Saturday, February 2, 2008

Church and State, God and Country II: A Letter to a Newspaper

"We are facing the most crucial time that has ever existed in our nation's history. Politicians are fighting among themselves to attain power. What is desperately needed is to lead our nation back to Christianity. We were founded by our forefathers as a Christian nation. We have strayed so far from Christian principles that we are facing destruction.

Mike Huckabee should be a landslide choice. He is a devoted Christian and would lead us in the right direction. I believe he is God's choice. He was the 44th governor of Arkansas and he should be the 44th president of the United States.

Let's pick a leader who has character. Read Huckabee's book, 'Character is the issue.' It is very inspiring. It gives us insight as to what could be expected of him as our next president. Let's make this come true."

- J.W. "Bill" Smith in a letter to the Bristol Herald Courier, published January 31, 2008

While former Governor Huckabee appears to have little or no chance to win the Republican primary at this point, the above letter grabbed my attention immediately as soon as I read it. It shows the failure of an American citizen to understand the United States Constitution or the mind of its framers. It displays very dangerous misconceptions about the nature of our nation and its laws and it displays an intolerance that is all the more vicious for coming from well-meaning ignorance.

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. Many of the founding fathers were Christians, most of those were of Protestant denominations, but not all. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and others were deists. Washington may not even have been that, during his lifetime his enemies accused him of outright atheism. Very nearly all were firmly opposed to the establishment of a state church or to allow any church or denomination to make its own doctrine the law of the land. New England had been a hotbed of religious persecution, despite being founded by men and women fleeing it. The Puritans of Massachusetts persecuted those who did not follow their religious codes of morality. The exiles Anne Hutchinson led from Massachusetts Bay to Rhode Island, fleeing that persecution, would then persecute those who did not toe their own doctrinal line. This, and the memory of the persecution of Catholics by Anglicans and the warring between High Church Anglicans and Puritans in England, made the founding fathers determined to keep the churches out of the business of writing the laws of the land.

What is true, and what many liberals unfortunately forget, is that the United States was initially founded as a nation of Christians. It is true, as conservatives claim, that many Christian principles went into the development of our nation's laws. What conservatives do not understand is that those principles are not solely Christian. They come from philosophers and political scientists like John Locke and David Hume (from whose ideas our modern American system ultimately evolved), like Rene Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (both of whom strongly influenced Thomas Paine, as well as Jefferson and Madison and the future French Revolution), as far back as Plato and Parmenides, who gave us the idea of 'self-evident truths.' Most of these principles are shared by all the major religions of the world. More than that, they are shared by the majority of agnostics, atheists, deists, New Agers, modern pagans, and secular humanists.

What Mr. Smith and others like him wish to see legislated into the law of the United States are not 'Christian principles.' They are specific ideas of Christian doctrine as believed by the church to which they belong. They are the very things that the founding fathers specifically wished kept out of the United States Constitution and the laws of the states. The inability to separate between the concepts of a nation founded by Christians (in part, in great part, this cannot be denied) and of a Christian nation is one of the great challenges our country faces right now. It is a challenge our society will, ultimately, have to meet and overcome as it overcame slavery and as it still struggles to overcome bigotry, chauvinism, and prejudice.

Fortunately, this is a far cry from 'the most crucial time in our nation's history.' Nor is it the greatest challenge our nation has faced. The American Revolution, the War of 1812, slavery and the Civil War, and the World Wars were all crises far beyond anything we face now. The big challenges, the challenges of bigotry, chauvinism, prejudice, and religious intolerance are not 'national' challenges, despite of the manner in which they intrude so viciously upon politics. They are personal challenges that we must overcome in ourselves and help others to overcome. They are only national challenges in that it is our social responsibility to continue to combat such social ills as a nation.

I still have faith in us.

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