There is an argument that is consistently given regarding the religious versus secular nature of the United States. The most common phrasing from one side is that this is a “Christian nation.” Opponents of this position state that we are in fact not a “Christian nation” but a secular nation founded on the understanding that freedom of religion, in order to be fully recognized and experienced, must include the government in all forms, stepping away from any sort of position where it seems they are favoring one religious belief over another, or seeking to deny equal freedom to differing beliefs.
This argument has been spoken about vocally and passionately from both sides, but only one side is actually correct. I think the confusion lays in the need to gain a better understanding of the difference between being “Culturally Christian” and being “Religiously Christian”. If these two terms can be defined and explained, I think that it would be possible to understand where the concept of being a Christian nation is actually rooted and in what way it can be viewed correctly.
The argument that is often given when describing the United States as a Christian Nation is that it was founded on Judeo-Christian tradition. Rather than take this argument and dissemble it, as such has already been done, I would instead like to explain how that point is true, but irrelevant. Then, I will explain afterwards why this claim that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian tradition and beliefs is incorrect.
The first thing that must be done when explaining sides to an argument is to make sure the words and terms are clearly defined and understood. Being Religiously Christian means that you define your personal religious or spiritual beliefs as Christian, that you practice Christianity, and adhere to the tenets of the Christian faith, however your particular denomination chooses to define them.
Being Culturally Christian is different. All over the globe, there are different cultures and each culture is flavored or framed by the dominant religious beliefs of the people, especially by the people in power. Just because a region is culturally dominated by a particular religion does not mean that is the only practiced religion, or even the only acceptable religion of that area. It just means that as a culture, that is the religious system that has had the most influence on that particular group of people, that region, that race, or that ethnicity. Asia is culturally Buddhist. India is culturally Hindu. The Middle East is culturally Islamic. Europe is culturally Christian, either Catholic or Protestant depending on different areas. Central and South America are culturally Catholic, Sub-Saharan African tribes are culturally animistic and focus on ancestor reverence, and Haiti is culturally Vodoun. Culturally, the United States can be considered Christian.
Culturally Christian. Not religiously. Not legally. Not popularly. Not governmentally.
Our cinema has horror movies based on demons and the devil. There are Christian churches in every neighborhood. Whenever someone mentions “Noah’s Ark”, “Samson and Delilah”, the “Ten Commandments”, or “Jesus being crucified”, you’re pretty much guaranteed that everyone will know what you’re talking about. Our commercials parody concepts of heaven and angels, and cartoons display the idea of a person’s conscience with a halo and horns. Our view of the afterlife is colored by an idea of either cloudy sky-realms, or pits of fire and pitchfork-wielding horned men. These are things which mark us as a culturally Christian society, yet these have nothing to do with the belief system or religion of individual citizens. These are examples of our culture as Americans.
A culture colors the mentality of its people. It’s very hard to separate a person’s outlook, judgment, or even their disposition from the culture that they grew up in or live in. Understanding that it was the culture of Europe (particularly England which was culturally Christian at the time of our nation’s birth) and not necessarily the individual religion of the Founding Fathers, might help to clarify where this debate falls.
Our government as it now stands, came from British colonists. Britain is part of Europe. Ergo, the colonists were culturally Christian. This does not mean that they all religiously practiced the Christian faith. Nor does it mean that even among those who were actively religious as Christians, that they sought to determine that Christianity was the only acceptable or government-sanctioned belief system. Whatever their personal beliefs were, and those varied, what they put together for our nation was focused on the understanding that religion and government must not mix power. They understood that in framing the Constitution that they had the responsibility to lay down this basic concept and make it as clear to interpret for future generations as they could.
As far as the argument goes that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs…
Judeo-Christian based government is either a MONARCHY or a THEOCRACY, neither of which are correct descriptions of America’s government, regardless of what certain religious and political groups would like to see established. Ergo, America’s government is NOT traditionally based on Judeo-Christian beliefs.
The fact is that what is considered to be the Judeo-Christian beliefs that supposedly served to originate our laws are actually present in pretty much every religious system or code of moral conduct there is. One doesn’t have to be a Jew or Christian to understand that certain things like theft, dishonesty, rape, or murder are wrong, shouldn’t be tolerated, and should be punished. Laws against such behaviors existed before the establishment of Christianity and were present in all civilized (and barbarian cultures) that had no contact with Judeo-Christian people or beliefs at all until much later. Research any good history book about tribal African, eastern Asian, or the codes and laws present among natives in North, Central, and South America before anyone from Europe arrived.
The principles of democracy and being part of a republic are definitely not Judeo-Christian concepts.
Democracy is an ideal from Pagan Greece and the idea of a republican ruling body called a senate is founded in Pagan Rome.
A Democracy is when the power of rulership is in the hands of the people and focuses on equality.
A Republic is an elected body chosen from among the people to be the government.
These are ideals forming the American system of government but they are not Judeo-Christian concepts.
The Jews had kings who received their authority through divine right, not through the mandate of the people. Christianity came to power in Europe through the will of the Roman emperor Constantine, who wasn’t elected for this position. Later on, Europe carried on with the ‘divine right of kings’ as a system of government. England was ruled by a king when America was colonized. It was because the founders of our nation understood that the idea of one man or woman inheriting the right to rule because “God says so” is foolish that our government was established as something sensible and uniquely un-theocratic. In monotheistic philosophy, there is an inherent idea of being separate, unequal, favored, or ‘chosen’. These are decidedly un-American concepts.
When people claim that the Ten Commandments are the foundation for American justice truly look at what the Commandments themselves say, it’s really a silly argument. The majority of the Commandments have nothing at all to do with law and only apply to the Judeo-Christian faith and its followers.
- Commandment #1 – You shall have no other gods before me. This only applies to those who follow or serve this particular deity. It has nothing to do with the way the U.S. Government is established or our laws conducted.
- Commandment #2 – No graven images. This one also only applies in a religious context to those who follow Yahweh/Jehovah and has nothing to do with the government or legal system.
- Commandment #3 – Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Again, this only applies in a religious context and only to those who follow this particular god.
- Commandment #4 – Keep the sabbath day holy. Resting on the sabbath (whether Saturday or Sunday – depending on your particular flavor preference for a day off) has no legal bearing on anything.
- Commandment #5 – Honor your parents. Honoring parents is a nice idea, but it’s not a law-worthy ideal.
- Commandment #6 – You shall not murder. Finally, after hitting halfway through the list, we encounter something that actually applies.
- Commandment #7 – You shall not commit adultery. Likewise, this one is a legal type of thing, even though legally, it has less clout than it did in ages past. It’s hard to prove it’s a crime to commit adultery that would actually see it as being punished by law. Ex-spouses paying alimony may disagree.
- Commandment #8 – You shall not steal. This is the only other one that has some actual legal positioning.
- Commandment #9 – Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. If you stretch this to mean don’t be dishonest, it works. But as it is right here, unless it actually goes to a prosecutable level, like libel, slander, or perjury it’s not really a legal issue.
- Commandment #10 – Don’t covet your neighbor’s possessions. Really? This is America. Our entire capitalistic system is built on wanting more, especially if we get the bonus of getting more than those we consider ourselves in competition with. As long as you don’t lie, murder, or steal to get them, the government and legal system doesn’t care if you covet. Especially if you’re willing to spend the money on achieving your desires.
So honestly, the idea that the Ten Commandments are the foundation for the country’s judicial or governmental system is false. Two out of ten are actually legal codes, two sort of fit if you stretch the definitions and really have a situation occur where they might apply, and the rest have nothing to do with legality or government. Two out of ten doesn’t qualify as a strong enough influence to claim it as a base for anything.
The next point is that it doesn’t matter what religion the framers of the Constitution practiced. It wouldn’t matter if every single one of them had been a Christian. The people of the United States aren’t now, and never have been entirely Christian. The entire principle of our nation is that we are unique among the world because no where else on this planet will you find a representation of all cultures, races, ethnicities, nations, AND religions that are present in the U.S.A. All people of this country have to be considered equal or else the entire fabric of our government will be ripped apart. This includes religious equality. The idea that the framers of the Constitution intended that only Christianity would be recognized is ludicrous. Christianity doesn’t get special favors, no matter how many people want to kick and scream and demand it. This is why there must always be a solid division between religion and government, also known as the Separation of Church and State.
This separation is there for everyone’s benefit and protection. There is absolutely no law forbidding prayer in school. Students of a school, even secular public ones, may pray. There is a law prohibiting school staff from leading prayers or offering religious education outside of the appropriate scholastic environment. This isn’t to impinge on the religious freedoms of the staff members. They are free to practice whatever religion they choose. It is to protect those under their authority or guidance from having their rights interfered with or personal beliefs devalued.
Those in positions of authority or leadership are held to a different standard than the general public, specifically because they are in a position of authority or leadership.
Now, this doesn’t mean that people in government office are not allowed to practice their own personal religious beliefs. But, it does mean that because they hold a government office, they will be held to a different level of scrutiny. When one is placed into a leadership role that’s just what happens, whether they are a judge, senator, governor, or president. They must hold themselves and be accountable to a higher level of judgment. Think of it like this, if you work for anyone, and it doesn’t matter what your job is, do you not automatically look at your supervisor and judge them if they aren’t holding up every single ideal or requirement asked of you? Someone in a position of power or authority must be seen as beyond reproach if they are to have any respect or keep their position. When that position includes maintaining a careful balance between equality, and keeping personal beliefs from crossing the line, it falls to them to toe the line. How much more stringent are our requirements then for those who technically are in a position of service, as government is supposed to be in this country?
They may practice their religion in private, they may make it publicly known what their religion is if they so choose, and they may pray to whatever god they want before they go to work or go to sleep at night. But they may not act in such a way that unfairly elevates their religion or beliefs over the religion or beliefs of the PEOPLE THEY SERVE, and that population includes non-Christians.
A governor cannot legally then silence people of other faiths any more than he or she can show favoritism for their own. All religions must be shown equality if prayer is to be performed, otherwise keep it all out. A law-maker may use his or her religion to guide their conscience for what they deem ethical in their personal lives, but they must weigh it against what the decision would be if it were divorced from their personal beliefs and instead reflected what the people of their district want when determining laws. A judge must look at all sides fairly and not be swayed by things that have no legal bearing on a case, such as automatically presuming someone’s guilt, innocence or legal standing depending only on whether they wear a cross, Star of David, Hand of Fatima, or a pentacle around their neck.
Our nation is not really a melting pot, because we don’t necessarily lose our own personal heritage by joining with others. Rather, it’s a mosaic, made up of varying tiles and stones of all different shapes and colors. Each one has a place in the grand design and adds to the beauty of the whole. None are more special and none are more sacred. Take any of them away and you’re left with a broken image that fails to show what the sum reveals. People need to stop saying that the purple pieces are better than the green ones, or that the shiny tiles are more relevant than the dull ones. They’re all important and each one deserves to be respected as such and that can’t be done if we are ignorantly considered a “Christian Nation.”