Depending on your point of view, this is either the perfect time to reflect on the United States not being a Christian nation – as the evangelical right and even many ordinary Protestants and Catholics insist it is – or a total sacrilege. My hunch is that most readers here believe the former so there’s little risk of my being crucified for writing this on Easter.
Last week in Turkey, President Obama reminded the world and his fellow Americans of our nondenominational heritage to explain why America is not at war with Islam. In doing so, he was reaching back to principles dating from the very settlement of the country, a concept established long before there was a United States and its remarkable Constitutional guarantee of freedom of (and from) religion. This single, revolutionary idea even pre-dates the Declaration of Independence and defines the nation as much as anything else.
Indeed, as anyone who remembers eighth grade history knows, Rhode Island was created as a sanctuary from religious intolerance. So unheard of was this in the 1600s that 15 Jewish families made the perilous crossing from Europe in a tiny boat to flee persecution and found the first synagogue in the “new world.” The Hebrew Congregation of Newport is still going strong, one of the oldest, continuously operating houses of worship in the land.
Yet, somehow, evangelical fringe artists and far right Republicans – cheered on by notorious crazies like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, other assorted if less famous wacko’s and countless goofball websites – got it in their head that the US is a “Christian nation.”
It’s remarkable so many Americans have so little grasp of a premise so basic to their nation.
Jefferson The Radical
As America’s foremost early thinker, Thomas Jefferson believed in a kind of God but only to the extent that a god may have given man a complex brain to use for independent thought. But he had no use at all for the idea of Jesus, a saviour born to a virgin as the son of God, a human who walked on water, fed the 5,000 and performed miracles left and right. The resurrection? To Jefferson, the whole idea was poppycock, a fairy tale created by Christian lunatics promoting their imaginary friend, as TV’s House puts it.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson outlines his radical view that produced the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, enacted years before he wrote the Constitution: “(I)t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Hardly the intellectual basis for a Christian nation from one of the key men responsible for creating this nation.
A Core Right
Thus, Jefferson created our core right – along with speech, press, assembly and protest – to not just worship any way or no way a person wants but banning a state religion, de rigueur at the time in Europe even during the Age of Enlightenment. For example, Jefferson knew that the Church of England was created as a state religion solely because Henry VIII was furious at the Catholic Church for preventing him from divorcing one of his wives. It’s why heirs to the British crown are still barred from marrying a Catholic.
Jefferson wanted none of this religious phooey to infect the new nation.
Although a devout believer Anglican, George Washington fully agreed with Jefferson. At one point, members of Rhode Island’s Hebrew Congregation wrote the new president pleading that they be considered citizens of the new nation and not just tolerated as Jews.
Washington wrote back, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
The synagogue’s rabbi must have been stunned as he read Washington’s letter. For 5,000 years, Jews were persecuted and here was Washington welcoming them as citizens. The congregation still proudly displays the letter behind glass, its paper yellowing and the brown ink Washington used fading with age. But the words keep ringing out loudly and clearly: The United States is not a Christian nation.
But try telling this to O’Reilly and his feigned “War on Christmas.” Explain to Limbaugh that Christianity is as welcome in America as Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Hottentots, atheism and worshipping trees if that’s what you want to do. Each belief creates an American nation. Watch Beck fake another bout of weeping as he hears a Founding Father thought the Jesus story was a prank. And if, as George Carlin believed, at death your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo, then America is also a nation of mini-warehouses stocked full of used souls somewhere in upstate New York.
Christian nation my ass.
Business And Evangelicals
For that matter, Christian fundamentalism is no more a part of America’s founding that any other religion despite what the Mega Church millionaire pastors preach.
The rise of evangelicalism in America was a shrewd, calculated business ploy by mine owners after World War I.
They didn’t give a hoot about Christ but had a deep, abiding belief in stopping coal miners from drinking because it affected their work. The owners chanced upon a teatotalling, charismatic, unordained preacher named Billy Sunday who they paid handsomely to wander through Appalachian tows, fervently sermonising against demon rum, philandering and straying from the word of the gospel.
Nearly every miner was a devout Protestant anyway so Reverend Sunday tapped easily into their belief system. And it paid off just the way mining companies had hoped: While men weren’t keen about giving up beer, whiskey and whores, their wives grabbed onto the idea and became apostates. But alcoholism among miners slowly declined as did venereal disease transmitted by the prostitutes who lurked around every mining town on pay day.
As evangelicalism took root among Protestants, it steered clear of politics until cable television became widespread in American homes, allowing Pat Robertson & Friends, Inc., easy access to an audience – and gobs of money from unsuspecting believers – to spread their often-hate filled views of an “us and them” America.
And with the rise of media churchiness came the bizarre perversion of the US being a “Christian nation.” Now we are stuck with the ill-informed fringe claiming it to be fact.
Happy Easter, Shana Tova, Whatever
Personally, I have no issue with anyone believing or not what they choose. My own religious upbringing was something of a hybrid, the result of a mother who had no religion herself but wanted to ensure her two children learned that how someone prayed (or didn’t) had nothing to do with who they are as people.
Both as an American and an individual, foisting a “Christian nation” idea on a country founded on anything but is thoroughly repugnant. A Christian nation? That’s an idea that, at its core, arose from the business-backed temperance movement of the early 20th century. If you want to believe Jesus was the son of God and born to a virgin, good for you; if you think your religious friends are wasting their time talking to an imaginary friend, good for you, too.
But please stop telling me America is a Christian – or Hebrew or Moslem or Hindu or anything else religious – nation.
It is a nation of laws, of people, and of the freedom to think whatever you like.
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