Friday, April 24, 2015

A Christian nation?

I wrote the following letter to the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel newspaper. Letters to the editor can only be 350 words, so I had to edit it severely. I am posting the original letter here. It may lack context itself, without access to the letter it addresses. There are a number of people who argue about whether the United States is or ever was a Christian, and pick select quotes that will prove their point. 

In a letter to the editor on the April 22nd "Opinion Page" of the Daily Sentinel (p. 4a), Robert Martin writes to support Tom Rorie's debunking of America as a "Christian nation". I cannot comment on Rorie's writing, as I did not see it. But Mr. Martin does your readers a disservice by giving out of context quotes to prove his point. (Those interested in reviewing the context of any of these historical quotes may find them with simple Google searches.) Such selective quoting is part and parcel of the work of partisans on both sides of the "Christian nation"/"not a Christian nation" issue. 

His first quote by Washington is mis-referenced. This is from a letter to the General Committee of the United Baptist Churches in Virginia in May of 1789. Washington applauds their stand for religious liberty and appeals to them for the prayers. Immediately after what Mr. Martin quotes, Washington writes, "For you doubtless remember, that I have often expressed my sentiments, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." He concludes saying, "In the mean time be assured, Gentlemen, that I entertain a proper sense of your fervent supplications to God for my temporal and eternal happiness."

When Adams writes "It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven" the rest of the sentence is "...any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses." While Adams believes those who developed the American systems of government were no more directly inspired than those who work on ships or houses, he went to indicate that he himself believed the system of government was founded on the basic Christian religion: "The experiment is made, and has completely succeeded: it can no longer be called in question, whether authority in magistrates, and obedience of citizens, can be grounded on reason, morality, and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests, or the knavery of politicians."

Adams did write that "the best of all possible worlds [would have] no religion in it." But this was an exasperated Adams who thought it but then could not endorse it. The quote is from a letter written by John Adams on April 19, 1817 to Thomas Jefferson, which with context provides a better understanding. "The Parson [Parish Priest Lemuel Bryant] and the Pedagogue [Adams's Latin School Master Joseph Cleverly] lived much together, but were eternally disputing about Government and Religion. One day, when the Schoolmaster had been more than commonly fanatical, and declared "if he were a Monark, He would have but one Religion in his Dominions" The Parson coolly replied "Cleverly! You would be the best Man in the World, if You had no Religion." Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it." ! ! ! But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company--I mean Hell."

In these examples I think we can see that Washington and Adams were not saying in the excerpts what might be assumed by the casual reader. As for Jefferson and Franklin, surely most understand that they were not "card-carrying" evangelical Christians. Yet they were not entirely antagonistic to some of the benefits of the religion, either. Franklin may have been one of the most unusual and eccentric of the Founding Fathers, and somewhat antagonist to organized religion. Yet it is apparently accurate that he concluded his Thursday, June 28, 1787, speech to the Constitutional Convention moving, "I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service." [This was reported by James Madison, and according to his report the Convention did not pass the motion.]

My point? Whether or not the United States of America was founded as a "Christian nation" is not a simple debate and will not be decided by quote-picking, whether done by Robert Martin or David Barton. There were many opinions among the founders about both politics and religion. But what we do know is this -- the United States of America was founded on the principle of the free exercise of all religions, or the free choice to not exercise any at all. Baptist minister John Leland advised, "Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."

For those interested in reading the the contexts, most of this information can be found by searching the internet.

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