Get Facts Straight Before Calling a Nation Christian

by Reverend Daniel J. Webster

 Director of Communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.

    Stop it. Just quit. All these letters and commentaries
about "under God" and the Pledge of Allegiance and the founding
fathers being Christian and this being a Christian nation have just
got to stop. Even a Utah sculptor revises history depicting three
founding fathers kneeling at prayer, a scene historians call
unthinkable.

    If you are going to argue something, get the facts right. If you
want to claim that this should be a Christian nation or that you
believe God should be included in the pledge, the Star-Spangled
Banner, prayed to in all schools, then be up front and say that's
what you are trying to do. Don't invoke the memory of those who
worked so hard to keep religion and government separate. Don't claim
that because the founders were "Christian" that gives Christians
today some sort of preferential status in the country.

    When this controversy broke out about the pledge I went back to
my seminary textbook. Edwin Scott Gaustad in A Religious History of
America (HarperCollins, 1990) tells a fascinating account of Thomas
Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry. In 1777, then Virginia
Gov. Jefferson proposed a "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom."
It would ensure that no one religion would have government approval
in the Commonwealth. Henry countered with his own "Bill Establishing
a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion" which would have
acknowledged no one denomination but would recognize Christianity as
the official state-sanctioned religion.

    With Jefferson's move to France as ambassador for the new nation,
the cause was picked up by Madison. He argued that no religion should
have any established position. Henry made his case before the
delegates. As word of this effort spread, Baptists and Presbyterians
opposed it. Some thought it a ruse that would eventually favor the    
Anglicans who were a majority of the signers of the Declaration of
Independence.

    Madison said that not only should there be freedom of religion in
the commonwealth, there should also be freedom from religion.

    In 1786, Madison won. It set the stage a year later for the
crafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No religion
would have a favored status as far as the government of this new
nation would be concerned.

    As for calling this a Christian nation, that puzzles me. I
suspect it would also puzzle George Barna. He has been researching
religious social trends for more than a decade. Interviewed in
Christianity Today (Aug. 5), he laments that most "churchgoers didn't
seem to have any real understanding of the Bible's distinctive
message; many practicing Christians believed that God helps those who
help themselves." The conclusion he reaches, he told interviewer Tim
Stafford, is that "a morally relativistic American culture was
shaping Christians more than Christians were shaping the culture."

    If this country were a Christian nation, its citizens and
government would be working tirelessly to make sure no one went to
bed hungry tonight and that everyone would have a home. Universal
health care would be a reality and not just a political debate.

    If you are curious about scriptural foundations for these points,
start with the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. Then go to Matthew 22
where the lawyer tried to trick Jesus asking him which was the most
important commandment. "Love God with all your heart, all your soul
and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself," he retorted.
Jesus' response to that question is clearly Jewish. He quotes the
Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). He didn't make up
anything new. What is often called the "Greatest Commandment" is not
uniquely Christian.

    What has been called the "Golden Rule" attributed to Jesus (Luke
6:31) can be found in some form in most major world religions. It is
not found in much of what this country has been doing in domestic and
foreign policy for too many years.

    Call it a democratic nation. Call it a republic, if you like.
Call it the land of the free.

    Please don't call it a Christian nation.



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