Recently, while in Turkey, Obama had this to say, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”
Historically, of course, America has consisted of predominantly Christian citizens. This is no secret. Even today the largest religion in America is Christianity. However, the fact that the majority of the citizens identify themselves as Christians does not necessarily mean that America is a Christian nation.
What then does it mean to be a Christian nation?
The idea of a Christian nation reaches as far back as emperor Constantine in the late Roman empire. Although Constantine did not declare Christianity as the official religion, he did favor Christianity to an extraordinary degree as he reversed the Great Persecution of Christians under emperor Diocletian with the Edict of Milan in 313. Because of Constantine’s significant influence on the spread of Christianity he has become the historical lightening rod through which Christianity has become implicated, for good and for ill, with the actions of the state.
It was not until the reign of emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century that Christianity officially becomes the State Religion. However, the Church and State had been significantly linked decades before.
Much can be said about the Christian Church and State relations throughout history, but suffice it to say that there is a reason the founders of America desired to distinguish these two entities. Much blood has been shed for such a relationship, yet too often this reality is too prominently emphasized to the exclusion of the overwhelmingly positive impact the relationship did have. (i.e. the University system was established by the integration of the two).
It would be very misleading to say that the founders of America wanted to separate these two entities if you mean by this that they wanted to create a publicly secular nation and leave matters of religion to be merely privatized.
Too often the phrase “separation of Church and State” is used to mean ‘all matters of faith should be removed from the public square.’ This was never the intention of the founders.
On Washington Posts On Faith blog website, Susan Jacopy says, “The majority of Americans are still Christians, but our government is secular and our nation is now composed of nonbelievers and believers of numerous religious denominations–some of which did not even exist at the time of the nation’s founding.”
Jacopy seems to ground her idea that our government is secular primarily on the fact that “God” is not in the Constitution. And she complains that schools should teach more about the “secular” side of the American History. It seems that in so far as American historical education is supposed to focus on the main influences of the past in America then religion (especially Christianity) ought to be most studied since it does indeed provide the foundational principles for our nation. No one can argue with the historical fact that the founders had thoroughly Judeo-Christian cultural values, which significantly influenced their shaping the Constitution.
Furthermore, her quip that “God” is not in the Constitution ignores the fact that the Constitution was shaped primarily to fulfill those inalienable rights given to man by God as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Theism or religion is not rejected just because the name “God” does not appear explicitly in the constitution. The delegates met in Philadelphia primarily because (as the Federalists argued) the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to properly protect the colonies therefore it was in each colonies best interest that a federal government be formed, albeit it a limited one. They wanted to form, as the preamble states, a more perfect union, establish justice as well as secure the blessings of Liberty.
If understanding the author’s intention is the proper method of interpretation, then it is absurd to assume by reading the Constitution that America is a “secular” nation. America is a reigious nation, if not a Christian nation. And our government is a religious government. Ideals like Liberty, Justice, Perfection makes no sense without Theism. Again, American principles make no sense without God. It seems that Jacopy, in attempting to distinguish our naton as not a Christian nation, falls off the other side of the horse by reducing American government to “secular”. The government is not against religion, and promoting faith based insitutions is a good thing for the government to do.
In thinking historically about what it means for a nation to be Christian, there is one sense in which Obama is absolutely right. We do not have a official state document that says “We are a Christian nation” nor do we have a Christian King who dictates matters of Church and State. America is a place where people are free to worship their religion of choice, of course this is so long as this religion does not violate anyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and as long as it does not hinder the governments ability to protect the freedom of the people. One can not have a religion that is based on committing crimes, or on hurting individuals. Their religion most in some sense be consistent with the values upon which our nation is built.
Naturally, the question arises: from where did these values come from? Values such as equality and liberty?
It seems on some level that it could possibly be argued that America is a Christian Nation, if one wants to lay down the premise that only Christiantiy teaches such ideals. That is, America is thoroughly a Christian nation if one wants to argue that the principles upon which the government is founded are incomprehensible without Christian values and ideals. This argument is possible, but goes beyond what I desire to claim here.
We do live in a pluralistic nation, where many religions are given equal treatment by the government. Yet, even if America is not a Christian nation in the sense that we do not officially state this in a formal governing document this does not mean that America is “secular”. The American government is thoroughly pro-religion, and whether or not one agrees if Christianity is true should realize that they are indebted to Christians for setting up such a nation.