Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Independence Day Musings: A Christian Nation?

As we celebrate the publication of that all-important American document, The Declaration of Independence, I can't help but also think of our current political climate, and some of the language that gets thrown around by various pretenders and pundits.
One phrase that always catches my attention is "a Christian Nation," as in "the United States was founded as a Christian nation, therefore, what you're doing is unAmerican."

The irony of using Christianity, whose fundamental texts call for peace and tolerance, to justify bigotry has been much written of elsewhere, and I won't go into that in detail here. Instead, I'd like to think about whether or not the U.S. was indeed founded on some sort of Christian principle, and what that means to us in the 21st Century.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were, indeed,  "Christian" men. While some were more traditional in their beliefs than others, all but one (Charles Carroll, a Roman Catholic) were aristocratic Anglo-Protestants. The language of the Declaration and the Constitution do contain references to God and The Creator, as was co mmon in formal documents of the day.

But looking at the content of both the Declaration and the Constitution, one would be hard pressed to find any justification for favoring one religion to exclusion of all others, in fact, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights explicitly forbid the government from doing so in several places, saying there can be no religious test for serving in office, and prohibiting the government from either endorsing or supressing any particular faith.

But what about intent? As I pointed out, the Framers were all Christian men, didn't they intend Christianity to dominate?

Well, first off, there has been entirely too much fetishisation of the "intent of the Framers" lately. While they were bright, courageous and well-educated men, they were just as fallible as any other bunch of mere mortals. In fact, one of the smartest thing they did was to leave a flexible set of laws that could be adapted to fit the changing needs of future generations and changed to correct their own oversights.

I would argue that, if anything, the United States was founded as a "pragmatic" nation more than a nation of any particular faith. And yet, there is in the Declaration a particularly Christian sentiment, included in one of the most famous sentences ever set to paper:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Most of recorded history, and much practial observation would serve to contradict this statement. Men (in the general sense of human beings) are NOT equal, some are born wealthy, some poor, some healthy, some sick, some have far more influence over the world around them than others. Many cultures, including that of the founding fathers, felt it was perfectly acceptable to hold other human beings as property.

Yet there in that one sentence, was stated the belief that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, there is something inherent to each human life that is of equal value to every other human life on the planet. That all all of us are, in some intangible way, of the same importance.

In this we see reflected the Christian teaching that the poor and the powerless are just as valued as kings and princes. It's a powerful (and sadly, often ignored) concept that is at the heart of the democratic ideal.

Unfortunately, this sense that all of us are equal usually falls by the wayside in the practial functioning of government, but maybe it's worth reminding ourselves of it from time to time.

And perhaps, more importantly, it directly contradicts the meaning of the small-minded  ones who so often throw out the "Christian Nation" flag to justify their own petty prejudices. If our Founding Fathers intended this to be a nation of Christian ideals, then the foremost ideal in their mind was that we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of the superficial distinctions of faith, lifestyle and circumstances.

Happy Fourth!