July 23, 2010

Was America Intended to be a Christian Nation? (2)

"America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed."
~G.K. Chesterton

As the title makes clear, I am continuing the discussion on the nature of America's founding. To ask whether America was intended to be a Christian nation is a different question than whether modern America is a Christian nation. I will only be addressing the former question here. In doing so, I will consider typical arguments put forth by present-day opponents who assert that America's founders and framers of the Constitution intended to create a secular government. We will see that their arguments lack historical credibility.

While the U.S. Constitution did not establish a secular federal government, neither did it establish the federal government as a particular Christian denominational government. Religion was a matter left to the sovereign states to decide individually. Furthermore, the constitution was to never be interpreted apart from the Declaration of Independence. A correct understanding of the fundamental principles enunciated in the Declaration is necessary for a correct understanding of the newly established federal government under the U.S. Constitution. The key point here is that it would be a crass mischaracterization of the Declaration to claim it is secular in content:
"Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birth-day of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birth-day of the Saviour. That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact upon the foundation of the Redeemer's mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity..." ~John Quincy Adams: An oration delivered before the inhabitants of the town of Newburyport, at their request: on the sixty-first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837.
An astute Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, once noted that "The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that their governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason." We will see the historical records bear out Chesterton's observation that America was founded on a creed.

In addition, Chesterton said, "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." (What I Saw in America)

A few years ago, Republican John McCain stated, "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." McCain's statement rattled the cages of the usual suspects, including Alan Dershowitwz, who called McCain an "ignoramus". Now, my intent here is not to discuss whether McCain is an ignoramus, but to show that he was mostly right about America's founding, even if he was not right about certain other matters.

Dershowitz continues his rant: "McCain should go back to school and take Civics 1, where he might learn that the United States Constitution was called "the godless constitution," by its opponents, because it was the first constitution in history not to include references to God or some dominant religion." This is an unusual statement for anyone to make.

I am unaware of any Civics 1 class that teaches the constitution as Dershowitz claims, unless it happens to be a class taught by Dershowitz himself, or one of his ilk. More to the point, Dershowitz fails to offer references to his alleged opponents of the constitution. The primary opponents of the proposed constitution were the Anti-Federalists, and a godless constitution was not one of the subjects argued by the Anti-Federalists.

In addition, the Federalists were the salesmen for the constitution and would have argued the issue in the Federalist Papers, if it were a genuine issue.

Dershowitz does note the obvious: First, that "The Constitution mentions religion only once, in prohibiting any religious test for holding office under the United States". And second, the "Bill of Rights mentions religion twice, once in prohibiting an establishment of religion...and a second time, in guaranteeing the free exercise of all religions." However, Dershowitz does omit one reference -- the signatories authorized a document dated according to the Christian calendar: "...the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven..." More about this later.

Also, in its historical context, "religion" for the early Americans often meant Christianity. Thus, it is a misguided and uninformed criticism that says the constitution does not include references "to a dominant religion". The intent of the First Amendment is to preclude the federal government from preferring or establishing a particular Christian denomination. As Justice Joseph Story explained, "The real object of the (First) Amendment was not to countenance, much less advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects."

As the matter stands thus far, Dershowitz has no case.

Another argument typically espoused by those opposed to America’s founding as a Christian nation involves reference to the U.S. treaty with the Barbary regime of Tripoli. Surprisingly, Dershowitz takes up this flimsy argument, perhaps out of desperation. He says, "Several years after the ratification, the Senate ratified a treaty with the Barbary regime of Tripoli which expressly proclaimed that "the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.""

I will continue with a discussion of the treaty with the Barbary regime in my next post, part 3 of "Was America Intended to be a Christian Nation?" Also, we will look at several statements from the founding fathers, statements frequently quoted by present-day opponents of a Christian nation.

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