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.