“Insert Catchy Title Here”: Arguments on Religion and Government

talk bubbles“Insert Catchy Title Here” – Week 2

Topic #1:  ‘Are we a Christian nation or a nation of Christians?’ – Religions place in government and politics

See the opening statements here before reading these responses!

Rabbi Anson Laytner:

Last time, I concluded that “America was from its inception neither a Christian nation nor a nation of Christians.”  And my friendly debater, Dr. Michael Trice, agreed:   “We are not a Christian Nation.”

Some debate!

Accordingly, this week, I want to begin by stating “America was a Christian nation.”  Or actually it was and it wasn’t—just like today!

I say it wasn’t a Christian nation for all the reasons we both mentioned last week.  Also, because, after winning independence from Great Britain, the American government, quite unlike the countries of Europe, demonstrated federal support for religious toleration.  The first piece of federal legislation that created provisions for religious tolerance was the Northwest Ordinance.  This act was passed by Congress in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation and was reaffirmed by Congress under the U.S. Constitution in 1789.  Article VI prohibits religious qualifications for holding office at the federal level. That was revolutionary and quite un-Christian of them!

On the other hand, many of the original thirteen states behaved just like the European Christian countries which the Federal government was aspiring not to resemble.  Originally, many state constitutions contained eligibility restrictions on holding office.  But a cultural war on this issue was taking place in America with the Federal government on one side and many of the state governments on the other.

Over time, the states increasingly removed laws that favored specific religious denominations or discriminated on the basis of religion. But this was a slow process. Thomas Jefferson wrote a bill to guarantee religious equality in his home state of Virginia in 1779. It took seven years for the bill to pass and become law. Jews did not gain full legal equality in every state until 1877, more than 100 years after America declared independence and roughly contemporaneous with their emancipation and enfranchisement in Europe.  In this regard, on the state level, our country did indeed behave just like every other Christian nation…

Dr. Michael Trice:

Christian Congregationalist types were the earliest Christians within the upper thirteen colonies.  Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ-ers, and Unitarians all lived in peace.  It is easy to be at peace when everyone agrees.  But America has a pattern that shows an uglier side.  Every pastoral landscape of established community ends up vilifying the new emerging religious other of the succeeding generation.   By the 1780’s when Moravians, Methodists and Mennonites graced the American landscape, the earliest self-prognosis of a land for all was tarnished by a homegrown American xenophobic response to the neighbor-citizen.

Catholics, Russian Jews, Baptists, and (God forbid) German speaking Lutherans, were all exotic newcomers in a 19th century United States that was rapidly expanding.  The single most relevant disruptive ingenuity to religious neighborliness was the population explosion.  Prospecting for peace is more difficult in the short run than turning a wary eye toward the outsider; suspicion is easy, contagious, and reinforces community bonds.  The glory of the Constitution (and particularly the Bill of Rights) is that it made room for these new exotic religious groups at the precise moment when they required the cover.  And not everyone was spared.  Native American ethno-religious liberty and human displacement of whole cultures and ways of life through slavery are two searing blights on the American religious landscape.  Certainly Christians and other religious groups worked tirelessly on behalf of others; but this does not undo the reality of such a stain on American character.

Is this a Christian nation?  In some ways, I hope not.  That is to say, I hope that the virtues of Christian morality – and for that matter every religious moral platform – require us to do at least one thing well:  We must together recognize that radical exclusivism of our neighbors is a wrecking ball to a thriving civic discourse.    The U.S. Constitution aims at more than a citizenry who understands why diversity matters.  It aims for a citizenry where peace and public welcome are invitations to a deeper conversation about our future, and the future of humanity itself.

One response to ““Insert Catchy Title Here”: Arguments on Religion and Government

  1. Fair enough to bring Native Americans into the debate. Yet to do so requires recognition that the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was core to the development of Nation structure. It is hard to spend time with early national documents and not find Christianity’s embedment–For instance John Marshal’s decision in Johnson vs. McIntosh (base to Indian land law in the U.S.) affirms European Christendom in developing U.S. structure.

    Also, we do well to remember religious tolerance went only as far as tolerating white folk religion, which by the time of the Constitution’s writing continued very much in the Christian thought of John Winthrop and John Cotton…deviation from a traditional Christian construct was sure to lead to trouble from the State–think early Mormon development.

    With little tolerance from the State for a White deviation from traditional Christian constructs, there clearly was little tolerance for people of color religions. Thus little toehold developed for any religion that came to American soil by African slave folk and no tolerance for existing “religions” of American Indian Tribes.

    I wonder if an America Indian voice were brought to this debate if there would be agreement the United States is not a Christian Nation or at least a governmental structure that prefers traditional Christian theology as a moral/ethical base to argue law and legislation development.

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