For many religious conservatives, re-electing President Bush wasn’t enough. They have a much bigger goal in mind. They won’t be happy until they tear down the wall of separation between church and state, get rid of any nonbelievers, make Christianity the official state religion and declare the United States a Christian nation.
And they’ve already started. “We must never allow our children to forget that this is a Christian nation,” Rev. Jerry Falwell recently boomed from the pulpit. “We must take back what is rightfully ours.”
That sound you hear is Thomas Jefferson groaning from the grave. The United States is a great country – best, in my opinion, on the face of the earth – but we are not a Christian nation. Never have been, and never will be. Those who make such a claim should begin by learning their American history. There is zero evidence that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation – and tons of evidence that they very carefully went out of their way not to.
For starters, the Founding Fathers were not Christians. Most were Deists, who believed in a remote Providence, or “Watchmaker God,” who created us, wound us up and left us on our own. From their writings, we know that few of them believed in Christ’s divinity and none of them accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.
That hands-off approach to God is reflected in the Constitution, which was ratified in 1789. The words God, Providence, Jesus or Christianity are found nowhere in the document. It establishes no national religion. It sets no religious test for holding public office. The presidential oath – the only one spelled out in the Constitution – does not end with the traditional “so help me God.” And there is no requirement that it be taken with one hand on the Bible.
Nor did members of the Constitutional Convention, unlike today’s Congress, start each session with a prayer. One month into their meeting, Benjamin Franklin made such a proposal, but only three or four delegates thought it was a good idea. The rest thought invoking God’s help would make them look “desperate.”
Under George Washington, the new nation soon got the first chance to prove its religious neutrality. In peace negotiations with the Muslim region of North Africa, which had been attacking American vessels, the question was asked: “Is the United States a Christian nation?” The response, contained in Article 11 of the ensuing Treaty of Tripolo, endorsed by President John Adams and unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate, begins: “As the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion …”
How much clearer could it be?
Why did the Founding Fathers strive so hard to keep government from meddling with religion and, just as important, keep religion from meddling with politics? Because they knew their history. They saw what happened in Europe, where princes became little more than pawns of the pope; and, sometimes, popes but puppets of the prince. They saw similar abuses among the first settlers, who came to the New World seeking religious tolerance – but only, in practice, for themselves.
Madison, Jefferson and others realized that a wall separating church and state was necessary for both institutions to survive. And history has proven them correct a hundred times over. We are at once a secular nation and a religious people. Our great republic has survived over 215 years. And religious faith flourishes in America like almost nowhere else. According the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans say that prayer is an important part of their daily life; and 87 percent say they never doubt the existence of God. Among Western nations, only the Vatican could beat those numbers.
So, Falwell and company are not only wrong on their facts, they’re wrong on what’s best for religion. The fact that we are at once the strongest and the most religious nation on earth didn’t just happen by accident. Nor is it because we are God’s Chosen People, because He loves more than any other people on earth. It happened only because our Founding Fathers had the wisdom, the vision and the courage to make American different. We became the first county where priests did not have to answer to politicians; nor politicians, to priests.
God bless America. The wall of separation between church and state is what makes this country great. Only a fool would try to tear it down.