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A nation of Christians is not a Christian nation

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An op-ed letter published in the New York Times, October 7, 2007, by Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, is the author of “American Gospel” and “Franklin and Winston.”

[2008 GOP Presidential Candidate] John McCain was not on the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University last year for very long — the senator, who once referred to Mr. Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance,” was there to receive an honorary degree — but he seems to have picked up some theology along with his academic hood. In an interview with Beliefnet.com last weekend, Mr. McCain repeated what is an article of faith among many American evangelicals: “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”

According to Scripture, however, believers are to be wary of all mortal powers. Their home is the kingdom of God, which transcends all earthly things, not any particular nation-state. The Psalmist advises believers to “put not your trust in princes.” The author of Job says that the Lord “shows no partiality to princes nor regards the rich above the poor, for they are all the work of his hands.” Before Pilate, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And if, as Paul writes in Galatians, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then it is difficult to see how there could be a distinction in God’s eyes between, say, an American and an Australian. In fact, there is no distinction if you believe Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles: “I most certainly believe now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is welcome to him.”

The kingdom Jesus preached was radical. Not only are nations irrelevant, but families are, too: he instructs those who would be his disciples to give up all they have and all those they know to follow him.

The only acknowledgment of religion in the original Constitution is a utilitarian one: the document is dated “in the year of our Lord 1787.” Even the religion clause of the First Amendment is framed dryly and without reference to any particular faith. The Connecticut ratifying convention debated rewriting the preamble to take note of God’s authority, but the effort failed.

A pseudonymous opponent of the Connecticut proposal had some fun with the notion of a deity who would, in a sense, be checking the index for his name: “A low mind may imagine that God, like a foolish old man, will think himself slighted and dishonored if he is not complimented with a seat or a prologue of recognition in the Constitution.” Instead, the framers, the opponent wrote in The American Mercury, “come to us in the plain language of common sense and propose to our understanding a system of government as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it, not a God appears in a dream to propose any part of it.”

While many states maintained established churches and religious tests for office — Massachusetts was the last to disestablish, in 1833 — the federal framers, in their refusal to link civil rights to religious observance or adherence, helped create a culture of religious liberty that ultimately carried the day.

Thomas Jefferson said that his bill for religious liberty in Virginia was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination.” When George Washington was inaugurated in New York in April 1789, Gershom Seixas, the hazan of Shearith Israel, was listed among the city’s clergymen (there were 14 in New York at the time) — a sign of acceptance and respect. The next year, Washington wrote the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., saying, “happily the government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. ... Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Andrew Jackson resisted bids in the 1820s to form a “Christian party in politics.” Abraham Lincoln buried a proposed “Christian amendment” to the Constitution to declare the nation’s fealty to Jesus. Theodore Roosevelt defended William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, from religious attacks by supporters of William Jennings Bryan. The founders were not anti-religion. Many of them were faithful in their personal lives, and in their public language they evoked God. They grounded the founding principle of the nation — that all men are created equal — in the divine. But they wanted faith to be one thread in the country’s tapestry, not the whole tapestry.

In the 1790s, in the waters off Tripoli, pirates were making sport of American shipping near the Barbary Coast. Toward the end of his second term, Washington sent Joel Barlow, the diplomat-poet, to Tripoli to settle matters, and the resulting treaty, finished after Washington left office, bought a few years of peace. Article 11 of this long-ago document says that “as the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” there should be no cause for conflict over differences of “religious opinion” between countries.

The treaty passed the Senate unanimously. Mr. McCain is not the only American who would find it useful reading.

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