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American Irony

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,


Those who would argue that the U.S. government is designed to be utterly secular in nature like to point to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 wherein he described a “wall of separation between church and state.” The Supreme Court subsequently embraced this language, of course, after the protections of the First Amendment were made applicable to the states by the Fourteen Amendment. I would suggest that Jefferson’s objective wasn’t to enable a wholly secular government, but rather to instill a radical religious freedom devoid of government interference. But times have changed, Constitutional law has changed, and the country’s make-up has changed. What’s interesting to me, however (and highly ironic), is that secularists looking to invoke Jefferson emphasize his letter to the Danbury Baptists but often ignore the founding document of the republic, also penned by Jefferson. Indeed, some even wish to claim that the Declaration is irrelevant, with no legal standing whatsoever. However, it’s centrality is obvious. Abraham Lincoln gave evidence to this centrality in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, which cites the Declaration:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

We are, of course, created equal because we “are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I’m no theonomist. I don’t believe in or want a “Christian nation.” But to ignore the religious roots and heritage of this republic and to seek to remove every vestige of the sacred from public discourse is both ignorant of history and simply wrong. As Toqueville (among others) has well noted, we are indeed a religious people, even if less so than we used to be. To seek to deny that is to deny our very essence.

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6 Responses to “American Irony”

  1. Noone is ignoring the religious roots. But we constantly have to argue with people who claim this is a Christian nation.

    The problem with your use of the declaration of independence is that it’s not a government-forming document. It does not define what kind of government we have, it just gave a justification why the US declared itself independent from the UK in terms that appealed to the broad audience of the time.

    Many enlightenment thinkers refer to god. The invention of secular government by John Locke is justified through god. Jefferson was a christian-minded deist, who wanted to keep what he considered the good parts of the bible. Even Thomas Paine was a deist.

    Or so me might thing. We do not know what people really thought. Locke, Jefferson, Paine also could all have been atheists but recognize that it would have been political suicide (for Paine and Jefferson) to admit so. And for Locke impossible for people to accept democracy without a divine justification.

    We will never know.

    The problem with “heritage” is that it is a trojan horse argument for “Christian nation”.

    The second problem is that people misunderstand the word secular as it applies to theory of government. Secular means that government and churches are completely separate. That’s all it means. It does not mean there is no religion, that people cannot hold religion and so forth.

    The brilliance of many enlightenment thinkers is indeed that they discovered pluralistic toleration.

    They wanted separation of church and state so that all of us are free to believe without ONE state church telling us all what the right outcome ought to be. We are also free to believe in no gods at all.

    That is secular.

    Without secularism this would not be a free nation because otherwise you would not be free to choose your beliefs.

    As for the very essence of the US being religious. Well that’s politics. By that thought the very essence of the US is the “protestant ethics” of Weber, being white, male, anglo-saxon origin, protestant who endorses slavery and disagrees with women suffrage. That too is our cultural heritage.

    As for history, Jefferson is targeted by conservative christian groups, see the Texas textbook revisionism situation. But people forget that Madison was the actual prime driver of the concept of separation of Church and state.

    What is most startling to me is how Christians attack this. It is in your own interest. I don’t know your denomination, but assume you are mormon, and we decide that the “heritage church” is calvinist evangelical. Evangelical doctrines, rituals and preachings now get special status. We pray like evangelicals do, we honor Calvin more than Jospeh Smith. See how that works? Freedom of Religion. The founders perhaps understood better what religious persecution means because they experienced it. Today many christians have forgotten that.

    What many christians also hide is how the founders were much better in “heritage christianty” than today. “Under God” was added in 1954 at the hight of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. That is our cultural heritage? It is not to call Jefferson and Madison atheists to say that they would have strongly opposed this. It is to understand how religious concepts creep into democracy and undermine freedoms.

    But apparently undermining freedom is OK as long as it pleases christian sentiments. (And yes I am miffed that you keep playing the Declaration of Independence thing).

    • The argument is a difficult one because even the SCOTUS stated unequivocally that this is a Christian nation. I think that was largely a political statement (and similar to that of the Treaty of Tripoli in purpose and intent), but the entire subject is fraught with difficulty. Jefferson, for example, sent Bibles to native Americans on the public dime. Similarly, established churches existed as a matter of state jurisdiction for decades after the 1st Amendment and were only fully done away with by the incorporation clause of the 14th Amendment. My take is simply that those were different times.

      With respect to “our” interest as Christians, I agree with you completely.

      • Well either you want to share this country or you don’t. If you want this to be a Christian Nation go outlaw the rest. I for one will be happy to follow the words of Jefferson and Lincoln in the case that happens.

        Incidentally the Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States is not well liked even by the most conservative contemporary justices (such as Scalia) because it second-guessed congresses intend. It incidentally also did not rule on the notion, just used it in the opinion text.

        There are plenty of SCOTUS opinions upholding that the 1st protects all religions, non-christian, and no faith at all equally and no religion can be established, christian or not.

        So if you want your cultural pride thing go for it. It is no different than saying that this is a slavery nation, and was only overturned with a later amendment, it is a men’s nation only overturned later. It is a nation that foreign nationals can sue, except overturned with a later amendment, and so forth.

        But we cherry pick our heritage the way we like it.

      • If you want this to be a Christian Nation….

        I don’t.

      • Good, not sure why we had this debate then.

  2. Treaty of Tripoli:

    Authored by American diplomat Joel Barlow in 1796, the following treaty was sent to the floor of the Senate, June 7, 1797, where it was read aloud in its entirety and unanimously approved. John Adams, having seen the treaty, signed it and proudly proclaimed it to the Nation.

    “Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is _not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion_; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    In 1797, the senate of the United States unanimously agreed to the phrase: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.

    But we are told that it’s just Jefferson in some letter.

    In fact is that we have become more religiously dogmatic in the political arena. Today this would be unthinkable. This is not because current politicians or the public understands the founders or early congresses any better than they understood themselves. It is because the line “christian heritage” has been driven very hard in this country, especially since McCarthy and then in a second wave since the “moral majority” and the “christian coalition” and the conflation of conservatism and religiosity in Reagan to mobilize voters.

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