Tuesday, April 18, 2006
A Missouri House Committee recently ignited debate over whether the United States was a “Christian nation” when it approved a resolution that the founding fathers “recognized a Christian God and used the principles afforded to us by Him as the founding principles of our nation.” This resolution is not the first of its kind and follows the 2004 Texas Republican Party’s platform which declared that the “United States of America is a Christian nation.” The Christian nation movement is part of an escalating assault on the separation of church and state by the Republican right, so that the real question today is not whether we are a Christian nation but whether we are still a First Amendment nation.
Pat Robertson has often commented that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears in the Soviet not the United States Constitution and that “our judicial establishment [has successfully imposed] the Soviet strictures on the United States.” While Robertson’s views were once on the fringe of the Republican Party, today they are echoed by Republican leaders such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Conference Chairman Rick Santorum.
The Republicans are actively seeking to implement their vision of a Christian nation through programs such as the Faith-Based Initiative which seeks to expand the role of faith-based organizations (“FBOs”) in providing federally funded social services. In implementing this program, the Bush administration removed several constitutionally required safeguards (e.g., allowing federal funds to build religious structures) and limited oversight to “self-audits”. Not surprisingly, courts have found a number of grants to FBOs, such as a grant to instruct nursing students on the use of prayer as a therapeutic practice, to be unconstitutional.
Christian nation advocates should leave their red state cocoon and stand on the banks of theProvidence River. For this is where Roger Williams, who had been banished from Massachusetts by the Puritans for his religious views, founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1636 based on his vision that there should be a “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world,’” and that religious freedom must extend to all and not just Christians. As a result of Williams’ vision, Rhode Island became known as “the safest refuge of conscience” and home to the New World’s first Baptist Church and synagogue.
The seed sown by Williams ultimately blossomed into the First Amendment, which in the words of Thomas Jefferson prohibits Congress from enacting any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” While it is true that the actual phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment, the concept was invoked by the First Amendment’s author, James Madison, who explained that “[t]he purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.” The Founders also addressed the Christian nation question in the Treaty of Tripoli, signed under President Washington and ratified under President Adams, which states that “the Government of the United States of Americais not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Robertson, DeLay, Santorum and even Roy Moore, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments” judge, all condemn the courts for failing to interpret the Constitution according to its “original intent”. To DeLay this is the product of “an imperial judiciary that knows no bounds to its power or its tenure” and “is a recipe for tyranny!”
They are right about the “recipe for tyranny”, except that they are its cooks. To advance their war against the separation of church and state they must ignore the intent of the nation’s first four presidents and, instead, embrace the views of the Puritans that Roger Williams rejected 370 years ago.
It is an outrage that while our troops are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; at home the Republican right is embracing its American equivalent – the “Alabama-ban”. Not only is the Alabama-ban’s Christian nation movement a repudiation of our founding principles, but it also has nothing to do with promoting the actual teachings of Christ and is instead driven by the Alabama-ban’s desire to impose their dogma on others.
For over two centuries Americans of all faiths have freely worshiped because the United States was founded as a First Amendment nation based on tolerance and pluralism. This is because our founders recognized what the Alabama-ban and their supporters in Missouri simply do not -- that only in a nation so conceived and so dedicated can we freely be a Christian (or Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or Agnostic) nation.