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.
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 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.