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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Christian Nation

By Michael E. Berumen 11-11-04

Many conservative Christians describe the United States as a "Christian nation." Now, it is true that most people in this country are Christians of one kind or another. However, most people are also white, Protestant, and female. Nevertheless, people usually do not say we are a "white nation" or a "Protestant nation, " at least, not nowadays, and I have never heard anyone say we are a "female nation." When people say that we are a Christian nation, I think they often mean to describe something other than the dominant religious outlook of our population. I think they mean to say something along the lines of what was once meant by saying that we are a white nation, namely, that the nation is for Christians, just as many once thought it was for white people. In other words, I think it mostly is intended to imply exclusivity, and not to describe our demographics.

The more broadminded conservatives settle for saying , "Our nation is founded on Judeo-Christian principles." One hears this a great deal, nowadays. When people say the country is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, they are displaying their ignorance about our history and of the ideas of the Enlightenment, which helped to set the stage for the American Revolution. This is not to say that Judeo-Christian principles had no influence, for they most certainly did; but it would be a great overstatement to suggest that they were the main ideas behind the Declaration of Independence or of our Constitution, our most important founding documents, or that they were the principal ideas that informed the Founding Fathers. The greatest direct, intellectual influence on our political origins resulted from the ideas of the 17th and 18th centuries, which, in many respects, were a reaction against both religious belief and religious institutions. If one wonders how the Western world might look, today, had the Enlightenment not occurred, one need only look to the majority of the Islamic world, where no comparable intellectual revolution has occurred, a world that suffers from the unholy alliance of despotism and religious dogma.

I think some people are wont to conflate the ideas that influenced the formation of our nation with the motivations of those who fled Europe to avoid religious persecution and with the decidedly religious tendencies of the colonials and even several of the founding fathers. The principles of individual liberty, democracy, and equality, however, owe much more to the Enlightenment than to the subjugation of the individual, authoritarian outlook, superstition, and anti-science bias promoted and supported by religion prior to the 17th century. Of course, some of the radical ideas championed during Enlightenment also owe a great deal to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, which had nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and also to English common law, which has roots in pre-Christian Britain and Nordic Europe.

While it is true that most of the Founders were Christian, most of their ideas of governance had little to do with Christianity. I think that a case can be made that Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, along with the histories of ancient Athens and the Roman Republic, had more to do with their ideas about government than anything that would be found in either the Old or New Testaments. I suspect the writings of John Locke and Thomas Paine, among others, had much more to do with their conception of individual rights and democracy than anything that could be found in the tracts of Martin Luther or John Calvin, let alone Thomas Aquinas. In other words, it would be even more accurate to say that we are a nation founded on Greco-Roman or Enlightenment principles than on Judeo-Christian ones.

Of course, the powers that be of both state and religion resisted nearly all of the most important developments of the Enlightenment. One might correctly observe that certain Enlightenment figures occasionally used Scripture to bolster their progressive arguments. Perhaps Locke's First Treatise on Government is the best example of this, wherein he argued against the divine right and absolute power of kings by an analysis of the succession of Adam. Of course, it must be further said that Locke used it to show that the prevailing religious doctrine concerning the matter, one that was promoted by both the Protestant and Catholic authorities, was incorrect. When Enlightenment scholars did use Scripture to support their arguments, which they did only rarely, they almost always promoted an unconventional view, one that did not comport with the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, a good many of these views were considered heretical and downright inimical to the "one true faith." But I stray from the subject at hand....

The text of the Declaration of Independence makes three general references to a deity, namely, "Nature's God," "the Creator," and "Providence." No religious principle, as such, is ever explicated, and there certainly is no special reference to a Judeo-Christian God. In fact, the general references are much as one might expect a non-Christian, Deist such as the Declaration's author, Thomas Jefferson, would make. Of course, the Declaration of Independence is historically significant, but it is not a legal document. The U.S. Constitution, our nation's foundational legal document and our government's organizational template, makes no reference to Providence whatsoever. Furthermore, it only refers to religion in the so-called Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, which says clearly that there will be no official religion or restriction of religious practice. The Federalist Papers, perhaps our best guide to the original meaning of the Constitution and the intentions of the Framers, is clearly a product of the Enlightenment, not of religious doctrine. Surely, if we were a Christian nation or one founded on Judeo-Christian principles, our Constitution would have made this clear. On the contrary, it makes it very clear that our nation does not prescribe a religion of any kind.

People who say our nation was founded primarily on Judeo-Christian principles are demonstrating a profound lack of knowledge about both our nation's history, and, in particular, of the marked tension between religion and the principles that were most important to our founding ideals, the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which were given their best defense during the Enlightenment, and which were fought by religious authorities at every turn in their development. I therefore wish they would stop saying it.