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Over the last few decades, it has been something of an article of faith among conservative pundits and provocateurs that the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be an explicitly Christian nation.  This notion goes far beyond simple acknowledgement of the "Judeo-Christian heritage" of many, if not most, of the early settlers; instead, it goes straight to the heart of the role of government in matters of faith and the role of the church in matters of government.

When taken to extremes, we've seen this used as an argument for outright theocracy, thanks to folks like the New Apostolic Reformation and their Seven Mountains theology; in smaller doses, it has contributed to discussions of a need for "godly government" or "a return to righteousness in government."  As an example of the latter, the Southern Baptist confession of faith reads, in part, "Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love."

Make no mistake - this is reaching the level of Presidential politics. A noted Religious Right figure, David Lane, recently called upon Christians to "wage war to restore a Christian America" in an article since removed from WorldNetDaily.  Lane has been an adviser to Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry; he's currently working with Rand Paul (R-KY).

So, how does one talk to someone whose mind is firmly planted in this "we're supposed to be a Christian nation - the Founders said so!" mindset?   I suggest that this topic can--and should--go directly to a discussion of the best example we have of the Founders' intentions: the Constitution itself.  Best of all, this set of talking points begins with the simplest possible question.  Follow me beyond the Barbecue Curlicue...

Before we begin, it's important to note that it is highly unlikely that you will "convert" such a thinker with a single conversation.  Instead, our goal is simply to make them stop and think about what they are being told or taught.  Don't go into this conversation expecting to trigger some sort of "OH MY GOSH, YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO WRONG?!" epiphany; all you need to do plant the seeds, even if you don't get to see them take root.

Now, one thing should be obvious from the outset - a religious approach to this question will almost certainly be a non-starter.  We all know that criticism of deeply held beliefs usually results in a reaction of either "shutting down" or outright denial, so we have to anchor our arguments outside of the sphere of belief (religious OR political) as much as possible.  

So, the opening question takes the individual's religion completely out of the picture:

What does the Constitution itself say about religion?
Here's where we often have to deal with the first piece of historical illiteracy; it seems that many folks believe that either this famous quote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
or this one:
[...] the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them [...]
are found in the Constitution, but they are actually part of the Declaration of Independence, and that document does NOT carry the force of law.  They may also mention the Presidential oath of office that ends with "so help me God," but the oath doesn't end that way; most sources suggest that either Washington or Lincoln added "so help me God" spontaneously, and subsequent Presidents have continued the tradition - but the Constitution does not require it. (See Article II, Section 1.)

Most folks will immediately mention the First Amendment in response to this question.  That's all well and good, but--sadly--that will probably be the extent of their knowledge.  Here's where we start building our little pile of rhetorical kindling with our second talking point:

Well, the First Amendment is one example, but the Constitution only mentions God or religion three times.
With any luck at all, you now have their attention, if for no other reason that they're hoping to prove you wrong.

The second mention is basically fluff, and appears at the conclusion of the text:

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names,
Some folks may argue that the use of "year of our Lord" indicates a Christian mandate, but the fact of the matter is that this is simply an artifact of the Gregorian calendar.  I'm sure that you can point to any number of contemporary legal documents (deeds, diplomas, etc.) that use the phrase without any religious intent whatsoever.  After all, today's "AD" is just an abbreviation of the Latin Anno Domini, which means--you guesed it--"year of the Lord."

That leaves only ONE mention of God or religion to be discussed, and it's the one that usually goes unremarked upon in most discussions of the Constitution.  From Article VI:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Here's where we get to make them start thinking--and, hopefully, doubting--whatever "Christian nation" Dominionist source(s) have been feeding them, and it goes something like this:

If the Founders wanted an explicitly Christian nation, they were certainly in a position to make it happen; after all, they were the ones writing the Constitution, the "supreme law of the land" for the new United States.  They could have pushed through whatever requirements they wanted.  Delegates to the Constitutional Convention included clergy, lay leaders and devout believers among those not usually considered big-name "Founding Fathers," so support for such requirements would not have been difficult to attract.  But they didn't do that, and there is no record of any attempts to do so.  Instead, they went as far as they could in the opposite direction and prohibited ANY religious tests for ANY "Office or public Trust under the United States."  Not only did they NOT want to instill religious requirements in the new government, but they also wanted to ensure that later generations would be prohibited from doing so.  Even so, that was not sufficient for some...which is why the First Amendment was proposed, approved and ratified - to ensure that the government would both be free of religious tests (as the original Constitution directed) AND be restrained from interference in the people's exercise of religious belief.

So, the question to leave them with is this:

So, that's what the Constitution says...if the Founders really wanted us to be a "Christian nation," why didn't they just do it themselves, and why did they prevent US from doing it?
I have yet to hear a coherent answer to that question, and I've had several folks step away from Dominionist/Seven Mountains/theocratic thought after giving that question decent consideration.  Keep it in your 'argument arsenal'; I think you'll have an opportunity to use it.

Originally posted to wesmorgan1 on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 01:51 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Atheists.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Christianity has occupied a position (7+ / 0-)

    of privilege in western nations since it became the state religion of the Roman Empire. It continues to hold such a position in many nations. At the time that the US was established religious debates were about which form of Christianity should have precedence. It is pretty clear that the primary reason for the establishment clause was to leave that debate open.

    I think very few people in 1789 could have envisioned the generally secular society that we live in today, but then there many other things about today's society they could not have envisioned. Regardless of the intent of the founding fathers, what they did in practical effect was to leave religion as an open issue. That turned out to include the possibility of none of the above.

    Practitioners of Christianity still think that it is entitled to some position of respect. All they are entitled to is the right to practice it.

    •  Oh, I disagree... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      gffish, adrianrf, radarlady

      They most certainly wanted open, free practice of religion and the absence of the State in such matters (and vice versa).

      Many of them had fled religious persecution in England, and they had no desire to see such persecution arise in the United States.  Don't forget that the Sovereign still counts 'Defender of the Faith' among the titles of office, and the Church of England is only slightly less influential in UK politics today as it has been over the centuries.

      If they didn't envision a secular society, why would they have prohibited religous tests for office?  I mean, that's about as clear as it can be...especially when one considers that roughly half of the delegates to the Constitution Convention claimed Episcopalian/Anglican faith...

      The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

      by wesmorgan1 on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 03:11:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Nobody can go back and read the minds (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Mayfly

        of people living two centuries ago. The religious right can't and I don't think that we can either. My main point was that whatever their thoughts were at the time, they put nothing in the constitution that binds us to a religious society of any type.

        •  My point exactly! (0+ / 0-)

          If we get into a debate about what the Founders thought or intended, well, there a hole with no bottom.

          If, on the other hand, we concentrate on what they actually did, the question is much more easily addressed.

          The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

          by wesmorgan1 on Mon Jul 01, 2013 at 06:33:38 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  The Founders certainly were aware of the stupid & (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Persiflage, adrianrf, radarlady

        bloody religious wars in their parents' and grandparents' times.

        How lucky we are that the USA was founded during the Age of Reason.

        Fiscal conservative: a Republican ready to spend $5 to save a dime--especially if that dime is helping a non-donor.

        by Mayfly on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 04:48:07 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Can't forget some religions teach... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk, gffish, Rogneid

    that their God established the USA.  One in particular even added it to their scriptures that God guided the founders to establish the Constitution. (Even ran a major Presidential candidate in 2012 who got 191 electoral college votes)

    When talking to someone from that religion you're certainly not getting that "You're So Right!" moment.

    Stupid question hour starts now and ends in five minutes.

    by DrillSgtK on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 02:58:12 PM PDT

    •  Oh, you're absolutely right... (6+ / 0-)

      ...which is why any discussion of this topic should focus on the end result of the work of those (allegedly) 'guided by God' founders.

      If. in that scenario, the Founders failed to follow God's will, then they cannot be "inspired" persons - and the argument that "it's what the Founders wanted" goes up in a puff of smoke.  If they DID follow God's will, then the Constitution as it stands is EXACTLY how God wanted it to be - and the argument STILL goes up in a puff of smoke.

      It's a nice little Catch-22 - and the Dominionist types get caught in it all the time.

      The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

      by wesmorgan1 on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 03:05:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Better examples are seen (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gffish, Mayfly, Rogneid

    in what they wrote before the Constitution was written.  

    I suggest that this topic can--and should--go directly to a discussion of the best example we have of the Founders' intentions: the Constitution itself.
     Also note that not all the Founders who were in the group that passed and signed the DOI were in the group that passed the Constitution, and vice-versa.

    My Karma just ran over your Dogma

    by FoundingFatherDAR on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 03:23:04 PM PDT

    •  You're correct in that... (0+ / 0-)

      ...but I think it better to base the argument in what they eventually determined to be the 'supreme law of the land,' whether or not it agreed with their personal writings.

      The word "parent" is supposed to be a VERB, people...

      by wesmorgan1 on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 03:49:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  FoundingFatherDAR, your sig line is my all time (0+ / 0-)

      favorite bumper sticker.  (My second favorite is: "Support your local police--commit your crimes out of town.")

      Fiscal conservative: a Republican ready to spend $5 to save a dime--especially if that dime is helping a non-donor.

      by Mayfly on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 04:39:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Also, "WE the People...do ORDAIN..." (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mayfly, page394, Ahianne

    Not "I the Lord Thy God."

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 04:16:13 PM PDT

  •  I went looking for the treaty of Tripoli (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    adrianrf

    Look what I found on a conservative website.

    So there was a commenter who made the statement that we were founded as a Christian nation and Christianity should continue to have a role.  Here was part of the response he received.

    “No, it did not. Ive already proven that. Treaty of Tripoli 1796 “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” Signed by John Adams. get your facts straight.”

    ...So the question is; how do you respond to historical revisionism such as this?

    The real issue is the statement itself.  The above mentioned line was indeed in the treaty of 1797, but as you can imagine, that was not the only line.  Here is the surrounding text of article XI of that treaty:

    “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion as it has in itself no character of enmity [hatred] against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] and as the said States [America] have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    The second half (or rather 4/5ths) of the statement is pretty important.  “Is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” is qualified with what that means in this instance.  The Americans knew the history of the wars between Muslims and Christians in Europe.  Wars fought over religion.  This statement in its entirety was expressing to these Muslim nations that America’s Christianity was different than that of Europe.  We had no intention of fighting a war solely based upon religion (although neither was Europe but not from the point of view of the Muslims).  It is also important to know that these Barbary countries were also fighting England, France, Spain, and Denmark during this time (because they were Christian…see a pattern).  Our diplomats wanted to distinguish the US and these counties in an effort to protect our merchant ships because at the time we did not have the naval power to protect them.

    What will those nutty revisionists try next? Clearly the phrase "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion" simply means "We're not like the other Christian nations". Context, people!
    You can't overstate the amount of denial these folks are willing to indulge in.

    One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain -Bob Marley

    by Darwinian Detritus on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 04:52:08 PM PDT

  •  You've made some fine points (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Darwinian Detrius, page394

    and perhaps planting a seed of doubt here and there is possible.   My own experience is that these people "believe" and nothing else matters.  What they believe varies by cult and person, but whatever it is, it's closely held and generally not going to change....unless they have a personal experience that shatters them.

    The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. - Dante Alighieri

    by Persiflage on Sun Jun 30, 2013 at 05:39:40 PM PDT

  •  Awesome points, loved this diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ahianne

    catching these people in the fallacies of their own statements is helpful, but many of these people are making these statements, knowing full well that they are false and debunked, but just keep going on because it suits their needs, i.e., exploiting this group of people for all they're worth.

    Take, for example, David Barton...

  •  Levellers? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ahianne

    Reading your Constitution and taking the step back made easier by the fact Im a Brit, it seems to me your Founders were aware of, if not fans of, the Levellers.

    The Levellers were a "radical" movement amongst the Parliamentarian forces during the First and Second English Civil Wars. A lot of the aspirations and sentiments expressed in the Declaration and Constitution seem to be lifted from the Leveller Manifesto "The Agreement Of The People".

    I'd be amazed if smart minds like Adams and Franklin, Jefferson and Mason were unaware of the Manifesto and The Levellers, especially as it was a mere 100 years or so after that they set to work Leveling The Land in the New World.

    Have a read about The Levellers here - http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    Now you will also know where English Socialism comes from ;-)

    And while we are on about The Levellers .....

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