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The Constitutionality of a Christian Nation

by Chip Brown, published

Read the first part here.

“[B]ut no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  Article VI, Clause 3. U. S. Constitution


“This clause is not introduced merely for the purpose of satisfying the scruples of many respectable persons, who feel an invincible repugnance to any religious test, or affirmation.  It had a higher object; to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government.  The framers of the constitution were fully sensible of the dangers from this source, marked out in the history of other ages and countries; and not wholly unknown to our own.  They knew, that bigotry was unceasingly vigilant in its stratagems, to secure to itself an exclusive ascendancy over the human mind; and that intolerance was ever ready to arm itself with all the terrors of the civil power to exterminate those, who doubted its dogmas, or resisted its infallibility.”  Justice Joseph Story, Commentaries On The Constitution Of The United States, 1833

Assuming the validity of the earlier explanations (see previous post on this subject), we therefore know when this country was founded and when it became a nation-state—both occurred with the adoption and implementation of the Constitution—so perhaps we need now to narrow the focus of the original question to read:  Did the nation’s founding document, the Constitution, found a Christian nation?

For help in answering that question, I turn again to Frank Lambert’s volume, The Founding Fathers And The Place Of Religion In America.  Lambert posits that the story of the place of religion in America begins with the early colonization in New England and Virginia and ends with the drafting, ratification and implementation of the Constitution.

As he explained, it was a three stage evolutionary process, which I shall attempt to summarize below.  The initial stage was one of religious regulation.  That was a period of established churches and diminished, almost nonexistent, individual religious freedom (except for the majority).  It was also a time when the affairs of church and state were substantially intermingled, with one of the functions of the state being to enforce the requirements that the church laid upon its membership.  Unregulated religion could not be tolerated because it would allow and encourage other religions to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy and possibly jeopardize the “one true church.”

The predominance of Protestant Christianity—at least the established brand of it—had to be protected above all else.  Although both the Puritan Congregationalists and the Virginia Tidewater Anglicans were protestant religions, the Puritans regarded the Anglican religion as “unbiblical,” certainly not the one true church.  Doubtless the Anglicans thought otherwise.  This period of religious regulation eventually broke down, as much from internal strife as external challenge.

As the era of religious regulation began to break down, the second phase of the evolution of religions place in American culture began to take hold.  It was an era of religious competition and sectarian proliferation.  The first Great Awakening, which was anti-establishmentarian, occurred during this time, posing an existential threat to orthodoxy, if not to institutional religion itself.  As a result a shift in the way the colonies and individuals looked at faith and religious freedom was occurring.

As Lambert describes it, the third and final phase of this evolution took place with the adoption of the Constitution.  As Lambert notes, “…the Planters had organized church-state relations around the central idea of religious uniformity…that the established church within a colony represented the one true religion that all should be compelled to support,” whether they subscribed to its belief system or not.  But the Founders, as Lambert points out, took a different view and enshrined their view in the Constitution.  “They made religious freedom the cornerstone of faith in the new republic.”

He concludes that the Founding Fathers rejected the Puritan Model.  Instead, they ensured a free exchange of ideas without government support of or opposition to any faith.”  Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, were not the prime determinants of the constitutional order.  Freedom, freedom of conscience in particular, (what we now refer to as freedom of religion) was instead.

The crux of the debate is whether the Constitution sanctions America as a Christian nation or whether the document is more neutral on the subject.  Religious America was and is characterized by a high degree of pluralism (more so today than in the past), and within that mix, there is a substantial degree of diversity of beliefs and practices among Christians.  Whose version of Christianity should hold sway?

Does that version of Christianity propose a relationship with the state that the Constitution can sustain?  Everybody cannot be right; in fact, since it is truth Christianity (and most other systems of religious belief) is after, then if belief A is the direct opposite of belief B, both cannot be correct and be part of credible body of beliefs without encompassing within the belief system a serious degree of theological dissonance.  If that debate remains in the marketplace of ideas, Jefferson’s maxim quoted at the beginning of this essay will hold sway and the truth will out.  The state should not be involved in determining what that truth is.

I believe that when an individual declares without reservation that America is a Christian nation, that individual does so with the clear intent that the version of Christianity upon which America is founded is his version of Christianity as he sees it in all of its particulars.

However, it is unlikely that all Christians share that version of Christianity in all of its particulars.  So, whose version of the truth do we use for purposes of defining America as a Christian nation?  (And this perspective on the diversity of religious belief does not include those who subscribe to belief systems other than Christian or those who profess no belief system at all.  Yet the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment, protects all of these individuals.)

Another consideration is the fact that that declaration can be construed as marginalizing other beliefs.  Martin Marty, in his book Religion And Republic:  The American Circumstance, points out that in the free world those forces that would work to mitigate the effects of religious pluralism ” order to establish values to propagate…promote legal privileges for majority religious cultures.  Few would set out to eject or reject diverse religious minorities.

Yet they exploit public confusion over morals and values.  They propose that if their society were dominated by a single set of people or a single construct—in the case of the United States this is usually ‘Christian America’…all would be well, or at least better.”

Even if we could draw, without interruption or alteration by historical events, a straight line from the Planting Fathers to the Founding Fathers in an effort to imbue the latter with the same purposes and the same sense of Christian mission and zeal that the Planting Fathers exhibited, the result of that relationship today would likely create an excessive entanglement of religion and state along with the tyranny and abrogation of freedom that historically has resulted therefrom.

The experiences of history had warned the Founding Fathers away from that kind of relationship, as best expressed in words from James Madison in one of the Federalist Papers:  “…other confederacies which could be consulted as precedents have been vitiated by the same erroneous principles, and can therefore furnish no other light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.”  Such an entanglement was not anticipated by the original Constitution, the Founders were warned away from it, and it is clearly prohibited by the First Amendment.

The Founding Fathers were not hostile to religion despite the fact that they did not, in my opinion, establish a Christian nation.  They had diverse, some even had unorthodox, views and practices.  The importance of religion as far as most of the Founding Fathers was concerned was less a thing to be promoted by the state than to be manifested in the lives and actions of the citizens.

In his book on the subject, John Fea sums it up best; “if there was one universal idea that the founders believed about the relationship between religion and the new nation, it was that religion was necessary in order to sustain an ordered and virtuous republic.”  Republican virtue was something the Founders thought necessary for the success of a democratic-republic.  That would have a lot to do with religion, they thought, so they set up, not a Christian state, but a system of government via the Constitution that created, as far a religion was concerned, a free market-place of ideas to allow and encourage the growth of religious thought and practice.  It was deliberately a hands off, or laissez faire, approach.

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