Mars Hill Forum #148: Was the United States Established as a Christian Nation? April 27, 2008, University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME, Guest: Atty. Edwin Kagin, National Legal Director, American Atheists.
Prepared Comments by John C. Rankin
Was the United States Established as a Christian Nation?
The answer is both no and yes.
- First, in the sense of the legal language of established religion in Europe at the time, the answer is a delightful no. There is no one religion that has special institutional support by the United States government, as was the case in Anglican Britain, Lutheran Germany or Catholic Italy.
- Second, in the sense of cultural establishment, we are a nation founded by Christians. Therefore the answer is yes in the ethical sense, but also no in any sectarian sense.
But first, if I said my topic tonight were food, drink and sex, would you have any interest? In fact, it is, in a manner of speaking, to which I will return.
Our nation is rooted in the unalienable rights given by the Creator. But in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, there is deliberately no doctrinal or Christological language. In the ethical sense, we were founded as a fully Christian nation, a fully Jewish nation, a fully human nation, tracing back to the image of God common to all humanity.
This is historically unique. When in the history of the modern nation state has a nation been founded by a group of people who did not give their own religion a special legal preference? We are Christian in foundation, and biblical in refusing any religious imposition.
This radical definition of freedom, and the freedom for dissent, is further enfranchised in the U.S. Constitution, where in Article VI, “no religious test” was ever to be required of any office holder. In other words, the biblical assumption of unalienable rights and a healthy political order is rooted in the consent of the covered. All citizens are eligible for office, regardless of religion or irreligion, so long as the Constitution and its rule of law are honored.
The biblical order of creation, Genesis 1-3, is unique, and unlike any and all pagan, secular or atheistic constructs. Namely, all its assumptions are positive. In particular, here we find the only positive definition of human freedom in history. In every other setting, freedom is a double negative at best – freedom from violation. Now, we all desire the good of being free from violation, but where do we find the original good freedom we yearn for?
In the most ancient pagan origin story, the Babylonian Genesis, it begins with an internecine warfare among the gods and goddesses where the heavens and earth are the result of an act of destruction. Then, man and woman are made to be slaves to the defeated pantheon – that is, slaves to slaves. No subsequent pagan text rises above this painful state of affairs. Even in its protest of Hinduism and the caste system, Theravada Buddhism still could not rise above its presuppositional assertion – “suffering is.”
As well, secular and atheistic constructs are traceable to the Epicurean, Stoic and Cynic philosophers that are a protest against Greek polytheism and its pantheon of capricious deities. Freedom from. Nonetheless, while dispensing with the gods and goddesses, secular and atheistic constructs remain tied to pagan ethics. Whereas capricious deities create us for their abuse and discard, the atheistic supposition does no better – a cold, godless and impersonal cosmos spits us forth, then in our passing breaths we are deceived for a season to reach for a hope that will only disappoint as we are swallowed up in the end by the same ignorant and uncaring cosmos. Whether pagan or atheist, they both postulate the impossible – that by definition, destruction precedes and defines creation. Yet how can something be destroyed except that it was first created?
In the biblical order of creation, we find the only written concept in human history of that which is greater than space, time and number, that which is unlimited in power, that which is fully good and whose power is the power to give – Yahweh Elohim. Central to that goodness is the original gift of positive freedom. The language in Genesis 2 speaks of an unlimited menu of good choices in life, a banquet – the positive metaphor of freedom. Is there anyone here this evening who does not enjoy a feast with family and friends? This is good theology. With the feast given, there is only one prohibition, the one that protects our freedom – do not eat poison, otherwise we die, and what good does freedom do us then?
The gifts of God in creation are those of life, liberty, property, and hence the power to pursue a happiness rooted in shalom – integrity, wholeness and peace. These positive gifts and freedoms were unsullied until disregarded, and pagan origin texts starts with the sullied state, not the original one. Hence, we need to know what precedes negative freedom, and return to the nature, trajectory and restoration of the original positive freedom.
A radical presupposition is that Yahweh Elohim does not force his love on us. We are free to say no, realizing too the reality that we all reap what we sow. Forced love is rape, and that is the nature of pagan myths. Therefore, one who is truly biblical will extend every effort to serve the unalienable rights of life, liberty and property for all other people equally.
This freedom was well understood by the early church, where so many died rather than submit to false political gods. But when the church gained political power, it corrupted itself under Constantine, Theodosius and Justinian. In 1517, Martin Luther sought, impetuously, brilliantly, but in a flawed capacity, to regain a lost freedom. The religious wars that followed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation represented a struggle that led to the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution.
King George III repeatedly violated the colonists in terms of lives, liberties and contract law. Thus, with great reluctance, the colonists declared independence. In so doing, they appealed to the only Source that could trump the king – not another king, not human reason, not some church – but to the Creator. Not a philosophic deism, in which there is no historical locus or content, nor any pagan deity, all of whom are capricious – but to the God of Genesis, the one who gives all of us unalienable rights – those that are above the authority of human government do define, give or take away.
The 56 Signatories to the Declaration of Independence knew to Whom they were appealing. The majority were theologically orthodox Protestants, most of whom were very public in their faith – in an era when church attendance was very low. There were at least two deists, including Benjamin Franklin, who at the end of his life moved toward theism, two “freethinkers, including Thomas Paine, some Quakers and Unitarians of various stripes, one Roman Catholic, and then Thomas Jefferson, a rationalist – but all of whom embraced the biblical ethic of unalienable rights given by the Creator. That such a group united on this idea is the unique reason why the United States came to pass.
By making such an appeal, the signers were reaching beyond themselves – and though they did not measure up to the abolition of slavery, nor yet conceive of women’s suffrage, they set the foundation in place for that which followed.
Today, to the extent that we neglect the Source for unalienable rights, we are in danger of losing them. Who here tonight does not want their lives, liberties and properties protected by due process of law from the violation of others? Who here tonight can name any other Source apart from the Creator, the God of Genesis 1-2, as the origin of these unalienable rights? If rights were determined by human opinion, then it can only devolve into might makes right.
Did you think I abandoned the ideas of food, drink and sex? Eat without gluttony, drink without drunkenness, and one man, one woman, one lifetime – then freedom will prosper. Break these boundaries, and suffering, pain, sickness a sooner death flows in its wake. It turns out that Genesis 1-2 is not only the source for unalienable rights, but also, the marriage of one man and one woman is likewise rooted – both indispensable for a healthy civil order.
Now too, the boundaries that protect the freedoms of an atheist are those given by the Creator. I am a pro-life libertarian. Namely, all of us are free in our private persons to do what we please, so long we do not violate the lives, liberties and/or properties of others. The secular, atheist or any range of non-biblical religionists, do not have to acknowledge the biblical Creator in order to enjoy the protection of their lives, liberties and properties in the United States. It is theirs as it belongs to any biblical people – equally.
Thus we arrive at the First Amendment:
“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 of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Religious liberty is the first freedom. Unless we are free to believe as we choose – regardless of what that belief or unbelief is – we are not free to speak it, publish it, assemble on its basis or redress the government accordingly. This freedom is biblical, the nature of our national founding is biblical, and delightfully so, as we establish no religion that will impinge on such freedom.
A Christian people founded a nation that did not impose Christianity on the state, and thus Christianity prospers all the more, and all dissenters prosper all the more.