Monday, September 23, 2019

America: A Christian Nation?

A question sometimes in discussion, and one with important political and judicial implications for today: “Was the New United States a Christian nation?”  Why is this question interesting or important today?
Courts have repeatedly decided important questions based on the First Amendment's clauses related to religion.  These decisions are often based on claims about what the Framers intended.  Understanding what they thought, and why, influences how to understand those clauses.  
Christianity & Political Authority
Many state constitutions from the Revolutionary period are quite blunt.  Delaware's Constitutional Convention of 1776 required delegates to swear: "And I do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine Inspiration."
 State constitutions from the Revolutionary period are similarly direct: 
North Carolina Const. (1776): “That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”
Penn. Const. (1776) required legislators to take this oath: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.”
 Most states required you to be a Christian — sometimes specifically a Protestant — to hold public office.  Some states kept these requirements as late as 1840.  Many state constitutions connect religion and law:   Mass. Const. (1780): “[T]he good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality...” The legislature was thus authorized to require local governments “to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality...”

Mandatory Church Attendance Laws

Massachusetts passed a 1782 law requiring church attendance:

Christianity & Political Authority

The Continental Congress repeatedly used explicitly Christian language.  In its March 16, 1776 declaration of a day of fasting:
be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness..
Important officials insisted that there was a connection between religion and freedom.
Gov. Huntingdon of Conn.: “While the great body of freeholders are acquainted with the duties which they owe to their God, to themselves, and to men, they will remain free. But if ignorance and depravity should prevail, they will inevitably lead to slavery and ruin.” 
Important officials insisted that there was a connection between religion and freedom.
President Washington's Farewell Address to Congress: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports....  And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.... [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” 
Why does the U.S. Constitution seem to take a different approach than the state constitutions?  There is nothing explicitly Christian in it; Not even a mention of God, Creator, etc.  Did Americans suddenly lose their faith between 1776 and 1789?  Some argue that Christianity was on the decline, and Deism or skepticism on the rise.  Perhaps true, but you would not know it from how the First Congress after the Constitution operated.  It appointed chaplains to open each day in prayer.  Presidents Jefferson and Madison allowed government buildings to be used for church services, even though Jefferson was derided by his opponents as an atheist.  Both Jefferson and Madison, along with most of Congress, regularly attended church services in the Hall of Representatives in D.C.
Congress directed that one section (a square mile) of each Ohio township would be reserved for support of the township's churches, whatever church a majority of the township picked.
Ben Franklin's observations about America are especially surprising considering his own not very devout behavior:  “Atheism is unknown there; and infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great age in that country without having their piety shocked by meeting with either an atheist or an infidel.”

 Establishment of Churches

The idea that the state should establish a particular denomination was declining.  Baptists and Presbyterians in Virginia objected to taxes used to support the Anglican Church' Baptists in Connecticut objected to taxes funding the Congregational Church.  Increasingly, there is a feeling that the state governments should not give special favors to any particular denomination.   
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in 1833 explained the purpose of the “no establishment” clause in the First Amendment:
The real object of the amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.  --  Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:1688
 A national establishment of religion would have been a source of continual political conflict, because no single Protestant denomination was even close to a majority.  The idea that the government needed to be neutral with respect to religion vs. atheism — or even Christianity vs. other religions — would have caused some serious head scratching among the Revolution's leaders.


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