Monday, May 10, 2010

Christian Nation?

Over at The Huffington Post there is an article about, and interview clip with, Sarah Palin and her views on religion. This all came about because of a court ruling about the National Day of Prayer. Palin believes that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. I think we can agree about that. She also thinks that America is a Christian nation based on the foregoing. The Founding Fathers did not always practice the contemporary Christianity of their day. Jefferson is famous for cutting out portions of the Bible that he believed were clearly not historical. Yet they were all raised in a time when Judeo-Christian principles were foundational to the educations they received. However, does this make America a Christian nation? Not today.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined, at least I don't think it occurred to them at the time, that America would become so spiritually diverse. But they did recognize the danger of state engagement with religion. England's struggle beginning with Henry VIII, the Spanish Inquisition, the medieval and Renaissance history of the Catholic Papacy, and the religious violence in France would have been known to them. So they labored to create a firewall between the state and the individual's spiritual practice. To a large extent they succeeded, much to the dismay of contemporary Christians who insist that America is a Christian nation and decry the fact that Christianity is no longer receiving pride of place or special consideration in a society that is awash in a variety of belief systems.

America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles because its founders were raised in that milieu, whether Protestant, Catholic or Jew. If our Founding Fathers were all Muslims would we then declare America to be Islamic? If they were all Buddhists? Or Jews? Or Hindus? Or Pagans?

Yet we acknowledge Christmas, clearly a Christian holy day, as a Federal holiday. It is the only religious holy day so honored. Have we in fact established a state sponsored religion by recognizing Christmas? Are we then being unfair to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Fitr, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, and the many other holy days of other religions? Should we strip Christmas of its special status? Would restructuring the Federal holiday list to allow each citizen a specific personal day for a religious holy day get the point across that we are not a Christian nation?

Our Founding Fathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution could not have done it differently. They could not have ignored the principles that informed their thinking and still inform our practice of democracy. But that does not make us a Christian nation today.


The North Coast said...

The United States was founded on the principles of rationalist philosophy, and was the first nation in the world ever based on such a foundation, which is its virtue. The founders referred not to religion, but to the principles of freedom and individual rights, which were endorsed by almost no religion of that era, but were arrived at by reason and logic given us by classical philosophy. While many Judeo-Christian principles were assumed, they would in themselves have given us the idea of the supremacy of the individual and the concept of unalienable rights, which are concepts totally alien to traditional religions.

Traditional Judeo-Christian teachings preach self-sacrifice and submission to an other-worldly, supernatural authority, whose existence cannot be proved nor disproved.

Religion may have given us the idea of an individual soul, but it did not give us the philosophical foundation for liberty, individual rights, and ownership of your own life. Only a philosophy that exalts individual human beings and has as its premise the good of the individual human being and the right of a human to own his or her own life, labor, and mind, could have given us this country.

Kheris said...

I generally agree, but would point out that Christianity was heavily influenced by the Greeks during the period of the Scholastics. Aristotle in particular. Aquinas is one of the leading Catholic thinkers of that time. The Reformation and all that arose from it did not result in abandonment of that influence.

From that perspective, Greek philosophy would have informed to some degree the Christian approach to relationships, which would have been the underpinning of notions regarding political leadership and participation. Without a doubt many of the Founding Fathers, and Franklin and Jefferson in particular, were highly educated and more rational in their approach. However that would not necessarily have been the case for the bulk of the people living in America at the time, and I have no doubt the Founding Fathers were as good politicians as any spawned today.