A growing number of people believe that America is changing for the worse because it is moving away from its Christian roots. As Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, said, “If we’re going to have a nation under God, which we have to, we have to have a religion.” One nation under God and one religion under God.
The call to “return” to a better time when Christianity defined the country is misleading, and what is even more relevant: it is dishonest. America has never been a Christian country, and to create one would be bad both for America and for Christianity.
It is true that many of the first colonies were Christian communities. Religious establishments in the colonies often followed one version or another of Christian doctrine, with some making heresy a violation of criminal law and others establishing the death penalty for Sabbath violation. This integration of Christianity and politics reflected the European tradition of Christian politics, a tradition steeped in religious conflict that often defined politics itself. It was this problem of political conflict based on religious disagreement that led the American founders to introduce a radically new concept: completely secular government.
This new government approach is reflected in James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, written in 1785 in response to Patrick Henry’s proposal to levy a tax to support Christian teachers in the state of Virginia.
Madison argued that it was inappropriate for the state to support Christianity, even for the purpose of promoting good character. The “Memorial and Remonstrance” argues that religion is beyond the purview of civil society and that even the smallest interference with religious freedom could both endanger society and weaken religion.
The effect of religious establishments has sometimes been “to exercise spiritual tyranny over the ruins of civil authority, in many cases they have been seen to uphold the thrones of political tyranny; in no way were they seen as guardians of the people.
Madison, who to this day is known as the “Father of the Constitution”, wrote in the Federalist documents this faction—and especially the majority faction—was the most dangerous problem for popular government. And the religious faction was historically the most prominent example of this problem.
For centuries, religious conflicts have destroyed the rights of minorities and undermined the political stability and tranquility of governments. Madison’s response is featured in Federalist 51, where he argues that a large commercial republic would produce a large number of different economic interests and different religious groups that would compete with each other and prevent one from becoming dominant.
Moreover, it is clear that our founding documents are not Christian documents, even though a number of the founders were devout Christians. The original, unamended Constitution makes only one reference to religion. Article VI states that religious tests cannot be given for public office. It does not mention Jesus or remind us to celebrate the Sabbath, go to church, or encourage us to pray. He doesn’t even mention Christianity.
And while the Declaration of Independence refers to the “God of nature” and says that our inalienable rights are endowed by our creator, one cannot help but notice that the creator of the Declaration only grants us rights derived from our passion for self-preservation; it gives us no religious truth or creed.
The doctrine of natural rights is a modern doctrine, articulated by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, which posits a “state of nature” where life is “lonely, poor, mean, brutal, and short”, like the original human condition, rather than the Garden of Eden.
It is true that the expression “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. The Founders would have favored broad, non-discriminatory support for religion, as long as it did not favor one religion over another. But they would never have tolerated the establishment of any particular religion or tolerated preferential treatment for Christianity by the state.
The American diet was not founded on Christian principles, and pretending that it was only creates an imaginary past, encouraging Christians to long for a mythical time when things were more familiar and simpler.
People like Michael Flynn are dangerous because they encourage Christians to see diversity as the enemy and non-Christians as a threat. This is of course not part of mainstream Christianity; it represents the political manipulation of Christianity. The best way to honor America’s founders is to oppose the movement to politicize religion.
Solomon D. Stevens is the author of “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East”. He wrote this for