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The Ungodly Constitution: How the Founders Ensured America Would Not Be a Christian Nation

The founders made a noble effort to say goodbye to all that in order to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

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The ability of the religious Right to frame this dispute purely as a matter of religious freedom—meaning freedom for the most conservative forms of religion—is a direct result of the long erosion of the separation of church and state at the practical level of taxpayer funding. Throughout these decades of erosion, what was once the religious center has constantly been pulled to the right.

(It should be noted that the furor is also a consequence of the Catholic bishops’ inability to convince their own flock to follow the church’s lead on sexual issues. The bishops are attempting to reassert control over Catholic hospitals—some of them run by uppity nuns—where church doctrine has been violated for years when it comes to such matters as the morning-after pill for rape victims and abortions needed to save a mother’s life. But the split within the Catholic Church is not the subject of this article.)

There is no real answer to be found in the nation’s founding documents about this question, because the founders never envisioned an America in which the federal government would spend billions of dollars on health and education, whether through religious or nonreligious institutions. It is worth noting, however, that Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom—which later served as the template for the Bill of Rights—came into being in opposition to a proposal that would have taxed Virginians for the support of Christian teaching in the public schools. Virginia’s law, not the statutes of states that still had established churches, became the template for Article VI, which was supposed to ban religious preference within the government, and the First Amendment, which prevented government from favoring one religion over another. The issue in Virginia, then, like the national issue over the prerogatives of sectarian hospitals today, encompassed both religious freedom and money.

The bishops are not the least bit concerned about the freedom of non-Catholic (or, for that matter, Catholic) employees whose consciences tell them that contraception is just fine. They are not concerned about rape victims, whatever their religion, who will not only be refused the morning-after pill by their hospitals but also will not even be told about other nonsectarian hospitals that provide such services. They will not be concerned if someday the Vatican decides that living wills are a usurpation of divine and ecclesiastical authority and that everyone has a duty to go on living and suffering until some deity decides to pull the plug.

The question is not whether the United States is a Christian nation: it is whether church authorities adhering to a deeply conservative brand of Christianity (along with some ultra-Orthodox rabbis who do not speak for most American Jews, any more than bishops speak for most American Catholics or the Family Research Council speaks for most American Protestants) get to use taxpayer money to further their parochial agenda.

It is true that most American secularists tolerate a good deal more religious symbolism in public life than we would like, but it is sheer fantasy to suggest that we have signed on to any covenant that tolerates the expenditure of public money according to the prescriptions and proscriptions of canon law or general biblical laws.

Oh, wait. There really weren’t any biblical laws about contraception because there wasn’t any effective contraception. But then, biblical Israel was definitely not a Christian nation. It was, however, a theocracy, like every Christian feudal monarchy and nation-state that succeeded the Roman Empire. The founders made a noble effort to say goodbye to all that in order to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

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