POSTED ON DECEMBER 26, 2007:
Christianity: Root of Evil or Good?
Upcoming elections bring debate into focus: is U.S. a Christian Nation?
Both the Christmas season and election season are upon us.
While each occasion comes with its own share of baggage, packed beyond capacity with controversy and constitutional conundrums about the role religion--the Christian religion in particular--should or should not play in public life, the combined force of both makes questions inescapable regarding whether we are, in fact, a "Christian nation," and if so, what does that even mean?
If Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain is correct, we are, point-blank, a "Christian nation."
That, McCain recently stated during a TV interview, is why a Muslim wouldn't ever likely be his or the American people's choice for president.
It might also be why some commentators are questioning the fitness of another candidate for the office: former Massachusetts Governor and avowed Mormon Mitt Romney.
Meanwhile, of course, "wall of separation between church and state" is the mantra proclaimed by others who declare resoundingly that, constitutionally, the United States was never, is not and could never be a "Christian nation," making such discussions as out of place, in their view, as a manger scene on government property or the word "Christmas" on White House greeting cards.
Since there are few, if any areas of study as complicated and controversy-prone as religion or politics, it might be helpful to simplify the issue by focusing our exploration on that much-touted "wall of separation between church and state."
While the phrase is commonly invoked as a mantra of constitutionality where religious issues are concerned, it isn't actually to be found anywhere in any founding documents of the United States.
It is nowhere in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights nor the Declaration of Independence.
Rather, the phrase was originally coined in a personal letter written by President Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1802, to a group known as the Danbury Baptists.
While the letter had no actual legal authority, the founding father wrote it as an explanation of the intent behind the First Amendment and, for good measure, had U.S. Attorney General Levi Lincoln review its content for accuracy before he sent if off.
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State," the patriarch wrote.
So, the phrase was coined decades after the principles of American society had been enshrined in the Constitution, but the concept was there all along.
Actually, to be accurate, the concept predated Jefferson's letter and the Constitution by a few millennia.
Of all sources, the Hebrew Scriptures--better known in these parts as the Christian Old Testament--first planted the seeds of the trees that would provide the wood for the construction of that "wall of separation."
In the ancient world, during the time covered in the Old Testament, "church" and "state" were, more often than not, one and the same.
So-called "god-kings" were commonplace, as pharaohs and emperors claimed to be descendents if not actual manifestations of various deities, and upon such based their exercise of authority. Being king often meant being god and high priest as well, so obeying their laws went far beyond civic responsibility to encompass religious obligation as well. Under such a system, a person's religious convictions were whatever the god-king said a person's religious convictions would be.
Meanwhile, a little kingdom by the name of Israel, later called Judah, had a profoundly different system in place--at least in theory.
In Judah, the king was considered to be divinely appointed, but not divine, and his privileges, powers and responsibilities were distinct and separate from those of the religious authorities.
According to the Torah, the king himself was to be subject to the law of the priests, and to make sure he remembered that, he was expected to study it daily "so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees" and, unlike his counterparts in most of the surrounding nations, "not consider himself better than his brothers."
The role of the Israelite and Jewish kings was that of chief legislative, judicial, military, and economic authority, but the nation's religious leadership belonged to the priests and prophets.
Of course, there were exceptions, but those instances were recorded for posterity as examples of what not to do.
For instance, the second Book of Chronicles tells of King Uzziah, who was, we are told, an otherwise pious and successful king (Pat Robertson would have gladly endorsed him).
Except, we are told, "After Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall."
In that pride, the king presumed to enter the temple and offer incense--a privilege reserved only for priests.
When he blew off the priests' criticism, he suddenly came down with a nasty case of leprosy and was forced to live in seclusion for the rest of his life, coming nowhere near the temple ever again.
The Jews' cherished concept of a religious life beyond the reach and influence of mortals and civil authorities was so deeply ingrained and non-negotiable that, by the time of the Roman Empire, they alone of all the countless subjugated people groups were exempted from having to offer tributary prayer and incense to the emperor and other gods of the Roman state.
(There was a relatively brief period under the Hasmonean Dynasty when the offices of king and high priest were combined, but the explanation and background for that are beyond the scope of this article.)
Of course, neither then nor now, any balance struck between religious and temporal interests is ever enough to pacify everyone. So, by the time of Jesus, one of the hot-button issues of the day was whether one could pay taxes to the empire--using coins with graven images and references to foreign deities, and still be faithful to God.
The New Testament tells of the religious right-wingers of the day trying to toss Jesus onto that "third rail" of Jewish/Roman politics by challenging, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
After inspecting a sample of Roman-minted currency he declared, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
Jesus didn't elaborate on what God and Caesar's comparative rightful claims on a citizen were, but it seemed to be self-evident to his 1st century audience, and there didn't seem to be much, if any, controversy over the question in the early church.
The New Testament writers instructed Christians to submit to the Roman authorities and to pay taxes owed for government services provided. To such was Caesar entitled, they essentially taught.
But, when Caesar demanded worship, deny him. Even if it meant imprisonment, torture and death, deny him. To such God was entitled, they taught.
The Christians never really got the same accommodations as the Jews to worship according to their own customs, so that tension between their duties to their God and to their emperor defined their relationship with the Roman state for the first three centuries of Christianity's existence: the otherwise law-abiding, if not a little kooky-seeming Christians were, at various times and in various degrees, regarded by the rest of Roman society as outlaws, atheists and "haters of the human race" for their refusal to worship the emperor or other Roman deities, so were often arrested, tortured and executed for their insistence on keeping the Roman civil authorities out of their religious business.
That is, until Emperor Constantine came to power and became a Christian himself.
He ended what would be the final, but most severe period in history for empire-wide, systematic persecution of Christians when he issued the Edict of Milan in the year 313.
The document officially legalized Christianity, ordered that all people imprisoned for being Christian immediately be freed and all property confiscated in connection with their persecution be transferred back to them.
To the Christians, this was the next best thing to the Second Coming. One of their own was suddenly calling the shots. Previously, being "Christian" automatically meant being, if not an outlaw, at least an outsider, but now, for the first time in history, they were free in all parts of the empire to openly practice their religion without fear of persecution or reprisals (except in the eastern portion where Emperor Licinius still ruled and persecuted Christians, but Constantine took care of that early in his reign).
Unfortunately, though, in their glee at their newfound freedom, most of them didn't see the implications of what was happening (Athanasius of Alexandria and a few others did, but that's a different story).
The trouble was, while Constantine's Christian faith and conviction might have been genuine (historians have debated the question for almost 1,700 years), he was still, by disposition, training and upbringing a Roman, and so his understanding of his own role as emperor was still shaped by centuries of Roman tradition, rather than by his newfound commitment to the Gospel.
While he didn't demand worship as a god, he still retained his imperial title and role as "pontifex maximus"--high priest over the Roman state.
As such, as he understood his responsibilities as a Roman Christian (or a Christian Roman?) entrusted with an empire that included God's Church, it was his duty before God to exercise his temporal authority to ensure the faithfulness, doctrinal purity and homogeneity of the Church.
That is, at least according this how he--a neophyte convert--understood those qualities after listening to a host of different advisors, who were themselves often hotly divided over what constituted "doctrinal purity" and "faithfulness."
Also, Christianity just so happened to be, in his view, a convenient social cement to hold a culturally diverse and spasmodically-near-collapse empire together, which his predecessor had spent his entire career trying to do, only barely succeeding through a series of dubious quick-fixes.
Constantine never placed any restrictions on the freedoms of other religions throughout the empire, but his involvement, perhaps inadvertently, resulted in quite a few restrictions on his own.
With the emperor suddenly favoring the Christians for the first time in history, "Christians" came out of the woodwork to seek his favor, and his tax-breaks.
The church hierarchy provided a ready-made civil service infrastructure, so Constantine employed it as such. New bishops and other "spiritual" leaders were political appointees rather than holy men approved by their congregations, and being a well-reputed "Christian" put a person on the fastest track to a cushy career in public service.
There were a few bumps along the way (like a certain emperor known to history as Julian the Apostate, for instance), but the Church and State gradually married and, like many old married couples, came to resemble one another.
Church authorities eventually found themselves in a position to enforce religious dogma at the point of a sword, and if swords were ever pointed at them, excommunication became a handy political tool.
Under such a system, being "Christian" typically had little if anything to do with personal faith. It simply meant having been born into a society ruled by clergy.
And so, for a millennia and a half, what could safely be said in public and thought in private was subject to church leaders' sometimes well-meaning but often self-serving approval.
While the literature and teachings of the Christian religion provided greater freedom than ever before and thus, much fertile ground for some of the greatest thinkers and innovators in history, its power structure often cut such crops down before they could bear fruit to potentially threaten the establishment.
While there were, as there inevitably always are, plenty of rebels, innovators and heroes who cut out their own niches of free thought by building a "wall of separation between church and state" in their own lives, such was the status quo throughout the Middle Ages (to make a really long story short, anyway).
Time for Reform
While numerous influences came along to reshape--sometimes undermining, sometimes reinforcing--that marriage between church and state, that wall of separation between the two wouldn't be erected until the American Revolution.
A long list of influences can be cited for the climate of thought that led to the founding principles of the United States--the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Great Awakening, etc., but their collective effect was to eventually undo the damage caused by Constantine's well-meaning but cataclysmic efforts at church leadership.
At least, that's how James Madison, our fourth president and the famed "Father of the Constitution" and "Father of the Bill of Rights," understood the "wall of separation" he helped build for the United States.
"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial," he wrote in 1785 in a document entitled "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments."
"What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or against their interest?" he continued.
The document was written to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia and was occasioned by a bill proposing "establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion."
Madison penned the document on behalf of the citizens of Virginia to denounce the proposal, calling it "a dangerous abuse of power," listing 15 reasons why, of which the 1,500 years of religious oppression begun by Constantine were but one.
Commentators on both sides of the debate often cite the letter, along with the volumes of other commentaries on the subject penned by Madison and the other founding fathers, in their arguments over whether the U.S. is, by design, a "Christian nation."
But, why do opposite sides of an argument cite the same evidence for contrary conclusions?
Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" isn't in the least ambiguous in expressing the intentions behind the Constitution and Bill of Rights, nor are other writings by him and the other founding fathers.
In fact, the founding documents themselves were quite clear on the subject of the nation's religious identity.
The ambiguity isn't in the documents cited or in the expressed opinions of the founding fathers, but in the term under debate itself: "Christian nation."
What does that mean, to be a "Christian nation"?
We can conclude with absolute certainty that if, for the sake of argument, the United States was indeed founded as a "Christian nation," it was not to be so after the image of the empire ruled by Constantine and his successors, nor any other so-called "Christian nation" in the intervening 1,500 years.
Did it mean that the citizens themselves would be Christians?
If so, they certainly weren't expected to be so under legal compulsion.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," the First Amendment clearly states.
Also, Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance "that religion or the duty which we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate."
He added that "this right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator."
If the federal or state governments were ever unfortunately inclined to compel citizens to discharge that duty, Madison wrote, "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?"
What about leaders?
Should being Christian be a prerequisite to leadership in the United States?
Of course, citizens are free to test candidates according to whatever standards they see fit, be it a religious proclamation or having the sharpest $200 haircut in the race, but that test isn't to be established in law, according to Article 6 of the Constitution.
"The Senators and Representatives... and the Members of the several State Legislators, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States," it reads.
While Madison and the other founding fathers took great pains to clarify that the state was to have no power whatsoever in the affairs of the church, what about the other way around?
Does that "wall of separation" apply both ways? Was it their design that the church should exercise influence over the state?
Clearly, as previously explained, the state wasn't to have a role in telling the church how to run its affairs, such as dictating the content of sermons or legislating what people should believe about God, man and morality.
So, having been instructed by the church about such matters, are citizens to check their religious convictions at the door when they go to the voting booth, or choose which policies to support or oppose?
Madison obviously didn't think so.
In fact, the aforementioned "duty to the Creator" was a prerequisite for civic responsibility, according to him.
"Before any man can be considered as a member of a Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign," he wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance.
Obviously, this "allegiance" wasn't and isn't something to be compelled in a citizen, either by the state or by any other person or institution, since such an allegiance must, by definition, be voluntary.
And it obviously wasn't to be a legally-imposed prerequisite for civic participation, because that would be another form of compulsion.
Rather, Madison was expressing a hoped-for ideal. It was his hope that allegiance to the Creator would characterize Americans and motivate them to civic responsibility.
Of course, the meaning behind terms like "Creator," "Universal Sovereign" and "Governour of the Universe" have been debated ad infinitum since they were penned.
Does their use of those terms indicate that all the founding fathers were Christians, and designed the nation with the expectation that all of its citizens would voluntarily be as well? Was the "Creator" referenced prodigiously in their writings, both personal and formal, the God of Christian religion?
Well, in one particular sense, yes.
In another sense, no.
Freedom to Worship
Not all of the founding fathers were particularly outspoken about their personal religious views, but it's a well-established fact that many of them were deists.
Deism is the belief that God, or Someone or Something akin to what people refer to as "God," exists and created the universe, but doesn't exist in any personal sense and does not intervene by supernatural acts or by special revelation to man.
Thomas Jefferson is probably the best-known deist among the founding fathers and was famous for having taken scissors and paste to the New Testament, removing all references to miracles and supernatural events.
Benjamin Franklin was also a well-established deist, having written "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain" in 1725, denouncing the Christian concept of a loving, all-powerful God as irreconcilable with human morality and free will.
Many others were like George Washington, who was registered as a member of the Episcopal Church but was rarely known to attend services.
Our first president, though, is reported to have made several statements through the course of his life that appear consistent with a Christian faith and worldview, but their true meaning is also up for debate.
What the founding fathers were in their personal lives--whether they were good Christians, bad Christians, or not Christians at all--is of less importance than the ideas they shared in creating the nation, however.
The document that marked the birth of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, arguably contained assumptions based on a Christian worldview, despite the avowed Deist convictions of many of its contributors.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," the Declaration reads.
While reference to a "Creator" is made, and at first glance would seem to refer to the God of Christianity, some have argued that the reference was deliberately ambiguous so as to accommodate the considerable deist influence among the document's composers, since the notion of a "Creator" is hardly unique to Christians.
However, the "self-evident" truths attached to belief in that Creator would, at least in this writer's humble view, seem to support that Creator's identity as the God worshipped by Christians.
While those truths were "self-evident" to the founding fathers, they've hardly been so in other cultural contexts, and certainly not in other societies built upon the belief in a Creator.
For example, Hinduism identifies Brahma, an aspect of the highest god Brahman, as the Creator.
What has been "self-evident" under the Hindu worldview, though, is the inequality that's been institutionalized for thousands of years in the varna caste system.
While it's debatable whether the founding fathers had the God of Jesus Christ specifically and consciously in mind when they decided to break ties with England and when they wrote the Constitution, it's obvious that, on at least some level, their collective view of how human society should operate in relation to the "Creator" had been shaped by the previous 1,700 years of western civilization, during which Christianity held sway.
There are other, more subtle ways in which Christianity shaped the birth of our nation.
For instance, according to the Christian view of human nature, every person is born with a natural inclination toward evil which, if unchecked, will inevitably lead that person to oppress his fellow man if he's ever given any authority over him.
That is why it's said that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," hence our three-branched system of checks and balances.
Having been engineered according to a distinctly Christian view of humanity, our system of government has been admired and emulated by much of the rest of the world.
That hasn't been the case with Islamic nations' forms of government, however.
While the Qur'an places a high premium on equality and benevolence between one person and another, it also teaches that each person is born as morally pure and good as the Creator originally intended, and so people do not have an inherently natural disposition to sin, but only commit evil because they choose to do so, against their nature.
As such, mere mortals can be entrusted to represent God on earth and to dictate religious beliefs and convictions without fear of abuse, hence the theocracies so common among Islamic countries.
As a result of the freedom and equality guaranteed to every person by the U.S. Constitution, Hindus, Muslims and adherents to any and every other religion in the world are welcomed and encouraged to come here and worship according to the dictates of their own consciences and cultural backgrounds.
However, they are not free to come to the United States and establish caste systems or theocracies in the practice of their religions, or to establish any system in which the views of humanity and the cosmos specific to their religion can be imposed on the fabric of our society. In that regard, their religious freedoms are limited to what's allowed by the U.S. Constitution, which assumes concepts of human nature and religious freedom from a distinctly Christian worldview.
According to that worldview, which insists that no mere human being is fit to mediate between God and man, the founding fathers were deliberately silent, or at least ambiguous, concerning whether we're supposed to be a "Christian nation."
If we are, they reasoned, it wasn't for them to say so in any legal sense.
According to them, that identification isn't a matter of constitutions or laws, but of individual faculties of reason and conscience.
It's probable that they didn't intend for manger scenes to be displayed on public land using public money, but their reason was most certainly not because they saw such religious expressions as bad.
Quite the contrary. Rather, it was because religious expressions are too sacred be entrusted to government.
As students of history, the founding fathers realized that when a government starts deciding which religious displays are appropriate for public display on public land, it's only a matter of time before that government assumes the responsibility of deciding what religious ideas are appropriate in the lives of private citizens.
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