach, ed., Civil Liberties: Opposing Viewpoints, Greenhaven press, 1988, p. 53.) Baptists were among those who suffered the most under a state united with a church, with Baptist preachers actually tortured, fined, and imprisoned for doing things the state church disapproved of, like telling people to read the Bible for themselves.
Another false claim the mythologists often make is that even if the framers didn’t label the U.S. government as Christian, they did base all our laws and procedures on the Bible and, especially, on the Ten Commandments. Despite frequent, confident repetition and an apparently fabricated Madison quotation, this is nonsense. On page 120 of The Myth of Separation, David Barton quoted James Madison as saying: “We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.” Barton gave two sources for the quotation: Harold K. Lane, Liberty! Cry Liberty! (Boston: Lamb and Lamb Tractarian Society, 1939), pp. 32-33, and Fedrick Nyneyer, First Principles in Morality and Economics: Neighborly Love and Ricardo’s Law of Association (South Holland Libertarian Press, 1958), pp. 31. Mr. Madison is unlikely to have ever written or said that, but how can we know or prove to others that he did not? Well, we can’t know, and we can’t prove it. The only way anyone could “prove” a quote is inaccurate is by having a complete, verified transcript of everything a person ever said or wrote—a practical impossibility. But that doesn’t mean we should accept every quote anyone attributes to someone famous. As rationalists, our only reasonable course when provided with a quote (no matter whose side it supports) is to ask critical questions. Is it consistent with other things we know the person wrote or said? Is there any specific written evidence from a primary source for the quote? If so, is the context in which it is found consistent with the apparent meaning of the quote? As for the alleged Madison quote, no such quote has ever been found among any of James Madison’s writings. None of the biographers of Madison, past or present, have ever run across such a quote. Apparently, Barton did not check the work of the secondary sources he quotes. (He has since admitted that the quote, like a number of others he’s cited and that others have repeated, cannot be confirmed.) Robert Alley, distinguished historian at the University of Richmond, has written of his unsuccessful attempt to track down the origin of the Madison quote and about the implausibility of it as a Madison statement. (“Public Education and the Public Good,” William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Summer 1995, pp. 316-318.)
Similar things can be said of another widely circulated quote: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”—George Washington (according, at one time, to David Barton). But no one can find this quote in Washington’s papers, nor is it consistent with everything else we know about Washington.
It would help if the Christian-nation mythologists even bothered to read basic Christian documents, since it is clear that our government and laws do nothing to dissuade anyone from coveting anything they like, to name but one example. Most of the rest of the Commandments is either exclusively religious (and therefore not included in our statutes) or are included in one form or another in the legal code of every known human society, including many that preceded Christianity by centuries. The claim that our government is based on the Ten Commandments is not new, however. Thomas Jefferson himself went to great lengths, involving lengthy study and considerable writing at several times during his long life, to show that our law goes back to British common law which in turn is directly traceable to pre-Roman, pre-Christian fifth century Britain. Jefferson asserted that neither the Ten Commandments nor other parts of Christianity were ever incorporated into British law, by adoption or legislation.
In summary, this is not a Christian nation precisely because the framers understood that if any government enforces or even encourages any religious belief or lack of belief, everyone’s religious liberty is put at risk. To those who think it would be better if we agreed to call this a Christian nation, ask them a few questions:
Do you want agents of any government to make religious decisions for you?
Do you want any government to help you, directly or indirectly, as you try to persuade others of the truth of your religious beliefs?
Do you believe parents are not always the proper source of religious instruction for young children, and if not, do you want government agents to decide which parents are wrong or inadequate regarding religion?
Do you want government agents to try to force a preference for religious beliefs on anyone?
Do you believe any government should tax citizens to pay for encouraging others to accept religious beliefs not shared by those being taxed?
Any who agree that the answer to each of these questions is “No!” must also agree that this is a free country, not a Christian nation.
For further reading:
Boston, Rob. Why the Religious Right is Wrong. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1993.
Buckner, Edward M. and Michael E. Buckner, In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 2012.
Buckner, Edward M. and Michael E. Buckner, Quotations That Support the Separation of State and Church, 2nd Edition (1995). Published by (and available for $11, postpaid in North America, from) the Atlanta Freethought Society, P. O. Box 813392, Smyrna GA 30081-3392. Telephone: 770-641-2903.
Kramnick, Isaac and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Paine, Thomas, The Age of Reason, 1794-1796.
Edward Milton “Ed” Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. Dr. Buckner is currently a national board member for American Atheists. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).
In Humanity We Trust (on behalf of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, 2014)
The True Core Of The Jesus Myth
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