Leave aside for the moment the inconvenient fact (despite uninformed assertions to the contrary) that the United States is not, and from the earliest days of nationhood was never intended by its founders to be, a “Christian” nation. Our national Constitution (in the “Establishment Clause”) expressly forbids any federal government support of, or involvement in, religion. The claim that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation is based on ignorance from misreading (or simply not reading) our nation’s history and the writings of our brilliant and wise founding fathers.
Thomas Jefferson, who probably had more influence on our founding principles than any other single individual, was adamant about the necessity of the separation of government from religion. He was not a Christian. Like many of the intelligentsia who guided our nation in its formative days, he was a Deist.* Our founding principles as written into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution largely reflected European philosophical thinking of the time, particularly the French revolutionary ideas of liberte, fraternite, and egalite, roughly translated as the freedom of the individual, the brotherhood of man and the equality of all citizens, ideas that are consistent with Christian principles and may have been partly derived from them as well as from some of the philosophy of the time that was fairly widespread in Europe as well as in the Colonies during that period. The fact that some the principles underlying our democracy may have been derived from Christianity does not make us a “Christian nation.”
Many of our original 13 colonies were founded by religious immigrants from Europe (Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, Huguenots, Calvinists, Ana-Baptists, Roman Catholics) who wanted to escape from the tyrannical domination and oppression by the state Christian churches of Europe. During the 1600s and early 1700s these small American colonies were founded based on the particular beliefs of groups of settlers and the settlers did not distinguish between political and religious rules. They were not interested in religious freedom as a general principle; they were only interested in religious freedom for themselves and they could be as intolerant of those who did not share those beliefs as were the state churches in the countries from which they had come. The colonists punished dissent sometimes by various corporal punishments or by public humiliation and sometimes by expulsion from their churches or their colonies. [While researching my family history I found that a distant relative and his family had been expelled from their town for inappropriate behavior for which they refused to accept church punishment.] Some religious dissenters voluntarily or forcibly left their communities to relocate elsewhere, a prominent example of which is Roger Williams, a Baptist made unwelcome in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who famously emigrated to Rhode Island to found a new colony.
By the latter half of the 1700s intolerance of differences gave way to religious freedom as it became increasingly obvious that diversity of religious belief was not going to end, the various colonies and their citizens had widely different views about religion, and these local religious squabbles and differences inhibited cooperation with their neighbors. Tolerance of differences and mutual respect were necessary for getting along with their neighbors and therefore essential qualities in cooperation to displace their colonial masters, the English. The nation’s leaders wisely recognized that the young nation would not survive unless its government stayed out of religion with its continuing disagreements and controversies.
The founders of our nation established the principle, based on the earlier religious freedom clause in the Virginia constitution, that the Federal government would be neutral with respect to religion and would have no role in religious matters. The Constitution expressly prohibited the “establishment” of any religion, by which it intended no state religion, no state support for religion, no state prohibition against any religion, no state position in religious controversy. There would be a clear line of separation of the State from any religious role, support or function. Clearly some of our early leaders were practicing Christians from diverse traditions, but many others were not, and their unhappy experience with state-sponsored religion in Europe led them to the decision that the best course of action was for the government to be neutral on religion.
While we believe that the record is clear that we are not now and have never been a Christian nation, if we assume for the moment that we are a nation founded on principles that are consistent with Christianity, and if we further assume that the majority of our citizens identify themselves as Christians, and given that some of our citizens want to believe that we are a Christian nation, what would it mean, theoretically speaking of course, to say that the United States is a Christian nation? What operating principles are implied in being a Christian nation, and how would we then differ from a nation that was not a Christian nation? What would being a Christian nation imply for our laws? For our treatment of our citizens? For social policy? For our foreign policy and our relationships with other countries? For our views on crime and punishment? For economic and distributive justice? For our views on war and peace?
In short, if we are a Christian nation, as some would like us to believe, what behavior and policy considerations are implied by that fact?
There are two different ways to approach the question of what it would mean to be a Christian nation.
The first way is to look for guidance to the principles consciously established by the founding fathers which, as we have already said, are consistent with Christian values and may have been derived from them, as annunciated most clearly and emphatically in the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal at least in the eyes of the law and therefore have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Inalienable means that inherent rights cannot be taken away, even if the government thinks that it can better protect us if it takes away those rights. We believe that those fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imply and underlie the Bill of Rights in our Constitution. We believe that they are based in the social contract theory of government, that we join together for the common good, for protection, for security. We believe that fundamental human rights include the right to a job or other financial security, to be free from hunger, to shelter, to health care, to a share of the benefits of our society. That at least establishes the legal basis for developing implications for policy and conduct that is consistent with being a Christian nation. It gets us to the same place as the second approach, but admittedly takes more work to parse out the implications in concrete terms.
The second approach, which I assume Christian leaders and followers would be eager to pursue, is to look at the implications of Jesus’ teaching and the model of his life as a guide to our national and international policies. It should be obvious (but needs repeating) that being a Christian nation should not be merely a hollow phrase or an empty slogan. Being a Christian nation has serious implications for our behavior as a nation. Just as being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus and living out his teachings in our daily life, so being a Christian nation means valuing and using the teachings of Jesus as a guide to our national policies and our behavior as a nation.
So we look to the teachings of Jesus for guidance, at least to the extent that we can know them through words attributed to him in the Gospels as they have survived through the centuries, and we look to the example and model of his life, again to the extent that we know anything about his life from the surviving historical documents. On the basis of what we know or think we know about the life and teachings of Jesus, there are some useful fragments we can assemble to guide us in our policy considerations and our actions.
When I was a child, both through various church activities and groups, as well as by parental dictate, I was forced to memorize passages from the Bible—some psalms, the ten commandments, some bits from the prophets, the essay on love in Corinthians, the Lord’s Prayer, a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, and that particular portion of collected wisdom that we know as the Beatitudes. They have stuck with me and 60 years later I can still recite them from memory. They remind me what fundamental Christian values are about and they impact my thinking about social and public policy.
It is clear from the teachings of Jesus as we have come to know them as well as from the writings of his followers that have come down to us through the generations that love is the essential Christian value, sometimes crystallized into the singular phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself.” To avoid any misunderstanding or misinterpretation, we need to elaborate a bit about what love means when used by the Christian as the fundamental guiding principle behind Christian moral values.
While Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, the common language of the region in which he lived and taught, what we know about Jesus and his teachings has come down to us in Greek, the language commonly used in the centuries following Jesus’ time. In Greek there are three different words with quite different meanings that are all translated into English as “love”–eros, philos and agape. Eros refers to sexual attraction, sexuality, making love. Philos is best understood as a “liking for” or “enjoyment of” as in the love of a good friend, or the pleasure of a beautiful sunset, or the love of a good book, and is often joined with another word in the Greek, as in philosophy (philos + sophia), the love of wisdom, or in philanthropy (philos + anthropos), the love of mankind resulting in works of compassion.
The Christian use of love comes from agape, which means the affirmation of the worth and dignity of another person, valuing others for who they are as persons, respecting the humanity of others and treating them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Love in this sense of the term is what Christian love is all about. So when we use the phrase “love thy neighbor as thyself” we understand it to be the fundamental premise of Christian values—what it means is to treat others with the respect and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, just as you would wish for yourself if you were in their place.
If the United States were a Christian nation, the principle of love, of respect for others and the affirmation of their dignity and essential humanity, would be the guiding principle underlying our laws, our social policy, our treatment of our citizens, and the basis of our foreign policy, and we would expect to judge ourselves and have others judge us on the basis of how well we fulfilled our national commitment to express love (agape) in our laws, our social policies and our actions.
Even a cursory reading about the life and teachings of Jesus suggests that if our nation were to become a Christian nation, with Christian values playing out in our public policy, it would be a very different country than it is today.
Our domestic policy priority would be to care for all of our citizens without regard to power or influence. We would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, care for the sick, provide for the widows and the elderly, heal the veterans, teach and protect the children. We would be a caring nation, which means that we would see that all in our society were cared for. We do this now, grudgingly, stingily and with much complaining on the part of ideological Republicans that people must be responsible for themselves and that government should have no role in caring for the plight of individuals who cannot make it on their own. The selfish in our society want all their money for themselves as an entitlement and do not want to part with it in taxes levied for the common welfare of all, but this attitude reflects just the opposite of Christian values. [Oddly, those who are most likely to argue that the U.S. is a Christian nation are the same people most likely to complain that the government should not tax “hard working Americans” to provide benefits to others under some theory of individual responsibility.]
Our foreign policy would be less arrogant, more humble, not so quick to take offense, not as bellicose and belligerent, less inclined to resort to force, less inclined to see every problem in the world as requiring a military solution, more interested in making and keeping peace. Our Peace Corps would be larger than our military. When Air Force planes or Navy ships headed to another country their holds would be filled with food, water, tents and medical supplies rather than bombs, and the primary mission would be to provide aid in response to famine, flood or earthquake, with sufficient strength for robust defense if and when necessary.
Our government and our citizens would demand justice and equal treatment for all: economic crimes and white collar criminals would be treated as any other crimes and criminals; our officials would throw the money changers, money managers and lobbyists out of the temples of power in the state and national legislatures; corporations and business interests would have no more power and influence than the least among us; we would value integrity and honesty in our public and private dealings and we would not tolerate hypocrisy and self-dealing in our public officials.
We would speak truth to power. As a people we would stand with the victims among us against their oppressors. Our people would not be so quick to condemn others for their actions while ignoring their own foibles. We would not stone adulterers or lesbians or throw rocks at gays or condemn those whose values and priorities are different than ours but no less legitimate. We would not attempt to compel others to live by our values while disrespecting their values and beliefs. We would not condemn so easily those who believe in a woman’s right to choose, and we would not support violence against those who support the right to abortion. We would not pretend to support a culture of life while building bombs, promoting war and supporting the death penalty.
Critics say that these Christian values are impractical, idealistic and unworkable as national policy. Maybe so. But then don’t tell me this is a Christian country. That’s not realistic either.
*Deism is the belief in an impersonal designer-creator god of the universe discovered by reason rather than revelation.