The Words of the McCarthy Family

Is America a Christian Nation?

Kevin McCarthy
April 18, 2009

At a press conference in Turkey, President Obama took issue with the idea that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation. Some were taken aback by his statement.

“One of the great strengths of the United States,” the President said, “is … we have a very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

The problem, today, is that Americans are confused over the specific “set of values” to which we will be bound. In 2007, the Culture and Media Institute did an in-depth study of Americans’ beliefs and attitudes. Like most studies, it found that the vast majority of Americans believe in God. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that when the study also probed further, to understand how those beliefs translated into ethical choices, what became clear is that Americans are increasingly ambivalent or confused about values. This study reached the following conclusion: “America no longer enjoys cultural consensus on God, religion, and what constitutes right and wrong.”

The spiritual principles that once formed a values consensus in America no longer hold sway today. In its place, a society of confused values has emerged with uncertainty about what constitutes right and wrong. Without clear standards, we are a ship without a rudder and compass. We lose the cohesion that binds the nation together. This is why we are witnessing such upheaval in America today. We have lost our ethical and moral clarity.

The discussion of America as a Christian nation usually proceeds without touching upon the most essential elements that should be discussed. We need to be extremely clear about how the Founders viewed religion generally, and what they thought would be religion’s contribution toward society. The Founders saw a vital role for religion in the public square. It is a historical fact that in the 18th century, the Founders, and most of America, experienced religion within the Christian experience. However, their views on the civil role of religion are relevant to all faiths, then and now.

The Founders emphasized religious principles, the “self evident” truths, as the foundation of our nation. They saw religion as absolutely necessary for our form of government to operate properly. Religion provided the virtues... the cultural consensus, the national morality... that was essential for liberty. It was essential because freedom necessitated a virtuous populace to willingly practice the discipline required for a functional self-government to occur. This is why John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Benjamin Rush, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence was equally emphatic, “The only foundation for a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.“

There is no question that it was the Founders’ Christian faiths that brought them to these universal truths about liberty and equality. But it was also the idea of “civil religion,” as expressed by the 18th century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that “There is a profession of faith which is purely civil... not strictly as religious dogmas but as expressions of social conscience without which it is impossible to be a good citizen” Our “ideals and set of values” as President Obama refers to them, in the Founders’ view were not the doctrines of personal Christian faith but were, rather, transcendent principles, “self-evident truths” that were rooted in a public affirmation of God, the Creator, from which we received the endowment of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I do not believe the Founders’ would have asserted that it was only the Christian religion from which could be derived the transcendent principles of good citizenship. In a letter to the President of Yale, shortly before his death, Benjamin Franklin articulated an overview of what he considered the essential principles of a sound religion. In doing so, he gives us an insight into the Founders’ views on religion.

They spoke in terms of common principles of faith around which believers could unite in the interest of the well-being of the nation. Franklin’s letter to Ezra Stiles is a fine example of that view. The Christian religion, to its good credit, was the avenue by which the Founders, themselves, discovered those values, but they never asserted any particular religion as the exclusive channel to those principles.

They are available to all and are, therefore, “self evident”... even those who profess no faith can resonant with virtues that “without which it is impossible to be a good citizen.”

In that respect, those that say “we are not a Christian nation”... are correct. However, when it is then further asserted that the Founders were only seeking to establish a secular society and saw no public role for religion in the affairs of the nation, this would be entirely not correct. It is especially a problem today when virtually all religious influence is to be separated from the “State,” on the one hand while, on the other hand, “The State” keeps expanding.

Today, separating church and state, means also separating traditional virtue from an exclusively secular and expanding State. This was the very circumstance that religious freedom was supposed to prevent. An example of this, recently displayed, is the circumstance of the reaction to the invitation extended former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy, to participate in the President’s Faith-based Council.

Josh Gerstein from Politico reports:

Dungy’s potential appointment drew flak from liberal groups such as People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who said Dungy’s vocal opposition to gay marriage made him an inappropriate choice for the panel.

“The Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships council shouldn’t be used to reward voices of intolerance like Tony Dungy,” PFAW’s director of public policy, Tanya Clay House, had said in an earlier statement.

“It is extremely important for the advisory council to uphold civil rights and civil liberties and I am concerned that Coach Dungy is far from the best person to do that,” Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United, said.

Both groups pointed to Dungy’s endorsement of a gay marriage ban in Indiana and his involvement with a conservative public policy group, the Indiana Family Institute.

For most people, especially for those who know him, Tony Dungy is a living saint, a man of God and an embodiment of integrity. Dungy strongly supports the idea that marriage is between a man and a woman.

It should concern everyone today that the traditional moral system that upholds marriage between a man and woman is not deemed worthy of “faith” councils that advise the Chief Executive.

I make this point because peoples of all faiths must come together today to affirm that the nation must turn, once again, to transcendent principles that embrace the idea of God and the family. Religious bodies will never agree on the various components of personal dogma... but with regard to “civil religion”... that is, the “virtues” rooted in transcendent principles... a new cultural consensus on values can be and must be forged.

Such a movement is desperately needed at this time and it should involve peoples of all faiths. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

There is no freedom, without practiced virtues -- virtues that find their origins in the traditions of faith. As Benjamin Rush had said, “no religion, no virtue, liberty.” This is our problem today and if we can only saunter down the primrose path of easy fixes and false hopes, we should know that only tyranny awaits us there... and it is the form of tyranny that is the worst of them all -- the one of our own making; born out of the fading awareness that God is essential to the experience of freedom. If the nation continues down this path, it will only be pulled by the vacuum created where God has left.

“Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains...a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.”
Patrick Henry. 

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