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November 21, 2004

Religion and politics

Don Herzog, Herzog: "A Christian Nation?": November 21, 2004

Well, right, that's a huge topic -- or, better, a cluster of topics.  I flinch, for instance, every time people champion or condemn "the separation of church and state," because that could mean lots of things, some of them good, some not.  (I teach first amendment and begin the section on the religion clauses with a quick battery of cases designed to show the students that "separation" can't settle anything.  Even though some of the justices have thought it can:  there are inadvertently hilarious moments in the cases, with for instance Frankfurter meeting a challenge to religious teachers coming into Illinois public schools by intoning, "Separation means separation, not something less."  Gee, thanks.)

So here's one topic, or anyway a smaller cluster.  Lots of people on the right complain that this is a Christian nation and liberalism makes us lie and pretend it isn't.  "Christian nation" has to mean more than "a nation in which lots of Christians live."  The smartest version of the argument I know is in Richard John Neuhaus's The Naked Public Square, which has some great vignettes:  the TV cameras went off, he reports, whenever Martin Luther King started talking scripture, and King remarked sadly -- I'm going by memory here -- "they want to know what we're doing, but not why we're doing it; so they'll never really understand what we're doing."

So what would change if we agreed that we are a Christian nation? Well, I'd get jittery:  but why?  I asked a really smart conservative Christian student of mine what would change.  He didn't know.  I asked if the University of Michigan could impose a religion test on hiring faculty, on the theory that we are entrusted with educating the young and a Christian nation doesn't trust diffident Jews and atheists with that task.  He was horrified:  "of course not!"  I asked if only Christians should be permitted to serve on juries.  More horror, this time laced with the suspicion that I was teasing.  I asked if people who could demonstrate regular church attendance or home prayer should be given income tax deductions.  Now he knew I was teasing.

But I wasn't.  I really wanted to know what would change.  The right likes to lampoon the left for its infatuation with identity politics. Now there must be more to "Christian America" than right-wing identity politics.  It seems too skeptical, too derisive, to think that if people weren't bridling under the perception that "liberal elites" sneered at them, we wouldn't face demands for school prayer, creationism, and the like.  So what else is there?


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Tracked on Dec 24, 2004 8:59:12 PM


Posted by: Steven Shiffrin

For most of our history, the U.S. functioned as a Christian nation. For example, the public schools were formed in large part to promote Protestant values. Reading from Protestant Bibles in public schools was considered constitutional; aid to Catholic private schools was unconstitutional. Vestiges of this remain, but in my view, we have moved from a Christian nation to a monotheistic nation of a particular type (In God We Trust, not In Allah We Trust, not in Christ We Trust).

Many who would uphold monotheistic governmental prayers and pledges try to dismiss them as not "religious." O'Connor and Rehnquist used this argument in the pledge case, but that argument is disingenous and insulting. To say that our nation is under God clearly is to make a theological assertion. To say In God We Trust not only declares the existence of God, but also a God of a particular sort.

I think that secular and religious progressives should recognize that we live in a monotheistic country in which governmental monotheistic expression is constitutional so long as it is not coercive. This means that government in some circumstances can favor religion over non-religion and some religions over others. This is deeply regrettable, but the high wall does not now and never did exist. There are grounds for hope. The Constitution and the country, including ACLU liberals and Christian evangelicals, support generous protections for free exercise of religion even if Justice Scalia and the Court majority does not. Equally important, the Constitution is best interpreted in my view to curb most governmental intervention that favors religions, not because religion is a constitutional stepchild, but because the seductions of governmental dependence are great and because government can not be trusted to do what is best for religion. We have witnessed numerous cases in which religious leaders have acted in ways that have damaged religion; how much less should one expect politicians to act on behalf of religion? If one wishes to criticize tight relations between church and state in this country, the most effective argument with the right is that tight relations between church and state have damaged religion (Europe is the poster child for this argument), not to contend that religion is scary or stupid.

Posted by: Steven Shiffrin | Nov 29, 2004 8:37:49 PM

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

Full disclosure first: I'm a Christian who thinks the notion of a Christian nation to be a contradiction in terms. Christianity, at least as the Bible treats it, is a counter-cultural and subversive movement, one that might work within the government and must respect it, but one that cannot seek to be a political entity given that the enemy is not flesh and blood but spiritual and that political means are therefore not the weapons of our warfare. These are the Bible's own terms.

However, I think those who do want to insist that this is a Christian nation (or has traditionally been one) are simply stating that Christian principles were involved in the founding of the country, and the system we have would not have existed without those principles. It's not just that some principles came from the Bible. They think the very idea of the American government is thoroughly Christian. I fail to see this myself, though it's fairly obvious that most of the founders were indeed Christians, even if the most vocal and prominent of them (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Washington) were not genuinely Christian but were in fact deists. It's more a claim of historical origin in most minds, and then they seem some moral obligation to respect that condition as if somehow the changes in American politics and demographics haven't changed anything.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Dec 8, 2004 4:45:13 PM

Posted by: HispanicPundit

Hmmm. Good stuff. I think what would change is that people would more easily agree that while nobody should force their religion on others, the United States does have its heritage in Christianity. Meaning that it would be ok to have the ten commandments in Arkansas, for example, or religious symbols throughout public property.

I am specifically bringing up not symbols that are designed to proselytize, but that serve more as symbols of the American history, which is largely intertwined with Christianity.

In other words, not to discriminate against others, but to show that we are particularly Christian and have a Tradition to our heritage. It's the Tradition part that I love. I am not particularly religious, but being a first generation American from Mexican descent, I strongly value Tradition, and its powers to unite.

Btw, great website and material. Keep up the good work!!!

Posted by: HispanicPundit | Jan 13, 2005 12:40:56 AM

Posted by: Will

People in my experience who use the term "Christian nation" are concerned about protecting traditional Christian practices -- not going on the offensive as suggested in your comments regarding limiting the rights of non-christians.
Rather, Christians don't want some (atheist?) ACLU lawyers from New York coming to their town's high school commencement and using the coercive power of the state to prevent any prayers with word "jesus" in them from being spoken, even though this may be a practice in their community since before there was a United States and at no time in the past did jack-booted fascists in the guise of left-leaning lawyers come try to interfere with their traditions.

Posted by: Will | May 1, 2005 10:06:24 PM

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