06 July 2010


Much fuss has been made in recent years by the conservative right over their assertion that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation. Yet ours is a country which embraces diversity, a nation in which freedom of religion is a founding principle expressed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution (wherein Thomas Jefferson explicitly and forcefully noted the separation of church and state). Supposing that any single religion enjoys legal or moral primacy is simply wrong.

Susan Jacoby in the Washington Post presented a thoughtful essay on this issue. She states in part that "The Constitution, hammered out in Philadelphia in 1787, established the secular basis of the federal government by omitting any reference to any deity and specifically forbidding the imposition of religious restrictions for public office that existed at the time in most state laws ... It is significant that when it actually came time to write the fundamental law establishing the federal government, the founders did not even include a general phrase like the one in the Declaration of Independence stating that 'all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.' This was the language of natural rights, familiar to all raised on Enlightenment theory and rhetoric. It was intended to convey that every citizen had the same rights and that no king could abrogate them. It was not intended, as those who claim that America was founded as a 'Christian nation' assert, to establish a religious, much less a Christian, government. That is why no god appears in the Constitution -- an omission widely noted and debated at the time, and one that the right wing can never get around or explain away today, no matter how hard it tries.

"The founders were not atheists. Many were Enlightenment deists, believing in a being who may have created the universe but then stepped back and took no further part in the affairs of humans ... Even those who professed a more conservative form of religion were keenly aware of the dangers of religious involvement in government, and that is why the Constitution ascribed political power to 'We the People.'"

... [Jacoby quoting Robert Green Ingersoll :] "Our fathers founded the first secular government ... the first government that said every church has has exactly the same rights, and no more; every religion has exactly the same rights, and no more. In other words, our fathers had the sense, had the genius to know that no church should have a sword, that it should be allowed only to exert its moral influences.

"The religion that has to be supported by law is without value, it is a fraud and a curse. The religious argument that has to be supported by a musket is hardly worth making. A prayer that must have a cannon behind it, better never be uttered. Foregiveness ought not to go in partnership with shot and steel. Love need not carry knives and revolvers. They (the founders) derived all their authority from the people. They did away forever with the theological idea of government."

End of quote. It should be noted that the phrases "freedom of" and "freedom from" are linked. Freedom of religion implicitly includes freedom from religion. Thus in our secular society, agnostics and atheists have equal rights, and possess equal wisdom and credibility, alongside those who identify with any religion. The assertion that ours is a Christian nation not only ignores our own history, it also insults and disenfranchises all citizens who are not Christian, and all citizens who are not religious at all. The founders would disapprove.

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