Friday, October 22, 2010

Dear Michael Gerson:

You write:
[The] view [that America is a Christian nation] is comforting to some -- as comforting as a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. It is consistent with populist movements before it. But it is flawed nonetheless. America is not a Christian country and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophic reasons.

You then proceed to refer only to the government. For example, you write:
America was not founded as a Christian nation precisely because America's Founders were informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature. Since humans are autonomous moral beings created in God's image, freedom of conscience is essential to their dignity. At least where the federal government was concerned, the Founders asserted that citizens should be subject to God and their conscience, not to the state.

Now, in fairness, you frame your article as a response to Christine O'Donnell's obviously confused and limited understanding of the United States Constitution. But two things.

First, being a Christian nation doesn't mean the government has to be explicitly Christian. Nations have institutions, traditions, norms, and values beyond just the government. Second, as FLG likes to assert time and again, even if our government isn't explicitly Christian, many decisions, as you point out, were made by Christians, specifically Protestant Christians, who held a variety of assumptions about human nature and the world that derived from their faith. Specifically, since Luther rejected the Catholic hierarchy and replaced it with the nuclear family as the basis for the church, many decisions were made around the assumption of the nuclear family as the rock upon which society stands.

I'm not saying that Christine O'Donnell or the Tea Partiers have this type of understanding of a Christian nation, but equating the nation and the government is intellectually lazy.



Withywindle said...

And the idea that "America is a Protestant nation, albeit one with an increasing variety other types," would have commanded very wide assent through most of the nation's history.

Alan Howe said...

The problem that Gerson is explicitly attacking seems to be the assertion of many that the US was FOUNDED as a Christian Nation: that our founding documents that combined the colonies into one nation made that nation Christian. This is the argument of those who (recklessly and self-injuriously) attack the separation of church and state. Their argument regarding our founding is specious as Gerson (and many, many others before him) has shown.

I would say Iran is a Shi'a nation and Saudi Arabia is a Sunni nation; therefore, I would not say we are a Protestant nation.

arethusa said...

I also would not say we are a "Protestant" nation. You can say we're an overwhelmingly Christian nation, because according to Pew, just under 79% of Americans self-identify as Christian, but only just over half of Americans are Protestants, with the rest of the Christian super-majority comprised by Catholics - almost a quarter of the population - and other sects like Mormons. This makes us Christian, but frankly it doesn't make us Protestant the way Scandinavian countries are Protestant (with more than 90% of the population Protestant, usually). If we were to identify ourselves as a religious nation a la Iran, I really think Christian is a better descriptor than Protestant. For one thing, "Christian" has better overtones than "Protestant."

FLG said...


But that's currently. I'm saying our current institutions and norms were influenced by the views of Protestant Christians in the past. So, maybe people don't identify as Protestants, but the institutions and norms that have been passed down have it in their DNA.

Tim Kowal said...

It's true enough that the federal government was designed to be free from any religious or normative content. The police power---to protect the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the people---was vested in the states, and this was taken care not to be disturbed by the Constitution. Not that I've been looking, but I haven't yet seen anyone make anything of the fact that Chris Coons quoted the First Amendment as "Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." What a sneaky substitution of words! Granted, the Supreme Court formally amended our Constitution in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, but please let's not rewrite history, too.

So yes, it's a very critical distinction to make between "society" and "government," and even between state and federal government. It's only in a very qualified sense that one can accurately say America was not a Christian nation at its founding.

Anonymous said...

FLG, I agree with you - I think but forget that and here's an editorial you might like. I like it because it goes right around the Judeo Christian/Protestant thingummy by getting right to the heart of the matter -morality- as this sentence so succinctly illustrates:

"We can't have the type of country envisioned by the Founders when they wrote the Constitution unless we again become the self-reliant, responsible, moral people that document was written for."

From The Detroit News:

Mrs. P

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