Monday, July 28, 2008

The Impossibility of a "Christian Nation":

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub features a post about some debates I did with blogger Hercules Mulligan. This post is based off a comment I left there.

In my last post I noted, though a minority, some folks do argue for a reading of the Constitution and the American Founding that privileges "Christianity" over other religions. This blogger is one of them. And, in making his case, he cites 19th Century hagiographers who promoted Christian America sounding ideas. Unfortunately, such hagiography made its way to the Supreme Court in the Holy Trinity decision which illustrates something we all understand -- that even the Supreme Court is capable of getting it utterly wrong.

American Founding ideals make it impossible to implement the notion of a "Christian Nation." We have to define exactly what we mean by "Christian Nation." It's the notion of some type of indissoluble connection between America’s civil institutions (its government) and “Christianity.” Well, in order for Christianity to have some kind of “special status” or organic connection to government, you have to first define it. And that’s something government, arguably, is incapable of doing. Indeed Jefferson and Madison believed it violated the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence for government to do this.

I know from communicating with the blogger that he defines “Christianity” very narrowly, with “orthodoxy.” And that’s fine because there is a strong tradition in Christendom for doing this. Indeed, most of the religious conservatives who posit the "Christian America" idea define Christianity in this manner. If you don’t believe in orthodoxy then you aren’t a Christian even if you call yourself one. See for instance, the Mormons. The same people who argue for "Christian America" tend to argue Mormons aren't "Christians."

The problem is many of America’s Founders, notably John Adams, weren’t “Christians” even if, like the Mormons, they understood themselves as such. And they were the ones who supposedly delivered America a "Christian order." Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin certainly were not "Christians" in this regard. And it's highly doubtful if Washington, Madison, and others were either.

Mulligan offered a quotation from the 33rd session of Congress that seemed to be based on Joseph Story’s constitutional commentaries.

At the time of the adoption of the constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged — not any one sect [of Christianity]. Any attempt to level and discard all religion, would have been viewed with universal indignation.

And Story, as a Unitarian, likewise was in that position of thinking himself a Christian but not really being one according to the understanding of the “orthodox”.

So when Story noted that “Christianity” had some kind of organic connection to the civil state (a position in which Jefferson & Madison strongly disagreed) he certainly included his heretical Unitarianism into the understanding of “Christianity.” Joseph Story and John Marshall, both Unitarians, probably give the most notable historic testimony in favor of that anti-Jeffersonian-Madisonian position.

So in giving “Christianity” such special rights, government would necessarily have to define it to include that which the orthodox regard as utter heresy. To the orthodox, this would poison the proper understanding of Christianity.

Could you imagine the orthodox thanking Joseph Story and John Marshall for their sentiments in arguing for an organic connection between Christianity and American government. And then saying but your false, heretical religion doesn’t get one iota of support because it’s not “Christianity.”

This is a recipe for sectarian squabbles, what America was founded to overcome. Indeed those squabbles did happen. In the Dedham decision in 1820 in Massachusetts, Trinitarians sued Unitarians for control over the benefits of the state Establishment aid using very similar arguments (i.e., the aid is for we “real Christians”). And they lost. And yes, there were Unitarians on the Mass. Supreme Court whom the Trinitarians blamed for “bias.” And then seeing the Unitarians getting such public aid under the auspices of a “Christian establishment,” the Trinitarians got Mass. to finally end its state religious establishment, the last one in the nation.

Like slavery, established churches or government supported Christianity, though initially permitted at the state level, were incompatible with American ideals -- i.e., the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence.

History vindicated the Jeffersonian-Madisonian understanding that held government cannot by right define Christianity. And if it cannot define it, it cannot support or protect “Christianity only.” If government, rather, protects “religion” in general, the problem is solved. That’s why natural religion (or reason) could serve as America's Founding public religion because it could unite all “good men,” regardless of their sectarian creed or status as “Christians.”


Leo said...

Don't remember if I have asked this question of you...would the American Population of 1787 considered America a Christian Nation? Would Adams, Jefferson and other American leaders of the time been electable if the population understood them to be Unitarians?

Jonathan Rowe said...

That's a good question; I'm not exactly how to answer. On the one hand over 98% were "Protestant Christians" in at least a "formal" sense (i.e., the same way that Jefferson & Adams were Protestants). On the other hand I've seen a study showing that perhaps only around 17% were members of Churches (but that number may be a lowball and may represent an unavailability of ministers). Who knows how many real regenerate "orthodox" Christians v. nominal Christians there were among them.

I do know that Jefferson and Adams could not be up front about their heterodoxy mainly because certain orthodox figures had a great deal of institutional power. Though, Jefferson was widely suspected of being an "infidel" and was twice elected. He didn't wear his heterodoxy on his sleeve though.