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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Is the U.S. a Christian nation?

It's an explosive question. Even raising it can set off alarm bells for practitioners of other faiths, or those of no faith at all. Is America a Christian nation? It may seem like fence-straddling for those who want just plain old "yes" or "no," but the answer is both "yes" and "no."

We are a Christian nation. The Mayflower Compact (1620), signed by 41 of the 102 passengers on-board, mentions not only "the honor of our King and Country," but "the Glory of God" and the "Advancement of the Christian Faith" as reasons for having undertaken the trans-Atlantic voyage. The Declaration of Independence (1776) speaks of both "the Laws of Nature" and "Nature's God." In the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-65), it was Christians who advanced the most telling arguments against slavery. In 2001, Gallup measured church attendance at 41%, meaning more than 4 of 10 Americans went to church at least one per week. Across our country's short history, Christianity has played a key role.

We are not a Christian nation. In-light of the above church attendance statistics, it would be better to say that we are a nation where Christianity is the predominant religion. Even if 41% of us are in church at least once per week, this does not mean that our government sanctions one religion over another. On the contrary,our federal Constitution makes no mention of God; in this sense, it is a thorougly secular document. Religion is mentioned in the First Amendment, but only to say that Congress is forbidden from playing favorites, establishing one religion over another. By explicitly denying that a particular faith, whether Christian, Mormon, Muslim, or any other, is the state-recognized religion, there is a level playing field for all religions. Neutrality in religion is also implied in Article VI. Section 3 of the Constitution, which explicity prohibits the application of a "religious test" to candidates for public office.

Are there current threats to the time-honored principle of favoring all religions by establishing none? Yes. In the United States, two threats loom on the horizon:

1. Reconstructionism -Bruce Prescott documents the rise of so-called "Dominion theology" in Oklahoma. He dubs it "a revival of the holy war theology of the Hebrew Bible under the guise of Christianity." Dominionists expect to usher in the Kingdom of God by force of law, and, if necessary, by force of arms. Prescott credits their success to date to their "allying themselves with the Republican party and other conservative Christians and working through the political process."

2. Sharia - Nigeria provides an interesting study of what happens when Sharia (Islamic) law is imposed through governmental mechanisms. Now existing in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states, capital punishment is imposed for cases of adultery, and thieves lose a hand. Flogging is the punishment for drinking alcohol. Historically, Islamic law has been imposed even when significant numbers of practitioners of other faiths remain, such as in North Africa in the 7th century. "Dhimmitude" refers to the second-class status that Jews and Christians are made to suffer under Islamic rule, and is a telling warning of what happens when government makes one religion official.

Is the United States a religious nation? Obviously. Is it a Christian nation? It has many Christians, yes, but governmentally remains neutral toward all faiths, neither requiring faith of any citizen, nor in theory opposing believers of any persuasion who are willing to live peacefully within our borders. Only a clear understanding of this balancing act and a willingness to defend it can guarantee the free exercise of faith by all. It's an American tradition, part of our heritage, and worth defending!


At 2:03 PM, Blogger tacit1 said...

Interesting & informative piece, however, I noticed that you separated Mormons from Christians in your listing. Those of the Mormon faith would argue that they are a Christian sect ( I have a sister who is Mormon)...

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Double Birdie said...

Thanks, Tacit, for the kind words. The whole Mormon debate is a can of worms, probably worthy of a post of its own. If you want to know more, Google "mormon." Lots of stuff out there discussing their beliefs as compared to what many theologians consider more correct Christian theology.


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