America a Christian nation? Think again
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Whether you call it "Holy Week" or "spring break" or "the annual chocolate bunny-eating binge," the fact that you can call it whatever you want, without fear of reprisal, made it the perfect time to contemplate a question of resurging importance: Is America a "Christian nation"?
That question has laced public discussion of Rick Santorum's run in the Republican primaries. It's also been the backdrop, for different reasons, for Mitt Romney's candidacy and Barack Obama's presidency.
A "yes" answer seems to have inspired Pennsylvania legislators' late January resolution declaring 2012 the "Year of the Bible" in the Keystone State.
A resounding "no" animated the lawsuit filed last month by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, which contends that the Pennsylvania resolution violates the separation of church and state.
They're both right. The correct answer to the question "Is America a 'Christian nation'?" is "yes and no." And both sides need to get over it.
The quest for freedom of religion brought most of the early English settlers to New England, but these Puritans soon began to persecute those who refused to conform to their theocratic laws.
Their persecution drove the great theologian and linguist Roger Williams to flee the Massachusetts Bay Colony and establish Providence Plantations -- now Rhode Island -- where, as he envisioned it, "the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish [Muslim] or antichristian consciences and worships" could live together in liberty.
Williams not only wrote of the "wall of separation" between church and state but also instituted it in the colony he founded. His inspiration was Martin Luther's call for "liberty of conscience," which Luther had based on Jesus' "render unto Caesar" teaching. Decades later, Enlightenment philosopher John Locke adopted and de-Christianized Williams's ideas, making them palatable to the deist Thomas Jefferson.
But it matters very much to American history that Christians discovered and established this principle well before Enlightenment philosophers did. It took root here because our forebears were -- literally and metaphorically -- plowing new ground. When the Enlightenment was barely under way in the Old World, deist intellectuals and learned Christians worked side by side in the New World to lead the war for independence, to draft and ratify the U.S. Constitution and to establish the separation of church and state.
In short, the principle that today's agnostics and atheists file lawsuits to protect comes to them courtesy, first, of Christian thinkers. Is it too much to ask them to acknowledge this fact?
Even Bertrand Russell -- an early exemplar of "antagonistic atheism" -- acknowledged in "A History of Western Philosophy" that the Enlightenment was essentially the culmination of Martin Luther's schism with the Roman Catholic Church -- the Reformation.
But what of modern America's crusading Christians? Why do so many ignore their own interest in the Reformation's separation of church and state?
When nonbelievers complain that Ronald Reagan and the 97th Congress's declaration of 1983 as "Year of the Bible," or this year's similar resolution in Pennsylvania, violate the separation of church and state by declaring the Bible "the Word of God," they are right. The Christian who invented "the wall of separation" would be astonished. A resolution could acknowledge the debt "the American way" owes to the Bible without proclaiming it God's holy word -- a specific claim of faith. Why not do so?
And why do some Christians go so far as to distort historical fact to claim this or that deist Founding Father was a devout Christian? Author David Barton, a repeat offender in manipulating religious history, has recently drawn Hollywood star Kirk Cameron into this specious pursuit, in a "documentary" called "Monumental." Grove City College psychology professor Warren Throckmorton has made an invaluable cottage industry out of meticulously debunking, via his blog, Mr. Barton's false claims.
Both sides -- today's religious skeptics and over-reaching Christians -- need a not-so-gentle slap from a history book.
But could history have gone any other way? Could a largely nonbelieving people create a society friendly to those of any or no faith?
History itself indicates "no." Though today's atheists consider themselves creatures of reason, every Enlightenment philosopher was a deist, including Voltaire. The French Revolution -- culmination of the Enlightenment -- was a bloodbath. It was not pro-diversity; it was anti-church.
Courtesy of Karl Marx and his heirs, humankind suffered a century of officially atheistic states -- Lenin and Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, their satellites and imitators -- and all were murderous and tyrannical on a scale hitherto unimagined. At the end of the disastrous 20th century, the ignorant hubris of today's atheists should be laughable.
Is America a Christian nation? Yes and no. We are a nation powerfully shaped by Christians and deists both, to procure liberty and justice for all. Deal with it.
First Published April 9, 2012 10:42 am