Tuesday, November 16, 2004

"Not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..."

Awhile back, on the dreaded 2nd of November, SpinDentist posted a thread in which some of his students listed their reasons for voting for the candidates of their choice. Like many of those that supported Bush, one student did so because she believed Bush would bring this country back to the "Christian values" on which it was founded. This statement belies a very common misconception among conservatives that the founders of this nation intended the United States to be a Christian nation. Not only is this a very dangerous perspective, but it is also very incorrect.

The United States Constitution and other early laws may seem to represent a value system based on Christianity, as things such as murder, theft, adultery, etc. were punishable offenses**. Additionally, many of the founding fathers did hold some Christian beliefs. However, when one examines, beyond a cursory glance, these men and their beliefs, a number of very non-Christian beliefs surface in even the most prominent leaders. For instance, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were unquestionably deists. Dictionary.com defines deism as

The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation.
Deism, while sharing some of the same moral values as Christianity, does not allow for the direct intervention of God in his creation and also does not accept the view that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Thus, two major tenets of Christianity (the possibility of miracles and the divinity of Christ) are discarded by deism.

To further demonstrate this, Jefferson actually took the New Testament of Christian scripture and removed all mentions of miracles and Christ's divinity. The result was a much abridged work that (almost exclusively) contained Christ's moral teachings. Additionally, Franklin quite clearly doubted Christ's divinity, as evidenced by this letter he wrote 5 weeks prior to his death.

This is not to say that either man was anti-Christian; rather, quite the opposite was true. Both men believed that every person should have the freedom to choose and practice the religion of his/her choice. This is why they both were advocates for a separation of church and state that was codified in the First Amendment. Both recognized that if the government were to take a position that specificially endorsed the views of any one religion, all other religions would suffer. This is what had happened in Europe for centuries prior to the Revolutionary War. Various Christian sects, most of which shared the same basic beliefs, had warred over and over again over small differences.

Many conservatives will argue that the popular interpretation of the First Amendment as requiring a separation of church and state is incorrect and does not align to the original intent of the founders of the US. However, this letter demonstrates clearly that Jefferson desired such a separation.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, 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 eternal separation between Church & State. Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect
The page above is hosted by the Library of Congress, which possesses the original letter penned by Jefferson's hand, so its existence is without doubt.

Yet another historical document that demonstrates the desire of the early American leaders for the country to be areligious (and specificially aChristian) is the Treaty of Tripoli that was ratified on June 10, 1797. The section that concerns this topic is found in Article 11:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
A typical conservative rebuttal to this statement is that the Arabic text of the treaty did not contain Article 11, but instead a portion of seemingly nonsensical writing. Regardless of this, the English text was the one that the Senate voted on, and unanimously passed. If the "founding fathers" (many of which were serving in the government in June 1797) of this country had intended it to be a Christian nation, this treaty would not have been ratified by unanimous vote and made law.

To summarize, here are four key points of a very valid argument that the United States was intended NOT to be a Christian nation, and was even intended to be areligious.
  • Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, in addition to many of the other founders, were Deists.
  • Deism does not allow for (at least) two of the major tenets of Christianity: (a) the possibility/past occurrence of miracles and (b) the divinity of Jesus Christ.
  • Jefferson explicitly supported a "wall of separation" between church and state in writing.
  • The Treaty of Tripoli, which very clearly states that the United States was not founded on Christianity, was unanimously ratified by the Senate in 1797.
It is important that these facts be understood by our country as a whole, because the endorsement of any one specific religion by a government tends to lead to discrimination of other religions. Additionally, an erosion of the separation between church and state will likely lead to an increased level of government interference and regulation in the internal affairs of any given church, which in most cases would be extremely undesirable. Lastly, the melding of a given religion and the government quite often results in the perversion of said religion by corrupt leaders that abuse situations like this for personal gain. Thus, in order to protect all religion from the government, and especially those in religious minorities from the government, it is essential that the wall of separation that was created by intent of the founders of this nation continue to clearly exist.

**Note: It is important to recognize that many of these "Christian" values are also very clearly found in other religions, and have been found in the writings of numerous civilizations dating back thousands of years. Stay tuned for a post regarding the dangers of the imposition of these values on society in the name of Christianity, as that topic is one that I am passionate about, as a Christian myself.