When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, almost no one in politics or everyday life went around proclaiming, “I am a Christian.” If indeed you were a Christian—that is, someone who considers Jesus Christ the Messiah—you identified yourself as a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, and so on in excelsis in order to let others know where you stood in the vast American religious landscape.
Calling oneself a Christian today, by contrast, has a special, politicized meaning. For most people in public life, this self-identification suggests a particular form of conservative Christianity, a brand of religion that seeks not only to proselytize but to impose its values on others through the machinery of the state. The huge exception to this rule is President Barack Obama, who has been forced by the birther-paranoids to advertise his credentials as a Christian in order to refute the lie that he is a “secret Muslim.”
Once upon a time (until around 1980, actually), the appellation “Christian” used to mean “right-wing Protestant,” as a consequence of the historic animosity between many forms of American Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. That is no longer true, as demonstrated by GOP primary hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the darlings of Protestant fundamentalists, although they personify the cliché “more Catholic than the pope.” (In Gingrich’s case, the relevant pontiffs would be certain medieval and Renaissance vicars of Christ who produced numerous children through extra-pontifical liaisons.) Santorum is in fact a Catholic fundamentalist—unlike the majority of American Catholics, who do not accept either the notion of papal infallibility or the Vatican line on sexual behavior. Liberal Catholics, well aware of the political meaning of Christian in American politics, generally call themselves plain old “Catholics.”
Thus, when Santorum and Gingrich used their dog whistles throughout the Republican primaries to imply that Obama is not the Christian he claims to be, what they really meant is that he is not their kind of Christian. It has also become standard for politicians to offer a nod to “our Judeo-Christian heritage” in an effort to display theocratic inclusiveness. The slippery Gingrich never stumbled over this phrase, but Santorum often did, dragging Judeo out to four syllables so that it came out “Jew-day-ee-oh.” It is clear that this ecumenical platitude was not a part of the sanctimonious Santorum’s upbringing.
Was the United States founded as a Christian nation, meaning that the framers of the Constitution established a government whose laws would not only reflect but also enforce the rules of a particular brand of Christianity? No, period. The answer is as clear as Santorum’s pronunciation of Judeo is slurred, and the explanation can be found in the old (i.e., pre-1980) American practice of identifying oneself by denomination.
Denominational identification is as old as the earliest colonies in the New World, given that the first Puritan theocrats were fleeing persecution by adherents of another denomination—the Church of England. By the revolutionary era, doctrinal and intellectual distinctions separating one Christian denomination from another remained as immense as the gulf between the beliefs of a Jew and any Christian, or between any orthodox religious believer and a deist.
The founders did not want doctrinal differences to wreak civic havoc of the kind then evident throughout Europe. That is why they left not only Jesus but indeed any deity out of the Constitution. That the American population was and is overwhelmingly Christian is a fact. That makes it all the more remarkable that the founders did not establish a Christian government.
The Christian Right cannot point to a single mention of Jesus or Christianity in any of the nation’s founding documents and is forced to rely, for divine antecedents, on the line in the Declaration of Independence that talks about all men being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. But even if this were a statement of belief in a specific god rather than a general assertion of the philosophy of natural rights, it is most decidedly not a statement of faith in Jesus Christ.
In any event, it is futile to engage in debate with spokespeople for the Christian Right on this subject, because for them, the Christian origin of the American state is an article of faith that cannot be disproved by facts or plain English. Tell them, for instance, that the godlessness of the Constitution was taken for granted and attacked by conservatives at state ratifying conventions in 1787 and 1788, and they will point to the conventional “Year of Our Lord” dating of the document. This supposedly refutes hundreds of statements by angry ministers complaining about the absence of God from the document that would furnish the young government’s written foundation. As one cleric observed at North Carolina’s state convention, the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for public office in Article VI, Section 3 amounted to “an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us.” He was entirely accurate in his description of the potential effects of letting anyone, regardless of religious belief, run for public office. And when it came time to ratify the Constitution, he and his fellow theocrats were voted down in every state.
The ungodliness of the Constitution kept popping up in public discourse throughout the nineteenth century, most notably when a powerful group of Protestant ministers came to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and demanded that he support an amendment to declare Jesus Christ, not “We the People,” the source of all governmental power. Lincoln, a canny politician who knew when not to take on another battle in the middle of a bloody civil war, declined to take any action and instead went along with a move to placate the ministers by putting “In God We Trust” on a two-penny coin in 1864. Lincoln presumably viewed the inscription of trust in a deity on a coin as an innocuous action calculated to avoid the trouble that would surely be generated by a Christian amendment to the Constitution. Little did he know that nearly 150 years in the future, right-wing politicians would employ that slogan to attack the much older motto E Pluribus Unum.
Lincoln’s brand of compromise was described by Jon Meacham in Time magazine as “a long-standing covenant between believers and nonbelievers in which secularists live with public religious appeals and images in exchange for self-regulating moderation on the part of the faithful. It’s an ancient and wise accommodation that allows religion and politics to inform each other without promoting an eschatological war between church and state.”
In fairness, Meacham argues that extremists like Santorum had violated this unspoken and unsigned “covenant.” However, “self-regulating moderation on the part of the faithful” is a flimsy altar upon which to base any agreement regarding the separation of church and state. Had the founders believed in the capacity of the faithful for such “self-regulation,” they never would have prohibited religious tests for national office at a time when most state governments still had religious discrimination written into their laws.
One aspect of the imaginary covenant between religious believers and secularists began to break down in the 1960s, long before the rise of the Christian Right. Since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid and the expansion of federal aid to education during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, secularists have rarely objected to the expenditure of federal funds through religious institutions like hospitals and charities. This is hardly a symbolic matter. It is far more important than the symbolic victories won by secularists of that era in the Supreme Court on issues like school prayer.
The firestorm set off by the Obama administration’s effort to make Catholic institutions offer insurance policies that cover contraception was described by the media as a dispute over religious liberty. Religious liberty meant, to the Catholic bishops, the right to participate in federal programs and receive funds provided by all taxpayers while imposing their religious doctrines on employees and patients alike—whatever their religion or lack thereof. Not every religion wants to have the taxpayers’ cake and eat it too. Mormon charities, for instance, do not accept government money.
The ability of the religious Right to frame this dispute purely as a matter of religious freedom—meaning freedom for the most conservative forms of religion—is a direct result of the long erosion of the separation of church and state at the practical level of taxpayer funding. Throughout these decades of erosion, what was once the religious center has constantly been pulled to the right.
(It should be noted that the furor is also a consequence of the Catholic bishops’ inability to convince their own flock to follow the church’s lead on sexual issues. The bishops are attempting to reassert control over Catholic hospitals—some of them run by uppity nuns—where church doctrine has been violated for years when it comes to such matters as the morning-after pill for rape victims and abortions needed to save a mother’s life. But the split within the Catholic Church is not the subject of this article.)
There is no real answer to be found in the nation’s founding documents about this question, because the founders never envisioned an America in which the federal government would spend billions of dollars on health and education, whether through religious or nonreligious institutions. It is worth noting, however, that Virginia’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom—which later served as the template for the Bill of Rights—came into being in opposition to a proposal that would have taxed Virginians for the support of Christian teaching in the public schools. Virginia’s law, not the statutes of states that still had established churches, became the template for Article VI, which was supposed to ban religious preference within the government, and the First Amendment, which prevented government from favoring one religion over another. The issue in Virginia, then, like the national issue over the prerogatives of sectarian hospitals today, encompassed both religious freedom and money.
The bishops are not the least bit concerned about the freedom of non-Catholic (or, for that matter, Catholic) employees whose consciences tell them that contraception is just fine. They are not concerned about rape victims, whatever their religion, who will not only be refused the morning-after pill by their hospitals but also will not even be told about other nonsectarian hospitals that provide such services. They will not be concerned if someday the Vatican decides that living wills are a usurpation of divine and ecclesiastical authority and that everyone has a duty to go on living and suffering until some deity decides to pull the plug.
The question is not whether the United States is a Christian nation: it is whether church authorities adhering to a deeply conservative brand of Christianity (along with some ultra-Orthodox rabbis who do not speak for most American Jews, any more than bishops speak for most American Catholics or the Family Research Council speaks for most American Protestants) get to use taxpayer money to further their parochial agenda.
It is true that most American secularists tolerate a good deal more religious symbolism in public life than we would like, but it is sheer fantasy to suggest that we have signed on to any covenant that tolerates the expenditure of public money according to the prescriptions and proscriptions of canon law or general biblical laws.
Oh, wait. There really weren’t any biblical laws about contraception because there wasn’t any effective contraception. But then, biblical Israel was definitely not a Christian nation. It was, however, a theocracy, like every Christian feudal monarchy and nation-state that succeeded the Roman Empire. The founders made a noble effort to say goodbye to all that in order to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.
Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: a History of American Secularism (Metropolitan, 2004) and a forthcoming biography of Robert Green Ingersoll, to be published next January by Yale University Press.