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Is America a Christian nation?

The premise of the question is wrong. It requires you to accept the idea that the United States government and Constitution are the implementation of any particular religion. In actual fact, the separation of church and state required by the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution could not make it more clear: Religion has no place in government.

Those who insist that America is a Christian nation typically claim that Thomas Jefferson, and other founders of the United States, were deeply faithful Christians. They offer this as proof that America’s founders intended Christianity to be part of the fabric and workings of government, and therefore Christianity should be the guiding philosophy of government today.

How true are these claims? Let’s focus on Jefferson. Here are some things he has been quoted as saying:

In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. [Jefferson, in letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814]

It does not sound here like Jefferson is a tremendous fan of religion. We know that Jefferson was a deep believer in liberty and individual rights — perhaps the most passionate in human history. From this statement, it sounds like Jefferson believed religion may have been a major and potential threat to liberty, if anything. His attitude is consistent with his view, along with the view of other Founders, that religion and state must be kept completely separate.

My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there. [Thomas Jefferson, letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, August, 6, 1816]

These are not the words of a man who was a major fan of organized religion. In fact, while Jefferson was not an atheist, it does sound like he places a significantly higher value on “those who think for themselves” than following the dictates of any church authority, to say nothing of installing church authorities as part of the government.

As Jefferson wrote elsewhere, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.” [letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787] This suggests that Jefferson believes God created man so that he could think, reason, act freely and be self-responsible. God did not create man to be faithful. Jefferson correctly saw the connection between reason and freedom. I don’t get that impression from today’s religious conservatives, who talk of faith (not reason), obedience to God, and a government which supports (if not requires) such obedience.

You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. [Thomas Jefferson, letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819]

In this statement, Jefferson almost sounds like an agnostic. (In other quotes, he did say he was not an atheist.) He certainly does not sound like the sort of evangelical member of an established church running for office today, working to bring the teachings or beliefs of that established church to government. Imagine George W. Bush, Rick Santorum or Ted Cruz saying, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” Today’s religiously oriented politicians are card-carrying members of the fundamentalist evangelical church organizations of their choosing.

In a way, it does not matter what Jefferson’s personal views were on such matters. What matters are the conceptualizations he gave us in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere. These ideas, for the first time in human history, set individual rights as the central purpose of government, rather than making individuals the servants of government. This had never happened before, and anything else Jefferson said or did could never take away this accomplishment.

However, people who now claim that government must in some way be a reflection of Christian beliefs and values are the ones backing this up by arguing that America’s founders — of whom Jefferson was the most prominent — were deeply faithful Christians in the manner of today’s religiously conservative preacher-politicians.

If it’s Christian values you honor, then you really cannot — with consistency — condemn or attack the policies of Obama or other progressive-liberals expanding government expenditures on social insurance, social welfare, subsidies for houses, college tuition, business development, and all the rest. You can only oppose those policies by saying, “Obama, it’s not your money. It’s not yours to spend. People’s earnings do not belong to you.” But Obama is taking the money to give to those who need it; isn’t that what Jesus would do, if not demand?

Like it or not, Obama — whatever his personal motives — seeks to implement Jesus’ central moral teaching that the purpose of life is to serve others. Under capitalism, the purpose of life is to make a profit, advance your interests and while refraining from force or fraud, otherwise being entitled to keep any or even all of your earnings if you choose. This is not Christianity, as Obama supporters and Republican Christian conservatives would probably  agree. As Obama sees it, government is a perfectly valid way to ensure that Jesus’ teachings are upheld. Religious conservatives, by the way, don’t seem to be against wealth redistribution so much as the fact it’s done by progressive secular bureaucrats; as George W. Bush’s “faith based” social service government programs illustrated, it’s acceptable when done by churches with government money. The same goes for using government money to finance church schools (as in vouchers).

In foreign policy, it would be hard to find a better representative of Jesus Christ’s well-known pacifism — “turn the other cheek” — than Obama’s proposal to pacify Iran. Obama regularly states that we are all our brother’s keepers, and that we must show humility and compassion to our enemies, not self-defense or strength, because that’s racist, imperialist and war-like — and America has moved beyond that. He’s talking the language of Jesus here, and he means to implement it.

I recognize that the Obama-progressive support for abortion rights and gay marriage offends the Christian principles of the religious conservatives. On these points, they’re arguably consistent, even though Jesus Christ did not necessarily have a position on either of these issues. But the wider point here is this: If Christian conservatives want Jesus Christ’s teachings embodied in government when it comes to sex and marriage, why don’t they want Jesus Christ’s teachings embodied in government policy when it comes to transfers of wealth, punishing rich men who will not ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and all the rest?

I know that a lot of people, like myself, support the positions of a religious conservative like Ted Cruz, who has stated, at least, that he wants to hold Iran and other terrorist nations accountable for their actions, rather than appeasing them in Christian-like fashion. But how does someone like this square such tough talk and thinking with his no doubt deeply held faith in all that his lord and savior Jesus Christ taught and held dear? Doesn’t it occur to anyone that once in office, when push comes to shove, that those Christian teachings might carry the day, despite any tough talk from the past? Isn’t that a valid, real and practical concern? Or are we to assume that religious conservatives like this take none of their beliefs seriously? And if that is true, what does that say about their integrity and trustworthiness?

The same goes for economic matters. Ted Cruz says he opposes Obama’s taking over of the private sector. But will Cruz’s deeply Christian beliefs of service to others, and self-sacrifice as the central purpose of life, prevail when it comes time to cut taxes, cut or eliminate social programs, or put Americans on notice that Medicare’s days/years are numbered? It doesn’t seem likely, particularly if experience with other Christian conservatives in power (George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan) come to mind. While these men cut taxes, they didn’t do much else to end the role of government in the economy, nor did they particularly try. Under Bush in particular, the spending and role of government dramatically increased. Why the push to trust yet another Christian conservative to lead us on the path to capitalism, free markets, and individual rights across the board? It seems like fantasy.

These are the questions very few wish to consider. I know these questions arouse anxiety in many, and anxiety often converts to hostility. But if we’d like to survive, we’d do well to start considering them — and soon.

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Dr Michael Hurd

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

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