Does the U.S. Constitution create a Christian nation?
Ask Americans, “Does the Constitution make our nation Christian?” More than half respond with a resounding “Yes!” Fifty-five percent of citizens polled by the First Amendment Center during Sept. 17’s National Constitution Day assumed the Constitution “establishes a Christian nation.”When I portray Thomas Jefferson in colonial costume, some in the audience are stunned to learn four of our first five presidents weren’t orthodox Christians. Though Washington attended Anglican services, he never uttered a recorded public confession of Christ as his Lord and Savior. Probably Washington, along with Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, disavowed belief in a divine Christ, rejected a Trinitarian God and dismissed biblical miracles as silly superstition . Certainly, our first five presidents endorsed Christian values. They based their political thought on morality rooted in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Morally, they espoused Christian ethics. But they rejected the orthodox Christian confession of “Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”What does this confession mean? It affirms Christ is Lord-God who rules the universe. Plus, Christ as humankind’s Savior accomplished what no human being could pull off. He saved us from our worst selves. Christ crucified achieved victory over death and the devil. God judges those not OK as OK. Jesus’ death made it so.Jefferson and his presidential colleagues rejected Christ as Lord and Savior, dismantling this cornerstone supporting orthodox Christianity.His confidant James Madison, along with delegates who signed the Constitution in Philadelphia, harbored no reservations about not recognizing God in the text. Nor did Madison and his colleagues, raised in an overwhelmingly Protestant colonial culture, deem it necessary to mention Christianity in the Constitution.What it saysThe Constitution is a thoroughly secular treatise detailing how our Republic is governed.Why do so many Americans assume that our nation’s constitutional origin is Christian?The Founding Fathers, in a culture where the Bible often was memorized, used scriptural references in their speeches. Readers see their biblical allusions but wrongly assume the staunch Christian orthodoxy of those who wrote and spoke them. For instance, when Jefferson barely won the presidency in 1800, orthodox Christians largely sided with the Federalists against him. Christian preachers and priests excoriated Jefferson for his unbelief. Their sermons sounded like political diatribes, endorsing the Federalist Party. Orthodox Christians branded Jefferson an atheist.Jefferson adamantly repudiated this charge of atheism. In his First Inaugural Address, he sounded intentionally biblical. He complimented the American people who were “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adorning an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”More than half our citizens who believe the Constitution endorses a national Christian identity like what they hear from Jefferson. At his inauguration, he advocated Christian morality. He saluted a providential God who shapes our national destiny. Jefferson opened the door to life beyond the grave.Sounds Christian enough, doesn’t it? However, Jefferson denied the key Christian assertion that God is Triune. He turned his back on Church fathers such as Saint Augustine who suggested God is to Father, Son and Spirit like a person is to her memory, understanding and will. A delightful threeness exists within us. We remember. We know. We exert energy to pursue what we treasure and what makes sense. Still, each of us functions as one person who recollects, knows and acts on our convictions. Religion and the governmentJefferson dismissed such credulity as pious humbug. It was Platonic nonsense. He wrote to John Adams, “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one…. But this constitutes the craft, power, and the profit of the priests.” Jefferson charged clergy, especially Roman Catholic, with promoting such “holy mysticisms” as the Trinity to make gullible believers dependent on the Mother Church controlling them. And the priests handsomely profited, alleged Jefferson, from money parishioners gave to the Church. He believed right-thinking, enlightened citizens would reject miracles, a divine Christ and a triune God.Americans expect presidents to use religious sign-offs in their speeches. Presidents verbally play up to the public’s expectations. They mention how providential protection blesses our nation. They remind us of colonial virtues derived from the Bible, making our national aims noble and its character strong. Delivered in times of national crisis, presidential addresses from the Oval Office end with a ringing “God bless America!” Whose God or gods do our presidents salute? Is it the god Jefferson conjured up who looked a lot like him-reserved and brainy? Or, is it the Triune God whose Spirit visited us on earth through Jesus, Lord over history and Savior of humankind? The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.