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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Was the USA founded as a Christian nation?

The Treaty of Tripoli should have put this myth to bed before it even became a myth. It states” “As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion…” A government treaty created in the initial years of our country, signed by the President and ratified by the Senate, stating we are not a Christian nation. It was read aloud to the Senate, and each Senator received a printed copy. This was the 339th time that a recorded vote was required by the Senate, but only the third time a vote was unanimous (the next time was to honor George Washington). There is no record of any debate or dissension on the Treaty. It was reprinted in full in three newspapers – two in Philadelphia, one in New York City. There is no record of public outcry or complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.

Because Article VI, clause 2 of the United States Constitution renders ratified treaties "the supreme Law of the Land", this confirms that the government of the United States was specifically intended to be religiously neutral.

President Adams signed the treaty and proclaimed it to the nation on 10 June 1797. His statement on it was a bit unusual: “Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.”

There is no mention of Jesus anywhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. It should also be noted that there is no religious test to hold federal office. Many of the founders were Deists and although there were also many Christians, it was agreed that the nation should not adopt a specific religion.

"Although it had its share of strenuous Christians ... the gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their part of the country... and most were men who could take their religion or leave it alone. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim his opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit." (Clinton Rossiter, 1787: The Grand Convention, pp. 147-148.) 

Much has been made of Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that the Convention open its morning sessions with prayer. His motion was turned down, however, and not again taken up. Franklin himself noted that "with the exception of 3 or 4, most thought prayers unnecessary." (Ferrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, rev. ed., Vol. 1, p.452.)

“One of the embarrassing problems for the early nineteenth-century champions of the Christian faith was that not one of the first six Presidents of the United States was an orthodox Christian.”
The Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1968 Edition, p. 420

Jefferson wrote voluminously to prove that Christianity was not part of the law of the land and that religion or irreligion was purely a private matter, not cognizable by the state. (Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy, New York: Schocken Books, 1981, p. 335.)

So much is Jefferson identified in the American mind with his battle for political liberty that it is difficult to entertain the possibility that he felt even more strongly about religious liberty. If the letters and activities of his post presidential years can be taken as a fair guide, however, he maintained an unrelenting vigilance with respect to freedom in religion, and an unrelenting, perhaps even unforgiving, distrust of all those who would seek in any way to mitigate or limit or nullify that freedom. (Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, pp. 46-47.)

... Jefferson, who as a careful historian had made a study of the origin of the maxim [that the common law is inextricably linked with Christianity], challenged such an assertion. He noted that "the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced or that such a character existed .... What a conspiracy this, between Church and State." (Leo Pfeffer, Religion, State, and the Burger Court, Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1984, p. 121.)

... The most revealing writings concerned the commonly repeated maxim that Christianity was part of the common law. In two posthumously published writings, an appendix to his Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court and a letter to Major John Cartwright, Thomas Jefferson took issue with the maxim. He traced the erroneous interpretation to a seventeenth-century law commentator who, Jefferson argued, misinterpreted a fifteenth-century precedent. He then traced the error forward to his favorite bête noire, Lord Mansfield, who wrote that "the essential principles of revealed religion are part of the common law." Jefferson responded with a classic, positivistic critique: Mansfield "leaves us at our peril to find out what, in the opinion of the judge, and according to the measures of his foot or his faith, are those essential principles of revealed religion, obligatory on us as part of the common law." (Daniel R. Ernst, "Church-State Issues and the Law: 1607-1870" in John F. Wilson, ed., Church and State in America: A Bibliographic Guide. The Colonial and Early National Periods," New York: Greenwood Press, 1986, p. 337. Ernst gives his source as Thomas Jefferson, "Whether Christianity is Part of the Common Law?")

The First Amendment to the Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This gets broken down into two areas. The first is the Establishment Clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.". Thomas Jefferson made sure the intent of this clause was well understood with his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In this letter he stated very clearly that there was a "wall of separation between church and state," which led to the expression "Separation of church and state."  Thomas Jefferson didn't see himself as writing a minor, unimportant letter because he had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general, before he sent it. Jefferson even told Lincoln that he considered this letter to be a means of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets." He also had it reviewed by Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut.  That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.

The second part of the amendment, the Free Exercise Clause", is what the Christians try to hang their hat on in regards to be allowed to do anything in regards to their religion. However, the courts have generally ruled that while most individual religious exercise is allowed, this does not prohibit the government from passing laws that impact certain religious practices. The first case to examine this clause was Reynolds v. United States. This was a case dealing with the prosecution of a polygamist. He tried to argue protection under the Free Exercise Clause, but the court ruled against him.

Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment and agreed that the intention of the First Amendment was "to erect `a wall of separation between church and state."

Jefferson believed in the principle of church/state separation so much that he created political problems for himself. Unlike Presidents Washington, Adams, and all following presidents, Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and thanksgiving. It is not, as some charged, because he was an atheist or because he wanted others to abandon religion.
Instead, it was because he recognized that he was only president of the American people, not their pastor, priest or minister. He realized that he had absolutely no authority to lead other citizens in religious services or expressions of religious faith and worship.

"The constitutional principle of separation of church and state has given Americans more religious freedom than any people in world history. Around the globe, those suffering under the heavy heel of government-sponsored religious oppression look to America's church-state model with longing. The "wall of separation between church and state" is America's bulwark of true religious liberty."
-Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Let us not forget this little historical tidbit. On Feb. 10, 1864, a contingent of clergymen from Xenia, Ohio, and Sparta, Ill., prevailed on President Abraham Lincoln and Congress to amend the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, redefining America as a “Christian” nation. In his 2006 book, “American Gospel,” Jon Meacham refers to historian Morton Borden’s account of the meeting, during which Lincoln graciously promised to examine the clergy’s request, but reminded them that amending the Constitution was no easy undertaking — then allowed it to die a natural death.

Why would there have been a need for religious leaders to ask Lincoln and Congress to redefine America as a Christian nation if it was founded as a Christian nation as so many keep incorrectly stating? Why would Lincoln not have asked them why he should do something so redundant, if America had always been a Christian nation? Gosh, could it be something simple like the fact that America was not founded as a Christian nation and this was well known and acknowledged during the early years of the country?

If you would do a little historical research, you might find yourself surptised by the FACTS. You might be surprised, for example, to learn that in the early years of this republic, while most of those founding fathers were still alive and well, religion was no big deal to most people. Consider, for example, the period between 1776 and 1890, during which fewer than half of Americans even bothered to affiliate them with a local congreagation of believers. Percent of Americans Who Belong to a Local Congregation
1776 17%
1850 34%
1870 35%
1890 45%
1906 51%
1916 53%
1926 56%
1952 59%
1980 62%
1990 64%
2005 69%
Source: Finke, Roger and Starke, Rodney, The Churching of America 1776 – 1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1992. Data for 2005 are taken from Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe, Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas, 2008, p.12

You might also consider doing some independent research on the consumption of alcohol during the formative days of this nation. Historians who have studied this subject have concluded that the per capita consumption of alcohol in the colonies and during the westward expansion was far in excess of today”s. Alcoholism was rampant and it is a bit of a miracle that our hardy pioneer forefathers got as much accomplished as they did, given their proclivity to swill so liberally on John Barleycorn. Hardly reflective of the sobriety that should characterize any “Christian nation.”

So fluid had been the conditions of American life toward the end of the eighteenth century, and so disorganizing the consequences of the Revolution, that perhaps as many as ninety percent of the Americans were unchurched in 1790. (Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 82.)

In the mid-eighteenth century, America had a smaller proportion of church members than any other nation in Christendom. American religious statistics are notoriously unreliable, but it has been estimated that in 1800 about one of every fifteen Americans was a church member ... (Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, p. 89.)

Barry Goldwater, former US Senator (R-AZ), said on Sep. 15, 1981 in a US Senate speech:
"By maintaining the separation of church and state the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars... Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northem Ireland, or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state? The religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives... We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn't stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic."

I will not deny that many of the citizens of the USA are and have been Christians. However, we are a secular country, that allows everybody the right and option to worship as they like, including the right to not worship at all. This is one of the freedoms that all we enjoy. And why would anyone want the government to decide what is the right religion? They might pick the wrong one! :)

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