God and Country

July 15, 2013
god and country

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I don’t really believe in this idea of “God and country.” I think it’s actually harmful. (I figured I might as well go whole-hog today and alienate whatever Christians this will alienate.) Before you shut me down, unfriend me, and come to my house with a pitchfork, I hope you will hear me out. These are my views, and I think a lot about this stuff. My views may not line up with yours, and I understand that, but I hope I can articulate them in a way where even if you disagree you can say, “Oh, I can see how that can be an acceptable way of thinking.”

This is what we know about the religious commitments of our founding fathers:

Lambert (2003) has examined the religious affiliations and beliefs of the Founders. Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 49 were Protestants, and two were Roman Catholics (D. Carroll, and Fitzsimons). Among the Protestant delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 28 were Church of England (or Episcopalian, after the American Revolutionary War was won), eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutherans, two were Dutch Reformed, and two were Methodists.

A few prominent Founding Fathers were anti-clerical Christians, such as Thomas Jefferson[19][20][21] (who created the so-called “Jefferson Bible”) and Benjamin Franklin.[22] Others (most notably Thomas Paine) were deists, or at least held beliefs very similar to those of deists.[23]

Historian Gregg L. Frazer argues that the leading Founders (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Wilson, Morris, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington) were neither Christians nor Deists, but rather supporters of a hybrid “theistic rationalism”.[24] Souce: Wikipedia

Doesn’t it seem that the mere presence of dispute over the religions of Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, etc. shows they were likely not Christians, at least not in the sense that we understand Christianity today? Can you imagine that in a society where everything was either handwritten or published on a printing press, so little evidence would exist that these learned men (of many books and papers) were Christians that there is room for uncertainty? If you are a Christian, and historians studied your life after you are gone, would they be able to tell what religion you were? Probably so. If not, then I would guess it wasn’t that big of a deal to you, and that would be a reasonable guess.

Having established that America was founded by a mix of people from different religious traditions, I next want to state the obvious, which is that it doesn’t really matter. If America were founded entirely by Satanists, that does not mean they either did or did not intend to make all Americans Satanists. The point is, religion itself was not the point. These men came together to build a nation, and were trying to figure out what principles a nation would best thrive on. Among those principles were both freedom of religion, separation of church and state.

Yeah, I know. That phrase isn’t in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence.

In English, the exact term is an offshoot of the phrase, “wall of separation between church and state”, as written in Thomas Jefferson‘s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson reflected his frequent speaking theme that the government is not to interfere with religion.[15]

The Bill of Rights was one of the earliest examples in the world of complete religious freedom (adopted in 1791, only preceded by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789) but it was interpreted as establishing a separation of Church and State only after the letter of Jefferson (see section United States for more details). At the time of the passage of the Bill of Rights, many states acted in ways that would now be held unconstitutional, some of them with official state churches. All of the early official state churches were disestablished by 1833. Source: Wikipedia

My point was that religion was not the point, but rather the building of a nation, and how religion was to be understood within that nation. If I am correct, then we can already dispense with national ideas of God and Country, since we are guaranteed the right to consider that God is Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Mother Earth, Yahweh, or ourselves. When we say God and Country, then, we’re not saying something that is meaningful to other people. It’s like saying, “Abortion is wrong.” Many people would “amen” that phrase, but be dismayed to find out that many who agree with the statement nonetheless think the decision is ultimately up to each woman. So “abortion is wrong” may unite some people initially, until they find out that large numbers of people don’t agree with their interpretation of it, or how to act on it. At that point it actually becomes divisive, and we see that division constantly in America.

Clearly, our nation has always been secular in a certain sense, in that it has always been intended to grant freedom to all, of whatever, or no, religious persuasion (as Jefferson makes very clear in the quote above). What is the alternative? Forced religion of one kind of another? Of course not. So this is a point that I think should have been settled long ago. The foundations were established for religious freedom, which includes freedom of religious conscience to believe, not to believe, whatever. There was never an intention for America to be a “Christian nation” governed by a Christian version of sharia law. Nor was there ever an intention for religion to be illegal, nor forced on anyone. Nor was there ever a time in America where the country itself was Christian. There was a time when churchgoing was more socially enforced than it is now, just like there was a time when woman wore dresses to vacuum the house. But that does not mean America was more Christian. What does it even mean to say “more Christian?” That there were larger numbers of people seeking/serving God? That people were more sincere in their faith? That people were merely less open about their lack of faith? That the public square had more “Christian stuff” in it? I don’t even think the phrase “more Christian” means anything. It’s just another amorphous term that makes people suspect that “back then” it was somehow “better” (again, what does THAT mean?) than right now.

Despite occasional problems with interpretation of this church/state separation guideline, I as a Christian and pastor am pretty happy with the balance in our country. If anything I’d like to see government more OUT of the religion game. I’d be fine taking “in God we trust” off our money since it’s not actually true for the majority of citizens (and even, I suspect, for many professing Christians), and “under God” out of our pledge. I want government out of my religion, as completely as possible. Let’s dump the feel-good God and country charade. All it does is create warm fuzzies in the toes of certain people, but it doesn’t reflect reality either as it was once, or as it is now.

Some would argue, “I just think it’s nice to have nativity scenes in the public square.” I get that. I don’t feel the same way and can take them or leave them, but I get the sentiment. But someone who feels that way should either move to a community where that’s something that is done, or simply get politically active on the grounds that “it is nice.” It’s okay to think certain things are nice and comfortable, and it’s okay to ask your city government to respond to that. What is not okay is, if the city decides to honor what someone else thinks is nice (not having a nativity scene in the public square), to insist that it is somehow un-American. Christians are no more American than anyone else and until every last Christian understands that, and is as willing to defend the public rights of atheists as their own rights and the rights of fellow Christians, Christians are going to rightly be seen as arrogant and out of touch. If you’re a Christian, when is the last time you got angry at a Christian for trying to force his Christian beliefs on his mostly non-Christian community? Or do you always see the Christian as the persecuted one? If so, history shows you that Christians have as often been the oppressor as it has been the oppressed. Perhaps a great deal more.


Finally, in no way does my opinion denigrate the service of those who have served, or their sense of duty to God in service to their country. It does not even do away with having a desire for God to “bless” America, or hoping God looks upon our nation favorably. I’m simply suggesting that unless the CIA, FBI, IRS, military, Congress, the Supreme Court, and all branches of government are going to be run according to “Christian principles,” then we are not in fact a country “under God.” I don’t even think a country CAN BE under God except to the extent that its individual citizens are decidedly under God. For example, what is the opinion of Jesus on drones? On the global economic crisis? On unions? On welfare? On the war in Iraq? On immigration? On President Obama? Christians of good will are all over the map. There simply is no one Christian position on these things, and in acting as if there is, Christians end up looking mighty un-Christian most of the time. What, then, can it possibly mean to say America is, or should be, a Christian nation? I don’t want America’s policies cloaked in the name of God for a single second. I’d rather we focus on trying to do good and allow others to decide if God is working through our country, but we are in great danger when we presume God is on our side to begin with.

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  • Doug Indeap

    I agree with you that separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution–much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    I think, though, that the principle did not arise from irreligious views of founders. While the religious views of various founders are subjects of some uncertainty and controversy, it is safe to say that many founders were Christian of one sort or another. In assessing the nature of our government, though, care should be taken to distinguish between society and government and not to make too much of various founders’ individual religious beliefs. Their individual beliefs, while informative, are largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that establishes a secular government and separates it from religion as noted earlier. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

    Lest there be any doubt on this score, note that shortly after the founding, President John Adams (a founder) signed, with the unanimous consent of the Senate (comprised in large measure of founders), the Treaty of Tripoli declaring, in pertinent part, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” No need to resort to reading tea leaves to understand that. This is not an informal comment by an individual founder, but rather an official declaration of the most solemn sort by the United States government itself. Note that the Constitution provides that treaties, apart from the Constitution itself, are the highest law of the land.

    It is instructive to recall that the Constitution’s separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a “disestablishment” political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement was linked to another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

    This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

    • http://davidkflowers.com David Flowers

      Thanks for your in-depth and helpful commentary, Doug. Great stuff.

  • Jan

    I love nativity scenes. They represent a tradition. I dislike traditions being changed because they “offend” a group of people who got loud & active & stomped up to city hall & demanded it be removed. “In God We Trust” is certainly a statement I try to stand by, but I know a LOT of Americans who don’t trust Him or even believe He exists. That being said, I would just prefer a LOT less government period. I don’t see many government officials being too Godlike, Buddalike, Mother Teresalike or anybody else with a shred of decency. We are led by a wicked group with their own personal agendas. If they represent our Country, then for sure I don’t agree with any part of the phrase “God & Country” Then I envisioned what Jesus might do if he were roaming across America right now. I sure don’t see him in DC demonstrating for some random cause, I don’t see him giving a personal endorsement for Obama (or anyone in politics that I have had the displeasure of the media exposing me to) & I sure don’t see him demanding that a nativity scene be removed. I see him sitting with a group of people that might be considered undesirable, assuring them that they are loved; demonstrating that love. And I see America (as represented by law enforcement) telling him he is breaking some law & asking him to move along. So yeah…I see what you mean. So much for God & Country. We ARE caught up in what we believe about “the good old days”. But I can’t help believe that those times were simpler!!

    • http://davidkflowers.com David Flowers

      Times WERE simpler, but that doesn’t mean they were more godly, which is what we’re talking about when we talk about the idea that America was once a “Christian” nation.

  • http://davidkflowers.com/2013/07/god-and-country/#more-6352 sheryl

    Actually Ben Franklin liked to hang out with the Episcopalians because most of his political connections were made there! We sat in his regular pew in Philadelphia when we were there.