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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Is America a Christian Nation? (A Response to Rick Bellows)

Mr. Bellows (letter to the editor, Gainesville Times) obviously misread my most recent column (Is America a Christian Nation?). He begins by noting that I failed to make the distinction between a “Christian nation” and a nation of Christians. This is so ridiculous it makes me wonder what column he was actually reading.

I went out of my way in the column to define what is a “Christian nation." I used historian David Barton’s definition: “A Christian nation as demonstrated by the American experience is a nation founded upon Christian and Biblical principles, whose values, society, and institutions have largely been shaped by those principles…Christianity is the religion that shaped America and made her what she is today.”

I then went on to given multiple examples of significant individuals who verbalized this understanding of America’s true heritage. I also gave examples of how Christianity is woven into the very fabric of America.

Nevertheless, for those who would like more evidence, note the following:

After the victory over Great Britain, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both served the freshly birthed United States of America as ministers in Europe. Quoting from David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography,John Adams:

“Of the multiple issues in contention between Britain and the new United States of America, and that John Adams had to address as minister, nearly all were holdovers from the Treaty of Paris, agreements made but not resolved, concerning debts, the treatment of Loyalists, compensation for slaves and property confiscated by the British, and the continued presence of British troops in America. All seemed insoluble. With its paper money nearly worthless, its economy in shambles, the United States was desperate for trade…To Adams the first priority must be to open British ports to American ships.”

During this time Adams and Jefferson corresponded regularly. According to McCullough:

“In eight months’ time, from late May 1785, when Adams first assumed his post in London, until February 1786, he wrote 28 letters to Jefferson, and Jefferson wrote a nearly equal number in return…Increasingly their time and correspondence was taken up by concerns over American shipping in the Mediterranean and demands for tribute made by the Barbary States of North Africa—Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco. To insure their Mediterranean trade against attacks by the ‘Barbary pirates,” the nations of Europe customarily made huge cash payments…On a chill evening in February came whatAdams took to be an opening. At the end of a round of ambassadorial ‘visits,’ he stopped to pay his respects to a new member of the diplomatic corps in London, His Excellency Abdrahaman, envoy of the sultan of Tripoli…The conversation turned to business. America was a great nation, declared His Excellency, but unfortunately a state of war existed between America and Tripoli. Adams questioned how that could be[Adams was told that], without a treaty of peace there could be no peace between Tripoli and America. His Excellency was prepared to arrange such a treaty…Were a treaty delayed, it would be more difficult to make. A war between Christian and Christian was mild, prisoners were treated with humanity; but, warned His Excellency, a war between Muslim and Christian could be horrible.[emphasis mine]

Thus, here we have a foreign diplomat, during the infancy of the United States, recognizing that the U.S. was indeed a “Christian nation.” A diplomat of the Barbary States nonetheless, of which the Treaty of Tripoli was with, which contains the one sentence (see paragraph below) which those who wish to deny our Christian heritage love to refer.

Also, it was not Jefferson, as Mr. Bellows stated in his letter, who “included it [the sentence to which is referred] in a treaty with the Barbary pirates in the early 1800's.” The “Treaty of Tripoli” almost always refers to the first treaty struck between the U.S. and the Barbary States, which was drafted and signed at Tripoli in 1796 when Washington was still president. It was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797 and signed shortly thereafter by President Adams. The sentence “The government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion” is usually attributed to Washington since he was president when it was drafted.

For an explanation on the proper context of this sentence see here.

Furthermore, as to the First Amendment of the Constitution:

The initial draft of the First Amendment was made by James Madison on June 8, 1789. His wording was:

            The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.

The House Select Committee on August 15, 1789 revised Madison’s statement to read:

            No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.

A representative from New York, Peter Sylvester, objected to the revised statement, declaring:

            It might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.

Madison changed the wording slightly, but Congressman Benjamin Huntington still objected saying,
            The words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion.

Madison later responded to Congressman Huntington and Congressman Sylvester agreeing that he,

            …believes that the people feared one sect might obtain a preeminence, or two combine and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.

The House agreed on the following, proposed by Ames on August 20, 1789:

            Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience.

The Senate then took up the debate with versions that read:

            Congress shall not make any law infringing the rights of conscience, or establishing any religious sect or society.

            Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another…

            Congress shall make no law establishing one religious society in preference to others…

Both houses agreed on the wording we have today:

            Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Given this small bit of history, one can see that what our Founders were trying to accomplish with the initial part of the First Amendment was to prevent an “official” government denomination/religion, one that people could be required to follow, not the removal of God and His Word from our government. This becomes more obvious when one examines the summary of words and deeds of all our Founders and not eight words of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. I can imagine that hardly any, much less a majority, of our Founders would intend for the First Amendment to be used to deny or disprove the Christian heritage of the United States. I think to conclude otherwise, one would have to rewrite our history.

Copyright 2009, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World

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