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December 23, 2004

America is not a Christian nation

America is not a Christian nation. The claim is either trivial, unintelligible, or false.

One might argue that America is a Christian country simply because a plurality of its citizens self-identify as Christians. The religious right is either making a much more substantial claim or committing a logical fallacy.

Theocrats often use the "Christian country" claim as a key premise in arguments of the following form:

(p1) The United States of America is a Christian country.

(p2) Christianity abhors usury.

(p3) Christian countries must not permit anything abhorrent to Christianity.

(C ) Therefore, the USA must not permit usury.

Suppose (p1) means “Christians comprise at least a plurality of American citizens.” On this weak reading, the argument derails, even if we grant (p2) and (p3). So what if a majority of Americans are Christians? What matters is whether a majority of Americans vote to ban usury and whether the proposed anti-usury legislation is constitutional. The weak version of (p1) doesn’t do any work. If that’s all the “Christian nation” claim amounts to, the argument reduces to a civics lesson.

Consider a stronger reading of (p1): “The constitution of the United States of America requires that laws conform to Christian doctrine.” Alternatively, “The constitution forbids any laws that violate Christian doctrine”; or “The constitution requires that we pass all and only those required by Christian doctrine.”

The sample argument makes a certain amount of sense on the strong reading of (p1). The strong reading has a significant drawback, however—namely, that (p1) comes out false. The constitution just doesn’t say anything like that.

Some Christians point to the influence of Christianity on laws, traditions, and secular institutions. These arguments don't have the same force as appeals to constitutional law. We can always ask why we should continue to abide by Christian tradition if the majority now wills otherwise, or if Christian tradition turns out to violate the constitution.

Here’s a medium strength (p1) that Christians often deploy when pressed: “The constitution is based on Christian values.” This claim is too vague to sustain our sample argument.

The values of the constitution are consistent with many of the values of Christianity, but also with the values of many other religions and many secular ethics. The critical point is that the constitution does not appeal to Christian doctrine to justify authority. I.e., the authority of the constitution does not rest upon tenets of faith, revealed truth, or the dogma of any particular religion.

Medium strength (p1) is at best incomplete as it stands. The fact that the Framers were influenced by Christian ideas doesn't imply that they intended to create a Christian nation. If we want to talk about the intellectual heritage of the Framers, we also have to acknowledge their debt to the secularism of the Enlightenment, to deism, to the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution, and so on.

"America is a Christian nation" is an empty slogan. It doesn't mean much and nothing follows from it. It reinforces tribal solidarity among believers and marginalizes non-believers. If you take the claim in the spirit in which it is offered, the clear implication is that non-Christians are bad Americans.

Don Herzog is grappling with similar issues at Left2Right.

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Comments

Thank you for this. I don't know why I found it comforting, but I did.

Points well made. It seems the Bush Administration and many of their supporters would like America to be a Theocracy and are hell-bent on transforming it into one. Their aggressive efforts to re-interpret the constitution and as many other laws as they can get their teeth into is a dangerous assault on our most basic rights, and we need to fight this continually.

Lindsay,

Alas, it's more complicated than that.

America is like the old Doublemint commercials: two, two nations in one!

Historically, white guys moved to America because they were escaping either religious persecution or bad deeds (or both). The former were in many cases religious fanatics who had crossed the limits their European countrymen would tolerate. They brought their nuttiness over here and perpetrated such niceties as Witch Trials and atrocities against their non-white predecessors. The latter were in many cases irreligious, deists, or even free thinkers more or less of the Enlightenment ilk who thought the New World was a groovy place to grow hemp, make a buck, get slaves to do the icky jobs, and drink oodles of strong, subversive coffee (marvelously fictionalized by Mr. Pynchon recently).

The tension betwixt the two has never been resolved. It is reflected in our founding documents. Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration, fr'instance, had no deity in it. If I remember a'right, God was added at the behest of John Adams, he who would later be president when the Sedition Act was passed, who broke treaties with France and, in the opinion of Ben Franklin's grandson, betrayed the Spirit of '76 by cutting deals with England (read American Aurora for the skinny on this).

This split in America has become important many times since. And this is one of those times. Anatol Lieven has written a marvelous book which goes into detail on this called "America: Right Or Wrong" which I heartily reccommend.

My opinion? I'm beginning to think LIncoln may have been our worst president. Had he let the bums go when he had the chance in 1860, slavery would surely have died out within a generation in the Confederacy. Equally important, the South didn't have either the infrastructure, the education, or the manpower to fend off dire poverty for both blacks AND whites. The United States, in contrast, would have prospered without the moral and economic albatrosses of the Confederates around its neck and world peace would prevail for a zillion years (okay, mebbe not the last part).

But Lincoln did what he did and so, like it or not, as long the US endures, we will need to endure the unfair but unavoidable burden imposed on our lives by our crackpot fellow citizens.

And therefore, if we wanna prevent them from literally getting us blown up again by reason of their stupidity, we will need to make a far better case than we have over the past 30 years that the American liberal tradition that derives from the Enlightenment will benefit all Americans, even the God Squadders, than the peabrains who currently dominate the official government and culture.

And that will take a lot of thinking and muttering amongst ourselves.

Tristero,

All the "Christians" aren't in the South. And all the Christians in the South aren't "Christians."

The right wing "Christian" claim that America is a Christian nation, besides being historically bunk, is based on a brazen two-facedness on their part.

They claim we're a Christian country because most Americans are Christian. But most of the people who are Christian are not by their definition "Christian" and are going to hell. Catholics, for instance. The Born Agains think Catholics are idol worshipping pagans. But take Catholics out of the ranks of "Christians" and suddenly the country becomes a lot less Christian.

(http://lancemannion.typepad.com/lance_mannion/2004/12/everything_i_ne.html)

Same goes for Episcopaleans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, most Methodists, half the Lutherans, quite a few Baptists, and all the Baptists who are black, and liberal evangelicals like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and my son's piano teacher's family.

The "Christians" consider the rest of us who believe that Jesus of Nazereth was something more than a philosopher "Christian" only when they need us to beef up their numbers when they make their case for a theocracy. The rest of the time they believe we're the devil's spawn.

The "Christians" are in fact a minority. If the media took religion seriously then these "Christians" would not be presented as the face of Christianity. But as Frank Rich pointed out last week in the Times, the media thinks they make for good entertainment so they get the screen time.

I'd be delighted if something resembling real Christianity broke out in this country.

I'm with you, peter jung, and I consider myself a Christian.

Lindsay, I love this post. Thanks for it. I did something similar a month or so ago regarding Jefferson's and Franklin's views on their intended wall of separation between search and state. If anyone is interested, the original post is here, but there's more discussion on the same content here.

Whatever it is or isn't, or your own religion or none, I wish you and yours a very Happy December 25th.

Most people who claim to be Christians aren't. They're Paulines.

And if not Paulines, then Crypto-jews...

Hello Lindsay:

Why do we continue to try to address sophistry with reason when it seems incompatible with dominant cultural paradigms?

Aren't we merely pissing in the wind like Socrates with the Athenians?

Are people today really any different than those during Socrates' era, despite so-called education?

Maybe we need to find a Gilligan-esque "Different Voice", or more than a voice, a way of being.

Oh dear, it's Christmas Eve, and this is just depressing. I'll shut up.

She's beautiful and intelligent!

Good post.

Note incidentally that your Left2Right link mistakenly points to your blog, not theirs.

Lindsay,

I have a bunch of responses. I'm afraid they may distress you, but that is not my intent. I've been studying and pondering this stuff for over 20 years; my intent is (1) to emphasize how extremely complex this subject is, (2) assert that the type of logical argument you make does not address the current situation, and (3) because this situation has a different logic than the one you suggest we examine, that kind of confrontation with these clowns is doomed to be ineffective. Basically, we are in deep trouble and they obey the logic of power grabs. Anyway, some thoughts:


We may not be a Christian nation, but we are not NOT a Christian nation either. The radical separatist Christianity folks have been here as long as the deist/separation of church and state folks have. Their cooties can be found splattered all over our founding documents and throughout our political/cultural/artistic history. Of course, Jefferson and Franklin. But also, Adams and Mather. That, alas, is the cross we all have to bear (grin).

While most of the country is a member of one or another Christian denomination or evangelical church, it is true, as you say, that logically it does not follow that this is a Christian, let alone christianist nation (christianism= American political movement that exploits Christian traditions). But what we're confronting is not about logic or consistency, it is about the irrational and compelling (il)logic of association, which will not yield to this kind of argument. Here is what they have going for them,

This country is the most religiously observant First World nation (by at least an order of magnitude) and most folks are members of Christian churches, denominations, etc. Also, it is simply a fact that the majority of people in this country would have no problem whatsoever restricting the civil rights of Muslims (and probably other religions as well). The inconsistencies in their positions don't bother them in the slightest (Mark Danner discusses this in the current NY Review). It is also true that the majority of this country has no concept of the vital importance of absolute separation of church and state. If it is seriously breached (which it will be over the next four years) it will be a disaster for everyone, including Christians of all stripes. But that won't stop them.

Finally, it is a fact, and an utterly incomprehensible one, that those of us with a liberal education have no idea what we're talking about when it comes to American religious traditions. We don't know the history of fundamentalism and how it differs from other 19th Century American movements (incredibly, scholarly research into this topic is still in the early stages), and many of us still confuse it with evangelicalism (which gets confused with Pentecostalism all too often). *

Bottom line: The christianists are our enemies, they are trying to destroy the tradition from which most of our politics (secular conservativism,moderate, liberal, left, and radical) derive, and they are winning. The first step towards confronting an enemy is knowing who they are and what they are trying to do. But we haven't studied them half as carefully as they've studied us. And so, we -you, me, most of the American intellectual culture that we encounter- misunderstand how clever these people are.

Again, this is about the power of the irrational. It will not succumb to logic. For example:

While you assert that christianists would condemn most Christians, including Catholics, to hell, and therefore they are not part of the christianist movement, that simply is not the case in 21st Century America.

Exhibit A: "The Passion of the Christ" is, more or less, a Catholic movie. However, it has received widespread support not only from Catholics but from all across the entire spectrum of Christian tradition in this country. You may not like the movie -frankly, I prefer the book- but that is hardly the point.

The point is that at present, christianists are smart enough to privilege power right now more than they do doctrinal purity. They are more than prepared to ally themselves with anyone across the full spectrum of the Christian tradition (and even further, they are enthusiastic supporters of radical Zionists in Israel) that unites them. Why?

Because they have a superordinate goal that transcends their differences: a hatred of "secularism," aka the entire Enlightenment project, aka you, me, our buddies, and everything we value, from Mozart to Piss Christ to intimacy to"secular" philosopy to tolerance of diversity. They hate our guts.

And they are winning.


*Perhaps most self-destructive of all, even today most of us have bought into the Inherit the Wind myth - namely, that Bryan's victory in the Scopes trial was a Pyrrhic one, that Darrow utterly humilated and discredited the Bible thumpers. That simply wasn't so. First of all, by modern standards, Bryan was more liberal than not and his views were far more complex than the caricature most of us are familiar with. More importantly, fundamentalists disappeared from mainstream American liberal culture for some fifty years, but they hardly felt defeated or humiliated (and yes, the majority of the Christianists are in the south and southwest, while evangeliicals are all over the place). And fundamentalism morphed into christianism, a crass, cynical political movement run by ignorant blasphemers that would probably appall Bryan.

There's tons of evidence you could cite to your Christian friends, including the Tripoli treaty, Ben Franklin's letter to a clergyman in which he expresses doubts about the divinity of Jesus, Tom Paine's anti-clerical rants, and Jefferson's editing all the supernatural stuff out of his version of the Gospels -- as well as the fact that Washington, Franklin, and other Founding Fathers were avid Freemasons, which most born-again types regard as one step removed from devil worship.
None of this will matter to your Christian friends. They don't want to know about it because they already know better.
This is the Age of Ideology in the USA.

I am of the view that American is a nation "founded by Christians", NOT a "Christian Nation." Your ability to understand the difference says more about you than about the country. Unfortunately, it also puts you (and I) in the cultural minority in America, one that I am becoming more and more convinced may not be worth remaining and participating in. Jacques Barzun has said that we have "the culture we deserve" - is it arrogance or desperation to suggest that we deserve better?

Excellent. I look around these days and find that "heathens" are more "christ-like" then those throwing their "dominionist" points of view around. I'm tired of being forcefed their version of "morals and values."

Thanks again.

A comment turned up today on an old post at my site, "Everything I needed to know about Charles Darwin I learned in kindergarten." I guess this "Christian" found me through Google.

(Here's the URL if you're interested:

http://lancemannion.typepad.com/lance_mannion/2004/12/everything_i_ne.html)

Anyway, the point of my post was pretty much "Christians" don't consider the rest of us Christians Christian. This guy came along to prove my point. Thought you'd all get a kick out of what he said, so here it is.

"Christian is an all inclusive word in the definition that all can become Christians, even Catholics.

History and the clear words of the Messiah define what it is to follow Him.

Ravenous wolves are always within the flock as well as from outside it.

That Catholics are teaching evolution as fact within their schools is ample evidenve of the sellout nature of this faith-based organization. That's historic fact.

Secular and Church history testify to the wrong-doing of Catholic clergy. The Born-Againers got it right. It is and has always been "Good versus evil." Especially those who say they are followers.

When you "test all things," the truth you finally and firmly hold onto, has almost nothing to do with historic Catholicism. That's just facts."

I like this. "All can become Christian, even Catholics."

Oh boy! Hope for me!

We need to get this front and center in the argument. When "Christians" say that America is a Christian nation, they don't mean that it's a nation in which most people are Christians, because by their definition most people aren't!

They mean a nation in which the beliefs or right wing born agains ought to predominate.

They mean they want the rest of us to convert.

To those living in secular nations like Canada, the endless debates in the USA over God and state, Creation and Darwin, are strange indeed. Religion in the USA is not simply the worship of God; it's also the worship of the state and its symbols, and these two forms of worship are intertwined. As Geoff Rector says in his perceptive essay, "The cult of the American nation functions as a religion of public culture and in this respect exists as a twin to the church...." (http://www.thestranger.com/2003-07-03/ex3.html)

Regarding the portion of the discussion involving logical fallacies, I regret to inform you that pointing out logical fallacies will lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it. To wit:

If you keep pointing out logical fallacies, people will stop making them. Then logicians will find themselves out of jobs, and then they will have to turn to crime to support themselves. Once that happens it is only a matter of time before they turn to the most heinous crimes, and then the general populace will take their cue from these barbarous acts, leading to the donwfall of civilization.

I conclude that for the sake of civilization, indeed, for love of all that is holy, you must not point out logical fallacies. Oh, and Happy New Year.

I just wanted to say thank you for this entry, and for your links to related blog articles. If you don't mind, I'd like to add a link to this entry to my website. I'm a Christian who's genuinely concerned about the breakdown of civil liberties that the religious right seems to be advocating. I the more who are informed about this issue, the better!

Sorry, my keyboard's a bit "sticky" today. That last sentence should've said: I think that the more who are informed about this issue, the better!

AJ, thanks so much, I'd be delighted.

apropos of this, check out this week's The Pain! When Will It End?

[note: after May 9, check the archives; he doesn't permalink]

Very refreshing to read this. I've been hearing this comment more and more lately and it really drives me nuts as a non-christian. I dont really consider myself anything at all but my other is christian herself, though liberally. I also appreciated Tristero's post dated on December 23rd. Although this is dated topic I think its important that the true american thinkers step forward. Watching our media take out big portions of peoples brains and spoonfeed them the typical right of the wishbone is a sad thing to see.

In conclusion I make this final statement: If America is infact, or was ever, a Christian nation... then dually noted, it could equally be argued we are satanic as well.. considering most our presidents, from the birth of our glorious nation itself, were infact Masons. This, however, is not the case. Infact, if you ask a typical right-wing christian what a mason is, you may not even get a direct answer. I dont know for sure, but if Bush turned out to be a member of a masonic lodge, I would truly not be surprised.

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