A Christian nation?

Last weekend, I was privileged to attend a traditional Easter dinner — complete with barbecued ribs. (It’s a new tradition.) It was at the home of my friend Candy and her family, and they’re quite devout. And while I’m not anywhere near to becoming a Christian, it did get me in a spiritual frame of mind.

One of the more quarrelsome points between the religious right and the rest of the nation is the contention that “the United States was established on Christian principles.” It’s pretty much guaranteed to start some major arguments, especially when someone decides to get all PC and make it “Judeo-Christian values.”

I don’t really have a problem with it, in either form.

First off, while it might be a concession to the PC movement, the term “Judeo-Christian” is a smidgen more accurate. About half the Christian Bible is made up of the Jewish scriptures, and Christian theology is built on a platform of Judaism. Indeed, initially Christianity was described as a “Jewish cult.” To try to separate modern Christianity from its Jewish roots is rewriting history — and we’ve seen enough of that with the Inquisitions, thank you very much.

Secondly, it’s pretty hard to deny that the United States was founded on Christian principles. Massachusetts was founded as a colony where the Puritans could freely practice their version of Christianity. Pennsylvania was built on the notion of religious tolerance. And Georgia was started as a debtor’s colony, which ties in to the “redemption” theme.

Note that the phrase is “Christian principles,” not “Christian tenets.” It’s about the general ideas and concepts and philosophies that are part of Christianity, not the faith itself.

But, does that make this country a “Christian” nation?

Well, demographically at least, yeah. The majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian.

Practically, maybe. Every president we’ve ever elected has declared himself a Christian of some denomination. (They’ve also all been white males, for that matter.) It’s pretty much a requirement to get elected.

But legally, factually, is it true? I don’t think so.

There is a general endorsement for religion in the founding documents (“…endowed by their Creator,” the First Amendment part of “free exercise of religion”), but also a recognition of keeping church and state separate (the “establishment” part of the First Amendment). The role of government has traditionally been to support religion in general, but not to give preferential treatment to any particulars. Churches are tax exempt, as are donations to them, in essence giving them a public subsidy.

Overall, I think that’s been a good thing for the nation. The general principles of Christianity, stripped of their theological aspects, are a pretty good starting point for general rules of civil behavior. We could do worse.

In fact, looking around the world, we can see that other bases have been used — and have done considerably worse.

So, speaking as a non-Christian, I’d have to say that I kind of like living in a nation built on “Judeo-Christian values.” Especially one where I can tell those who try to convert me to go pound sand.

The White House 2009
Alberto Gonzales Speaks