Defining ‘nation': Guest Post

Prompted by our “Insert Catchy Title Here” debate between Dr. Michael Trice and Rabbi Anson Laytner, David Bell responds to the topic discussing the idea of nation and what it means to be the United States, what it means to be America, and what it means to be the United States of America.

If you missed the original debate posts find the opening statements and rebuttals previously posted on our blog.

By: David Bell

“Are we a Christian nation or a nation of Christians?”  As Dr. Trice noted, “The key word here is nation.”  To answer the question we must first be clear, what is nation?  Language in the United States often uses the term America as if it is the same as United States.  America though, is a landscape of soil, wind, plants, water, animals, and humans.  Whereas, the United States is a social and legal structure residing, with other social and legal structures, in the midst of the American landscape.  It is this social and federal republic legal structure called United States of America, which is nation.

We often do not think the United States a Christian nation because we do not experience the intimate relationship between Church and State—European Christendom—from which pilgrims and puritans separated.  We often support this feeling because of the Constitution’s First Amendment.  After all, if the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” surely, no one religion can dominate the social and legal structure of a nation.  Right?

We do well to hear the First Amendment with early nation development ears.  In amending the Constitution, the writers were thinking of the multiple Christian sects in the landscape, rather than non-Christian religions.  Indigenous and other non-Christian religions (including Catholicism—from a 1700’s viewpoint) were given short shrift.  While “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise” applied to all religion, the writers were most concerned with one Christian sect or another dominating nation development.  Because developers of U.S. nation structure, as a whole, had little problem with Christianity, the question arises; did they embed their Christian mindset into the developing documents that make up the social and legal structure of the nation?

In 1823, the case of Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh came before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The question before the court was whether or not American Indians had the right to sell their land.  The resulting opinion of Chief Justice John Marshall becomes the seminal argument for U.S. Indian land law.  In his opinion, Marshall uses the Christian Doctrine of Discovery*—a tool of Christendom, to argue “[American] Indian inhabitants are…merely…occupants, to be protected…[who are] in possession of their lands, but [are] to be deemed incapable of transferring the absolute title [of their land] to others.”  Marshall roots his argument in a Christian construct by saying, “it will be necessary, in pursuing this inquiry, to examine…those principles of abstract justice, which the Creator of all things has impressed on the mind of his creature man, and which are admitted to regulate, in a great degree, the rights of civilized nations.” (Emphasis mine)  By saying the tree of civilization is rooted in the mind of creature man whose own roots are that of the Christian Creator, Marshall moves on to argue European nations had the “superior genius” (of abstract justice ) and therefore justified in subjugating American land and peoples.  Consequently, Marshall argues, “Conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny” and such title has “passed to the United States.”  All is right, moral, and wholesome, for in the acquisition of land, according to Marshall, there is, “ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new [land], by bestowing on them [American Indians] civilization and Christianity.”

What does the Marshall opinion have to do with whether or not the United States is a Christian nation or a nation of Christians?  Not only is it an indicator of how Christianity is embedded within nation structure, but also how this embedment continues to drive Christian nation status.  In 2005, the case of Sherrill vs. Oneida Tribe came before the Supreme Court.  In delivering the opinion favoring Sherrill, NY over the Oneida Tribe, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg uses Marshall’s 1823 opinion (footnote #1) to support the Courts decision saying, “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery…’fee title [ownership] to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”  By using the Christian Doctrine of Discovery in her opinion, Ginsburg takes the construct of European Christendom off the back shelf, modernizes it, and embeds it one layer deeper into U.S. nation structure.

“Are we a Christian nation or a nation of Christians?”  From the perspective of U.S. social and legal structure, the answer is yes.  However, if we ask the question from the perspective of America, well then, I think, we come up with a quite different answer.

*Find a brief description of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery at Doctrine of Discovery.


David BellDavid is director of the Yakama Christian Mission and farmer of the JustLiving Farm.  His life on the Yakama reservation has him writing, speaking, and leading workshops on theology and justice concerning landscape, culture, economic, and anti-racism issues.  Each year David welcomes young adults, seminarians, youth, and elders to the Farm and Mission to converse on where their life and spirit intersect these issues.

A Meditation on Hanukkah

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began this year at sunset November 27, 2013, and continued through nightfall on December 5, 2013.  Here is a short reflection from Rabbi Anson Laytner.  As he put it: “It is short, but it says it all.”

Hanukkah, despite its being a historical holiday, also reminds us of our personal need for spiritual re-dedication.

Each of us brings a unique and precious light to this world and we are called upon to let it shine forth as best we can.

Hanukkah Minora

When we light a Hanukkah candle, we are metaphorically kindling our own inner light and, as we add candle to candle with each passing night, we are symbolically adding each of our distinct lights one upon the other so that working together we can, at least temporarily, alleviate some of the darkness in our world.

Hanukkah Sameach! or Happy Hanukkah to all!

Anson 2012

Rabbi Anson Laytner is program manager of Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry’s Interreligious Initiative.

Exclusive inclusivity and other considerations…

By: Catherine Smith

In a November 13 Outreach Team meeting at Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry, four denominations met to discuss their current outreach to students and their faith communities. In the room were Outreach Team members from the Mennonite, Lutheran (ELCA), United Church of Christ, and Presbyterian churches. During the first hour, attendees met, by denomination, with School of Theology and Ministry deans or faculty. Following rich discussions, the groups came together for a second hour of ecumenical conversation.

As I sat in Casey Commons ready to take notes, I could feel the anticipation building for what was coming:  reports from School of Theology and Ministry attendees just returned from the World Council of Churches (WCC) gathering in Busan, South Korea. Drs. Michael Kinnamon and Mark Taylor and alumna Maggie Breen spoke in turn about their experiences not just during business meetings, Bible studies, workshops, and worship services, but also in experiencing the sights and sounds of the city and region.

Dr. Michael Kinnamon noted that in spite of the amazing hospitality in Korea, there was a clear disconnect from day-to-day life in America—and this was good and necessary to see with clarity the limits of what we believe is our inclusivity.

Further, he spoke about how we must remain balanced when we carry ourselves into the world and yet function effectively in a different geography. Visiting a new culture, he reminded, forces us to live in the thought world of other people, and requires adjustment to their places, timeframes, and ways. Dr. Kinnamon stated that he strives to teach his students how to live in more than one place at one time. I translated this to mean “Be who you are at your core and carry openness, respect, and empathy wherever you travel—whether in your neighborhood or on foreign soil.

In other remarks, Dr. Kinnamon stated that Pentecostals and Evangelicals came to Busan and claimed a place at the Council. He also offered an insight about an imbalance in the interpretation of human history.  Many are reading human history only apocalyptically while ignoring, or failing to see, the myriad ways in which the Spirit is making things new by building up cultures and empowering church bodies. To interpret history only apocalyptically is to deny that God’s essence is creativity.

In closing, Dr. Kinnamon recommended several documents issued by the WCC; they can be accessed at:

Dr. Taylor’s experiences had him questioning what he included in his definition of the “Universal Church.” He mused about the local, universal, and what he termed the “pseudo-universal” church. For Dr. Taylor, the WCC sparked several provocative questions that he will be considering and sharing in the next weeks and months.

Because Dr. Taylor was not involved in the Council’s business meetings, he was freer to explore the region and also to participate in liturgies and Scripture studies. Both Dr. Taylor and SU’s STM alum Maggie Breen focused their comments on the overwhelming event that was the 10th World Council of Churches gathering. Maggie was amazed at what she considered this gathering of “high-level people.” She considered all the world’s poor and their needs for food, housing, and justice and asked how to connect to people’s deepest needs. She concluded that she and we are the conduits to bearing Christ to those in need. Maggie mentioned she was encouraged by the focus on evangelism and mission and pointed to this document: Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes. A cursory look at the document suggests new strategies and notes the complexities affecting today’s evangelism.

From the Vatican, 4 October 2013 – Greeting to the World Council of Churches from Pope Francis

“Conscious that the soul of ecumenism remains authentic conversion, holiness, and prayer, I pray that the General Assembly will contribute to a new impulse of vitality and vision on the part of all committed to the sacred cause of Christian unity, in fidelity to the Lord’s will for his Church and in openness to the promptings of the Holy spirit.  Upon all gathering in Busan I invoke the abundant blessings of Almighty God, source of all life and of every spiritual gift.”


Catherine Smith has been at the School of Theology and Ministry for 7 years, working with the Assistant Dean, Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue for approximately 4 years.  An editor in her previous life, Catherine has her Master’s in English Literature. As her schedule allows, she assists students with dissertations and faculty who are readying books for publication.


What I did (and didn’t) learn in seminary

racoonbaby kittens

In my denomination, we have a bad habit of thinking that a person has to have an MDiv to talk to God.  I caught this attitude myself, until I went to seminary.  Sometimes I wonder if I went to seminary because I wanted to know more about God, and I believed getting ordained was the best way to go about that.

I remember feeling out of my depth when a raccoon broke into our house and killed two of our weeks-old kittens while we slept.  We awoke to a hideous yowling and screeching, and my daughters were the first on the scene.  They flipped on the light just in time to see a large raccoon making off with one of our babies in its mouth.  First they were stunned.  Then they were terrified, and angry and very very sad.

“Why did God let that raccoon kill our kittens?” they cried.

I’m not sure what I said—I wish I had said something like, “God didn’t want your kittens to die, and God is sad too, God is right here with us in our tears and our heartbreak…” but I’m not sure I managed even that.  I was in over my head, and I knew it.  I held them tight, and then I watched them until long after they fell asleep, curled up together in one bed.  I called my pastor the very next morning.

“Oh Catherine, something terrible has happened.  A raccoon broke into our house and killed our baby kittens.  And the girls are just devastated—they want to know why God let it happen—why God didn’t stop that evil raccoon, why God doesn’t punish the raccoon for killing.  I think I told them something like, ‘God doesn’t work that way’ but I didn’t get very far.  Can you help me?  Tell me what to say to them, please!”

Catherine did way better than that.  She asked, “Is this your kids’ first experience with death?”

“Yes.”  I said.

“I’ll come right over.  This is important.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “Coming right over” to our house is no mean feat—we live 40 minutes from church.  Not only that but I knew Catherine would have to reschedule several meetings, or magically find another block of sermon writing time in order to respond to our pastoral emergency.  We loved Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, sure…but they were just kittens.

Catherine knew better—she knew that this was a turning point in my daughters’ lives.  She knew they would remember this day forever.  And she knew that how our faith community responded to them—in their pain, in their questions, in their raging at the unfairness of it all—would make all the difference.

She made it out to our place in a little over an hour.  She hugged my girls and let them cry; she let them tell the story.  She let them be sad and angry and tired and frightened.  She understood that this event shook their world.  If poor sweet innocent kittens who barely got a chance to live—who never did anything but look fuzzy and darling, mewing tiny mews and stumbling around, toppling and tumbling over one another and their worn out mom—if sweet kittens could be here one moment and gone the next, well then really bad things could happen to anyone—really bad things might happen to their mommy or daddy, to their sister or cousins.  Each girl knew, really bad things might even happen to me.

Catherine didn’t minimize their distress or try to patch things over.  She helped them dig a grave and helped them hold a sweet and simple service for the dead.  She let them tell stories of their time with the kittens, stories of being there for the birth as each little furry life made its entrance into the world, stories of what they loved best, stories that were funny or sweet, stories of how they loved the kittens more each day.

Our pastor took her time, and didn’t rush them.  She told them it would take a long time for the sadness and the anger to subside.  She told them that it was okay to be sad for as long as they wanted.  And she told them they could tell it all to God—even the way they were angry or disappointed in God.  She told them God would be with them no matter what they were feeling or thinking; God’s love was big enough for it all.

Finally, Catherine gave them one more hug each, got in her truck, and headed back to church.

The next day she called me to check in.  She coached me—let me know what to expect when a pet dies and what to look and listen for over the next weeks and months.  She warned me (for example) there was a possibility that the girls might dig the kittens back up—sometimes children do—just to check and make sure because it seems so hard to believe the ones you love are really and truly dead.  (I was very glad to be forewarned and even gladder that this never came to pass).  Finally, she told me that Jeff and I were doing a good job in the storm.  She reminded me that I didn’t need fancy words; all I needed was a loving, listening heart.

Just as Catherine predicted, it was a turning point in our girls’ lives—a time they remember vividly, and with sadness to this day. It was a turning point for us all, I think.  We all learned about the pain of death that day, and about how to be with each other and with God in the midst of grief.

And for me, it was another kind of turning point.  After the kittens’ deaths, I finally understood that I wasn’t going to figure out how to pray in seminary, and that, interesting though they were, Christology and Hebrew Scriptures and Epistemology weren’t going to teach me how to be present to others in times of trial and grieving.  That day I finally got it:  all the book learning in the world didn’t mean much compared to the little bit I had experienced of God’s love and grace and healing power.

I didn’t need to wait until I got my diploma.  What I needed to do was figure out how to share that experience of love and grace and healing—not by talking about it—but by living it.  All these years later I am still working on it, still trying to figure out how to carry that loving healing transforming power with me out into this beautiful and broken world.


Tamara RobertsTamara Roberts is on the path to ordination in the United Church of Christ, currently seeking a call to parish ministry.  She has served as a minister in several churches in the greater Seattle Area, and is currently working with her home congregation, University Congregational UCC, to revamp revitalize and reimagine Young Adult Ministry.  She graduated with her Master of Divinity degree in 2008, and has returned to the School of Theology and Ministry to pursue a post-master’s certificate in pastoral counseling.  She loves running and cycling, reading and writing, cooking and eating.  She and her husband recently launched their daughters to college and are newly empty-nesters in North Bend.  She currently blogs at A Live Coal in the Sea and would love to see you there.

Alas, Poor Vatican II! I Knew It Well

2nd Vatican Council‘Second Vatican Council’         Giancarlo Giuliani / Catholic Press Photo

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Why is Vatican II, as some have nicknamed it, still relevant today?

Vatican II marked a liberal, soul-searching openness of the Roman Catholic Church towards itself, and towards other religious partners. Its flourish of bilateral and multilateral dialogues emerged at a time when, for instance, the quest for greater Christian unity (i.e. modern Ecumenism) inspired the public Christian imagination, and the Church was waking up to its own historical complicity toward some co-religionists, in particular Jews.

The Church’s about-face on the absurdity of Deicide (that Jews then and now are culpable for the death of Christ) was a balm toward trustful Jewish-Christian engagement. For their turn, ecumenical dialogues in the afterglow of 1965 led to cooperation and unity between Christians at a time when marriage between Norwegian and Swedish Lutherans was, for many, an inter-religious event.

The lasting and broad impact of these dialogues, which continue, is still being determined today. And yet, even as these dialogues proved successful, areas of dissonance emerged: first, a clear strategy for communicating and acting upon the results of these dialogues was often not adequately sustained at the national or international levels. Next, due in part to the public skepticism of institutional life that escalated in mid-1960s in the U.S., a commensurate erosion of trust in religious authority took place. Decades later, local communities emphasize religious cooperation at the grass-roots while paying less attention to the closed-door meetings at the grass-tips.

Finally, how we train tomorrow’s religious leaders also present challenges. A progressive, post-liberal Protestant seminarian may agree on principle with a neo-conservative, Catholic priest that Vatican II is irrelevant today. This begs the question: can we teach the spirit of Vatican II to a new generation that does not share the proclivities of an earlier age? And if not, what will be the Zeitgeist of the Millenial generation’s identity?

However we respond, this generation will not cling pro forma to the reforming, liberal spirit of a previous age. Nor should it. Likewise, older generations are wise not to favor the colorless shroud of nostalgia over and against the needs of their children and children’s children to launch their own revolutions. Let Vatican II stand. And look to the signals from the Christian voices around the world. From students of theology to Pope Francis’ leadership today, we are at the crucible of renewal that will require a new way of imaging our future together.

There is no reason for remorse: today the spirit of the Second Vatican Council lives on in our communities—in meals that include family and friends like the brother-in-law who is Muslim, the niece who just celebrated her first communion, and the unchurched neighbor for whom faith generates curiosity.

In 2012, a chance encounter sealed the spirit of Vatican II on my heart. That summer, my wife and I traveled to Rome to visit the National Palatine Museum. As we entered the portico with its busts of marble, we learned that a special exhibit of Vatican documents was on display upstairs. Unwilling to miss this opportunity, we bought tickets and toured dark, air-conditioned hallways filled with neatly displayed documents. Galileo’s condemnation, penciled images of Michelangelo’s flying machine, and letters from Pope Innocent III appeared thin and fragile compared to their historical significance.

Then, around a corner, I blinked hard at two documents placed side-by-side on dark velvet. On the left were the colorful words of welcome from the Second Vatican Council.  On the right, in stark contrast, rested the papal bull that ordered the excommunication of Martin Luther and made the rupture between Catholics and Protestants inevitable. I stood quietly contemplating the documents, each so fully present but oblivious to the other. The inches between them compressed centuries of Christian hardship and theological fortitude.

Eventually I pulled myself away to peer at other wonders, but the history-making importance of the two documents drew me back twice to gaze silently at them. Then, all at once, the spirit of our current age ascended from the thin space between them—we are travelers—and the tribulations of our past teach us that our true destination is to make every effort for deeper fellowship with family, friend, neighbor, stranger, and enemy alike. This destination is our only true home.


Trice75Author, Michael Reid Trice, is Assistant Dean for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue, and Assistant Professor of Ecumenical and Practical Theology at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry.

“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.

The Public Square In Photos….All You Need?

Divinity student Melissa Smith recently took this picture during some time spent with the children at her church.  For her, this was a simple example of how kids are so smart – and how sometimes we as adults make things much more complicated than necessary.

 2 commandments - Mia Smith

When we are in the public square, we can be assured that God loves us….and all we are required to do is love God, but most importantly love the people who inhabit the public square with us.

2 commandments = all you need

How simple is that?


Melissa Smith PicMelissa is a graduate student her at the School of Theology and Ministry.  She is a Divinity student who is on track to ordination in the Disciples of Christ Church.