The Ungodly Constitution: How the Founders Ensured America Would Not Be a Christian Nation
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When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, almost no one in politics or everyday life went around proclaiming, “I am a Christian.” If indeed you were a Christian—that is, someone who considers Jesus Christ the Messiah—you identified yourself as a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, and so on in excelsis in order to let others know where you stood in the vast American religious landscape.
Calling oneself a Christian today, by contrast, has a special, politicized meaning. For most people in public life, this self-identification suggests a particular form of conservative Christianity, a brand of religion that seeks not only to proselytize but to impose its values on others through the machinery of the state. The huge exception to this rule is President Barack Obama, who has been forced by the birther-paranoids to advertise his credentials as a Christian in order to refute the lie that he is a “secret Muslim.”
Once upon a time (until around 1980, actually), the appellation “Christian” used to mean “right-wing Protestant,” as a consequence of the historic animosity between many forms of American Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. That is no longer true, as demonstrated by GOP primary hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the darlings of Protestant fundamentalists, although they personify the cliché “more Catholic than the pope.” (In Gingrich’s case, the relevant pontiffs would be certain medieval and Renaissance vicars of Christ who produced numerous children through extra-pontifical liaisons.) Santorum is in fact a Catholic fundamentalist—unlike the majority of American Catholics, who do not accept either the notion of papal infallibility or the Vatican line on sexual behavior. Liberal Catholics, well aware of the political meaning of Christian in American politics, generally call themselves plain old “Catholics.”
Thus, when Santorum and Gingrich used their dog whistles throughout the Republican primaries to imply that Obama is not the Christian he claims to be, what they really meant is that he is not their kind of Christian. It has also become standard for politicians to offer a nod to “our Judeo-Christian heritage” in an effort to display theocratic inclusiveness. The slippery Gingrich never stumbled over this phrase, but Santorum often did, dragging Judeo out to four syllables so that it came out “Jew-day-ee-oh.” It is clear that this ecumenical platitude was not a part of the sanctimonious Santorum’s upbringing.
Was the United States founded as a Christian nation, meaning that the framers of the Constitution established a government whose laws would not only reflect but also enforce the rules of a particular brand of Christianity? No, period. The answer is as clear as Santorum’s pronunciation of Judeo is slurred, and the explanation can be found in the old (i.e., pre-1980) American practice of identifying oneself by denomination.
Denominational identification is as old as the earliest colonies in the New World, given that the first Puritan theocrats were fleeing persecution by adherents of another denomination—the Church of England. By the revolutionary era, doctrinal and intellectual distinctions separating one Christian denomination from another remained as immense as the gulf between the beliefs of a Jew and any Christian, or between any orthodox religious believer and a deist.
The founders did not want doctrinal differences to wreak civic havoc of the kind then evident throughout Europe. That is why they left not only Jesus but indeed any deity out of the Constitution. That the American population was and is overwhelmingly Christian is a fact. That makes it all the more remarkable that the founders did not establish a Christian government.
The Christian Right cannot point to a single mention of Jesus or Christianity in any of the nation’s founding documents and is forced to rely, for divine antecedents, on the line in the Declaration of Independence that talks about all men being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. But even if this were a statement of belief in a specific god rather than a general assertion of the philosophy of natural rights, it is most decidedly not a statement of faith in Jesus Christ.