"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
As we witness yet again the brutal and bloody consequences of religious intolerance in the form of ISIS, we have a majority of Republicans pining for a Christian America. Proponents of converting the United States into a theocracy do not see the terrible parallel between religious excess in the Middle East and here at home, but they would not because blindness to reason is the inevitable consequence of religious zealotry.
Conservatives who so proudly tout their fealty to the Constitution want to trash our founding document by violating the First Amendment in hopes of establishing Christianity as the nation's religion. This is precisely what the Constitution prohibits:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Back to the Beginning
How terribly ironic that the louder Christians protest against the excesses of Islam, the more they agitate for Christian excess. We really need to stop this ridiculous argument about being a Christian nation. If there should be any doubt, let us listen to the founding fathers themselves. This from Thomas Jefferson in an April 11, 1823, letter to John Adams:
The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. ... But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding....
These are not the words of a man who wishes to establish a Christian theocracy. Jefferson promoted tolerance above all and said earlier that his statute for religious freedom in Virginia was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination." He specifically wished to avoid the dominance of a single religion.
Let us be perfectly clear: We are not now, nor have we ever been, a Christian nation. Our founding fathers explicitly and clearly excluded any reference to "God" or "the Almighty" or any euphemism for a higher power in the Constitution. Not one time is the word "god" mentioned in our founding document. Not one time.
The facts of our history are easy enough to verify. Anybody who ignorantly insists that our nation is founded on Christian ideals need only look at the four most important documents from our early history -- the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution -- to disprove that ridiculous religious bias. All four documents unambiguously prove our secular origins.
Declaration of Independence (1776)
The most important assertion in this document is that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Note that the power of government is derived not from any god but from the people. No appeal is made in this document to a god for authority of any kind. In no case are any powers given to religion in the affairs of man.
Remember, too, that this document was not written to form or found a government but was stating intent in a way that was meant to appeal to an audience with European sensibilities. Only four times is there any reference at all to higher powers -- "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," "Supreme Judge of the world," "their Creator," and "divine Providence" -- and in all four cases the references to a higher power appeal to the idea of inherent human dignity, never implying a role for a god in government.
Articles of Confederation (1777)
Throughout the entire document, in all 13 articles, the only reference to anything remotely relating to a god is a term used one time, "Great Governor of the World," and even then only in the context of general introduction, like "Ladies and gentlemen, members of the court...." Unlike the Declaration of Independence, this document did indeed seek to create a type of government in the form of a confederation of independent states. The authors gave no power or authority to religion. And this document is our first glimpse into the separation of church and state, because just as the Articles of Confederation give no authority to religion in civil matters, so too does the document deny any authority of government in matters of faith.
U.S. Constitution (1787)
This one is easy, because the Constitution of the United States of America makes zero reference to a god or Christianity.
The only reference to religion, found in Article VI, is a negative one: "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." And of course we have the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Federalist Papers (1787-88)
While Thomas Jefferson was the genius behind the Declaration of Independence, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (publishing under the pseudonym "Publius") were the brains providing the intellectual foundation of our Constitution. And what brilliance they brought to the task. The first time I picked up the Federalist Papers, I intended to scan the book briefly and then move on to more interesting pursuits. But I could not put it down; the book reads like an intriguing mystery novel with an intricate plot and complex characters acting on every human emotion. There is no better way to get into the minds of our founding fathers and understand their original intent than by reading this collection of amazing essays.
As with the Constitution, at no time is a god ever mentioned in the Federalist Papers. At no time is Christianity every mentioned. Religion is only discussed in the context of keeping matters of faith separate from concerns of governance, and of keeping religion free from government interference.
The founding fathers could not be clearer on this point: God has no role in government; Christianity has no role in government. They make this point explicitly, repeatedly, in multiple founding documents. We are not a Christian nation.
"In God We Trust"
Our national obsession with God in politics is actually a recent phenomenon and would seem completely alien to any of our founders. "In God We Trust" was first placed on United States coins in 1861, during the Civil War. (More about that in a bit.) Teddy Roosevelt tried to remove the words from our money in 1907 but was shouted down. Only in 1956 was that expression adopted as the national motto by the 84th Congress. The clause "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was inserted only in 1954, when President Eisenhower signed legislation to recognize "the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty." But conservatives, ignorant of our history, or willfully ignoring it, wish us to believe that the pledge always referenced God. Here is Sarah Palin's take, defending the "under God" clause: "If the pledge was good enough for the founding fathers, its [sic] good enough for me and I'll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance." One wonders if she thinks the founders were alive in 1954. I guess if Noah could live to be nearly 800 years old....
That we are a secular nation was obvious to past generations, so much so that in the mid-1800s several groups formed to rectify what they considered a mistake of our forefathers in founding our country on principles of reason rather than faith. Perhaps the most prominent was the National Reform Association, established in 1863 for the purpose of amending the preamble to the Constitution to acknowledge God and Jesus Christ as the sources of all government power, because the original document does not.
The National Reform Association believed that the Civil War was evidence that God was punishing the country for their failure to put God into the Constitution (nothing to do with slavery, of course). Also, note that this apparent knowledge of God's mind is reminiscent of Pat Robertson's claims about God's wrath in Haiti, Florida and anywhere else he believes the devil has taken hold. Anyway, in their 1864 convention the National Reform Association agreed on a preamble that would replace "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union..." with "Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the governor among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government...."
They presented their suggestion to President Lincoln, who avoided it like a dirty diaper. The Congress also dodged the idea but threw the group a bone by agreeing to put "In God We Trust" on our currency, in an act of pure political pandering. So "In God We Trust" was first placed on United States coins in 1861 during the Civil War. From the Treasury we also find out:
The use of IN GOD WE TRUST has not been uninterrupted. The motto disappeared from the five-cent coin in 1883, and did not reappear until production of the Jefferson nickel began in 1938. Since 1938, all United States coins bear the inscription. Later, the motto was found missing from the new design of the double-eagle gold coin and the eagle gold coin shortly after they appeared in 1907. In response to a general demand, Congress ordered it restored, and the Act of May 18, 1908, made it mandatory on all coins upon which it had previously appeared. IN GOD WE TRUST was not mandatory on the one-cent coin and five-cent coin. It could be placed on them by the Secretary or the Mint Director with the Secretary's approval.
The motto has been in continuous use on the one-cent coin since 1909, and on the ten-cent coin since 1916. It also has appeared on all gold coins and silver dollar coins, half-dollar coins, and quarter-dollar coins struck since July 1, 1908.
For much of our existence, the United States never included God in its motto, on its currency, or in any document creating the Republic. We were born a secular nation and must remain one to sustain our future, unless we want to go the way of ISIS.
Our founding fathers understood well the extraordinary danger of mixing religion and politics; we forget that lesson at our great peril. If we forget, just glance over to the Middle East. I tremble in fear for my country when the majority of conservatives believe we are a Christian nation; that frightening majority has forgotten our history, ignored our founding principles and abandoned our most cherished ideal of separating church and state. In mixing religion and politics, the religious right subverts both. And the world suffers.