Monday, April 10, 2006

Countering "Christian Nation" Twaddle...Again:

Readers know that refuting the ahistorical and inaccurate claims of the "Christian Nation" crowd is something in which I specialize. Sometimes I worry that I am knocking down a "straw man." After all, one doesn't need to accept "Christian Nation" nonsense to advance the serious claim that the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause decisions have not been altogether proper or that the Founding Fathers allowed more expressions of religion in public life than what the ACLU or other proponents of "strict Separation" desire.

See this article by uber-Paleocon Thomas Fleming for an historically honest argument (with which I disagree, though) that both 1) rejects the Christian Nation claim, but 2) nonetheless advances a states rights oriented position on the Establishment Clause highly critical of modern Supreme Court decisions. Fleming writes:

America, they insist, was founded as a Christian country and, were it not for federal judges, it would be a publicly Christian country today....Ultimately, they believe, our religious freedom rests upon the Declaration of Independence, a fundamental part of our constitutional law, whose references to God give Christianity a protected position within the American system. God has blessed Americans, so long as we have publicly acknowledged His laws by praying in school and by hanging up copies of the Ten Commandments, and He will withdraw that blessing if we persist in our wicked ways.

It is a pretty fiction, and one that I would like to believe. The American founding is a complex story, and there were many Christians among the leaders in the seceding states. However, neither the leaders of the Revolution nor the principal authors of the Constitution were, for the most part, devout and orthodox Christians....

If the Supreme Court were to apply such a standard to school prayer or Judge Moore's monument, the justices would have to declare it within the rights of the state of Alabama to decide its own religious questions. If Alabama wanted to establish Islam or the Southern Baptist Convention as the official religion of the state, collect tithes and pay ministers, there is nothing that any branch of the federal government acting under the original Constitution could do about it....

If Dred Scott is a slender reed for conservatives to rely on, the Declaration of Independence is a morass. Whatever Mr. Jefferson and his colleagues thought they were doing (other than restating Enlightenment platitudes that have nothing to do with Christianity), they were not writing the fundamental law of a nation that did not yet exist. If they had been intending to establish Christianity at the center of the American system, they would have used Christian language instead of such deistic phrases as "Nature's god." Although some conservatives have made valiant efforts to give the Declaration a harmless reading, Harry Jaffa and other leftists have ensured that the Declaration is read today as a revolutionary manifesto for natural rights that transcend the pettifogging restrictions of the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment, guaranteeing the rights of the states.

The latest display of such dishonest "Christian Nation" history was featured in the "War on Christians Conference." See Elizabeth A. Castelli demolish the historical claims presented at the conference here, an author named "Mainstream Baptist" and his takedown here, and Ed Brayton's here. As these sources note, the conference had some pretty powerful and influential political players (who represent, in my opinion, the worst elements in modern conservatism). And folks like Rod Parsley and D. James Kennedy mislead followers by the millions. So as long as they continue to spout their Christian Nation twaddle, I'll continue to refute it.

As Brayton's post notes, these folks don't realize how absolutely laughable it is that they invoke Puritan Massachusetts and John Winthrop's "experiment" to Found a "Christian Commonwealth," a "shining city on a hill" if you will. The Puritans/Pilgrims, were terribly persecuted dissents in England who briefly took refuge in Holland shortly before they fled to America. So when they came to America and established the Massachusetts colony, did the Puritans, as the now "dominant" sect, reflect on their terrible experiences as "dissidents" and decide to tolerate other religions? Hell no -- now that they were in power, the Puritans would be just as intolerant. The above link by the Baptist author discusses what things were like for dissident Christian sects in good ole Colonial Massachusetts. This first quotation focuses on the treatment of Baptists:

John Clarke, pastor of the Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode Island published an account of religious persecution in New England in his Ill News from New-England(1652). In it he told how in the summer of 1651, Obadiah Holmes, John Crandall, and John Clarke -- all members of the Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode Island -- were arrested and imprisoned for holding an unauthorized worship service in the home of a blind Baptist named William Witter who lived at Lynn, Massachusetts outside Boston. They were sentenced to be fined or whipped. Fines for Clarke and Crandall were paid by friends. Holmes refused to let friends pay his fine and was publicly whipped on the streets of Boston on September 6, 1651.

This passages tells us what it was like for the Quakers:

Sydney Ahlstrom records some of the ways that the authorities dealt with Quakers, "In July 1656 the ship Swallow anchored in Boston Harbor. It became known quickly that on board were two Quaker women, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, who had shipped from Barbados. The authorities moved swiftly. The women were kept on ship while their belongings were searched and more than one hundred books confiscated. Although there was as yet no law against Quakers in Massachusetts, the two were hurried off to jail, stripped of all their clothing, and inspected for tokens of witchcraft. After five weeks, the captain of the Swallow was placed under a 100 pound bond to carry them back to Barbados." A Religious History of the American People, p. 178.

And God help you if you didn't worship the Biblical God; the Puritans had laws on the books which merited the death penalty for worshipping any God but the Lord God, complete with references to Scripture (including the First Commandment) as justification.

Moreover, do keep in mind that these people -- the Puritans -- knew the Bible as well as anyone. It wasn't until Roger Williams, who in reflecting on the problem of religious persecution, that we got an interpretation of the Bible that demanded religious liberty. To which some in the Christian Nation crowd reply: "Aha -- religious liberty is a Biblical idea."

Well, not so fast. Here is the context which must be taken into account. Williams's interpretation of the Bible and Civil government was not only utterly novel for its time, but also concluded that government should have nothing to do with the Christian Religion and vice versa. Williams first used the phrase, "Wall of Separation," well before Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. He rejected the Calvinistic/Puritan notion of the "Christian Commonwealth." (He once famously said, "No civil state or country can be truly called Christian, although the Christian be in it.") And Williams explicitly connected his case for religious liberty to the notion that government should be secular in its essential functions. As he wrote in 1644 in The Bloody Tenent, Of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, "All civil states with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are . . . essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the Spiritual, or Christian, State and worship. . .."

And the Puritans banished Williams from Massachusetts to found Rhode Island for daring to question their precious little theocracy.

For a good laugh, see this debate thread on the Evangelical Outpost where someone named Gordon Mullings makes practically every single erroneous "Christian Nation" assertion, in the context of delivering dissertation length posts full of grammatical errors. Here is a typical paragraph of his:

This is all I need for my basic point: Christians and thinkers influenced by the Christian faith made material contributions to the rise of modern liberty and as such have been open to genuine reformation and liberation across centuries. There fore those who would in our time poison the wellby robbing us of this past and implying or assering that Bible-believeing Christians today are dangerous enemies of liberty, are deceivers [if they are intentionally lying or are wild=fully refusing to face the truth] or are taken-in, ignorant passers on of deception.

Somewhere in the middle of that muddled mess is a point that needs to be answered. Yes, some "Bible-believing Christians" both today and in the past are "enemies of liberty" and some are defenders of liberty. John Winthrop, John Calvin, the Puritans and countless others were enemies of liberty; Roger Williams and the Baptists were early defenders of liberty. Today the Christian Right, like those from the War on Christians Conference, by defending the notion of the "Christian Nation" operate in the tradition of the Christian enemies of liberty. One wishes they would instead opt for Roger Williams's noble Christian tradition of defending liberty. But to do that, they'd have to abandon their "pretty fiction" that America is or ever was a "Christian Nation."


Karen McL said...

I finally got to posting that excerpt from "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman.


Jonathan said...

Thanks. I'll check it.