Van Ens: Was our nation Christian at its birth?
Vail, CO Colorado
Why did the Constitution’s framers skip in the text mentioning in major ways God and Jesus Christ? An irritated evangelical Presbyterian minister asked Alexander Hamilton to defend why the Constitution lacks “suitable recogni-tion” of the Almighty. Hamilton’s retort sounds smart- alecky. ” I declare we forgot it!” he flip-pantly blurted out.
Some Christians are miffed today because the Constitution sidesteps attributing divine inspiration to our nation’s chief code of laws. That the Constitution avoids God- talk doesn’t jibe with how some evangelical Chris-tians rewrite our nation’s formative years. They tell us the founding fathers ” recognized a Christian God” and established the nation on biblical prin-ciples.
The 2004 Texas GOP platform unequivocally declared, ” The United States of America is a Christian nation” founded “on fundamental Judeo-Christian principles based on the Holy Bible.”
Texas Republicans sounded testy when defending God’s imprint on the founding docu-ments. They rejected ” the efforts of courts and secular activists who seek to remove and deny such a rich heritage from our public lives,” going so far as to argue that the doctrine of separation of church and state is a “myth.” It must be reject-ed in favor of restoring the founders’ original biblical intent.
What does this Christian intent consist of? Newt Gingrich and some congressional mem-bers praised Texan David Barton, who majored in math at Oral Roberts University without get-ting an earned degree in American history. What Barton espouses appeals to many Christians. ” The First Amendment never intended to sepa-rate Christian principles from government,” Bar-ton teaches, noting how the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Con-stitution.
Jefferson coined it in his 1801 letter to persecuted Baptists in Danbury, Conn.
Barton defines the founders’ “original intent” as prohibiting ” the establishment of a single national denomination,” but it should not be used to remove Christianity from the center of public life.
Barton and his evangelical cohorts stumble badly in rewriting their version of our nation’s religious origins. Why isn’t God given a major role in the Constitution? The framers intention-ally designed it as a secular document, not a reli-gious treatise about how a Republic governs. Aside from the formulaic “in the Year of our Lord 1787,” the only other cursory reference to God occurs in the religious anti- discrimination clause referring to candidates who run for pub-lic office. Article VI stipulates “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Even titles adopted for our public officials lack biblical overtones. Ancient Hebrews regarded God as king of the universe. “Our Lord is great and his power is great,” they chanted in worship. ” There’s no limit to his understanding” ( Psalm 147: 5). Biblical kings and priests wielded political and religious pow-er. Our nation’s founders rejected these titles. Relying on political titles used in ancient Rome, they referred to our leaders as “presi-dent, Senate and Congress.”
A decade ago, David Barton and I, portraying Thomas Jefferson in 18th century costume, clashed over how Chris-tian our nation’s origins were. Jefferson is Bar-ton’s formidable political adversary who can’t be won over in the campaign to Christianize Amer-ica’s birth.
Jefferson feared our newborn Republic might splinter if armed camps fought over divine dog-ma. Religious wars would crush democratic sprouts emerging from colonial soil. Although Jefferson admired ethics grounded in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, he had little patience for the David Bartons of his era. They bowed before a national religious scaf-fold where the triune God was seated as nation-al deity. Such devotees used the Bible as our country’s rule for faith and practice.
Jefferson sparred in verbal fisticuffs with Patrick Henry over Christianity’s No. 1 ranking as the national faith. Henry didn’t want to jetti-son our country’s religious moorings. He feared citizens would drowned in a sea of atheism if cast adrift from biblical morality. Grudgingly, Henry agreed that national preference for a Christian denomination might lead to persecu-tion of other traditions. He pressed for federal legislation to fund “teachers of the Christian reli-gion.” This phrase encompassed Protestant Christian ministers, not Roman Catholic priests or Jewish rabbis.