Thursday, November 08, 2007

Is the United States a "Christian Nation"?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently caused stirs when he described the United States as a "Christian nation." McCain was quoted as saying that "that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."

This was either a slip of the tongue, an example of reckless pandering, or an embarrassing mistake for a presidential candidate to make. Why? Because the word "Christian" appears nowhere in the United States Constitution. In fact, the Constitution very pointedly establishes the federal government as a secular institution.

Now, don't get me wrong! I actually agree with the rest of what Senator McCain had to say, especially the part about the United States of America being a "nation founded on Christian principles." On that point, McCain was absolutely correct.

That the United States was founded by men who largely identified themselves with Christianity is beyond dispute (though fellow blogger Jonathan Rowe disagrees). The overwhelming majority of the nation's founders expressed, to one degree or another, agreement with the basic teachings of Protestant Christianity.

Whether the men we know as the Founding Fathers were actually Christian comes down to what we mean by the term "Christian."

However one defines the term, it is fairly clear that most of the Founders thought of themselves as Christian.

Another assumption made about the founding era - typically from those left of center or libertarian in their political thinking - is that the Founders endorsed complete secularism in matters of morality and public policy. The truth is that the Founders preferred state and local governments to get involved in those matters, and wanted the federal government to assume a minimal role.

Court rulings, congressional legislation, and cultural changes over the decades have, however, shifted the focus of policy-making from the state and local level gradually up to the national level. It is therefore not a stretch to assume that, if the Founders had witnessed this shift, they would have expected the federal government to encourage public virtue and morality. In fact, one needn't even make this "stretch," since the national Congress (during and after the Revolution) had no problem issuing calls for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving as well as funding the printing of Bibles, the appointment of chaplains, and so forth.

The idea that the Founding Fathers wanted a purely secular society is simply wrong.

For more reading on the subject of religion, Christianity, and the Founders, I recommend the following articles...

"We Hold These Truths: The Founders' Rejection of Postmodern Relativism"

"The Role of Religion in US Politics"

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