Is the USA a Judeo-Christian Nation?

There is a distinction between a country whose population is religious in nature, and a country governed by religion.

Iran is a religiously-governed nation.  So is the Vatican (yes, it really is an independent country).

Although Israel is considered a Jewish state, it is really governed by a European parliament-based government.  As is Turkey, though its citizens are predominantly Muslim, and Italy, though its predecessor state was the Holy Roman Catholic Empire and its citizens are predominantly Catholic.

It is an axiom that the more conservative one is, the more one wants his/her religion to be part of their country’s government.  As a result of that desire, those folks will claim that their country is based upon, or founded in a (insert your preferred religion here) tradition.

This is certainly evident in the USA, where the vast majority of the population is Christian, with Judaism next largest religion.  All other religions pale in contrast to these two insofar as percentage of population is concerned.

The citizens of the USA seem to be somewhat more involved in their religions than most other western industrialized nations.  Thus, it can be accurately stated that the US population is somewhat religious.  But, much to the chagrin of the religious right, that does not translate into the USA being a Christian-governed, or even a Judeo-Christian-governed nation, all claims by the far right to the contrary.

Curiously (ignorantly?), many conservatives will argue that the founding fathers were Christians who stamped their faith into and upon the US Constitution.  They will also claim that some of the early leaders of the USA, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine, all of whom were involved in authoring of the US Constitution, were Christian men who wanted Christianity  imprinted in that document.  But is that really true?

Let’s look at the facts.

The authors of the US Constitution were for the most part naturalists.  These were educated men who did not rely upon their religion for explanations regarding the physical world around them.

Consider the following statements by Jefferson, Adams and Paine:

Thomas Jefferson wrote regarding religious freedom in the “Revised Code of the State of Virginia”, considered to be his second most important writing:

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Thomas Paine, in his “Age of Reason”, wrote:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.”

And finally, John Adams was a man who had strong faith and religion in his personal life, shunned religion in public life.  This is clear in the “Treaty of Tripoli”, which, as US president, he signed in 1796.  Chapter 11 of the treaty reads:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; (emphasis added) as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Additionally, consider the language (and associated 220 years of Supreme Court case law on the issue) of the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now compare those statements from these educated and consummate leaders of early America to the recent statements by Sarah Palin

“Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.

Click on the links in this article and/or do your own research.  Then answer the following question:

Who’s right?

ah Palin can’t seem to distinguish between the Bible and the American Constitution.

Appearing recently on Bill O’Reilly’s TV show, Palin advised that what we need to do in this country is -

“Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant – they’re quite clear – that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.”

Huffington Post

That’s quite a statement – but nothing new to those who would re-imagine this country as one based on religion. Indeed, the religious right has long sought to make the case that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs despite the fact that the evidence clearly points to a very different intent.

While purveyors of this notion have come up with any number of reasons to support their claim, the most often cited ‘proof’ is the fact that the Declaration of Independence puts God front and center. The thing is, there was no American nation when we proclaimed our independence from Great Britain. And while the Declaration of Independence is certainly one of the most important political documents in our history, it simply has no legal effect on the laws of this nation. That distinction belongs to the Constitution; our first, and most enduring, statement of the concepts which form the basis of law in the United States.

Another explanation frequently offered up in support of the notion that the founders had God on their minds is the advent of the phrase “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto. What the religion peddlers don’t appreciate is that the phrase was first used in 1864 – almost 100 years after the founding of the nation – when embossed on the two-cent coin in response to the rising religious fervor in the country as a result of the Civil War. Indeed, the phrase did not officially become our national motto until 1956.

While God played a part in the personal lives of many of our founders (though not all), the truth is that nowhere in the United States Constitution can you find the word “God” – not even once.

An oversight? Unlikely.

In Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, he comments on the language he used to restate the importance of religious freedom in the document that is his second most famous writing (and the one historians suggest was the creation he was most proud of ), the Revised Code of the State of Virginia.

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

Does this sound like someone who sought to weave Judeo-Christian theory and belief into the creation of the Constitution?

Indeed, no less a religious source than Beliefnet.com acknowledges that Jefferson was a heretic in his time – deeply angered by what he viewed as a total perversion of Christianity after the time of Christ’s death. Given his feelings, it seems highly unlikely that he sought to include the principles of Christian religion into the founding of the nation.

Another key author of the Constitution, Thomas Paine, had this to say in Chapter 1 of his famous pamphlet, The Age of Reason -

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.”

Does anyone believe that Thomas Paine sought to include Judeo-Christian beliefs in his drafting of the U.S. Constitution?

As for author John Adams – a man with strong religious beliefs who allowed religion to play a part in his personal life but carefully avoided it in public matters – nowhere is there clearer proof of the man’s approach to this subject than in the little known “Treaty of Tripoli”, signed by President John Adams and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1796, less than 10 years after the Constitution’s adoption.

Chapter 11 of the treaty reads:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; (emphasis added) as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Treaty of Tripoli

Could it possibly be any clearer?

If people like Sarah Palin wish to argue that the nation ought to follow a course that places religion squarely into the law making process, I suppose that is their right.

However, the continuous effort by Palin and friends to pervert the true history of the nation and the intentions of the founders is nothing short of subversive and clearly dangerous.

At best, the suggestion that religion rests at the foundation of our legal system is one based on ignorance of the principles that are the heart of this country. At its worse, the effort is little more than an attempt to pervert the philosophy of the nation’s founders in order to re-invent America to meet the religious right’s own objectives and to re-make the nation into something quite different than what it was intended to be.

I respect and appreciate the value of religion in many people’s lives. But if Sarah Palin wants to rule a nation based on God, she really should look elsewhere. There are many countries in the world that would meet her requirements – although she will find that most of them worship the God of Islam. Palin might ask the women in so many of these theocracies how government and law based on religion has worked out for them.

Or Palin and friends might simply look up the word “Pilgrim” in the dictionary and learn about how our own original settlers were fleeing religious persecution at the hands of a Monarch who was also the leader of the Christian church in the land of their birth.

Our founders knew exactly what they were – and were not – doing when determining the nature of law in this country and the importance of a secular government.

While the religious right are free to vote for candidates who share their reliance on religious belief, they are not free to re-imagine the fundamentals of this country – at least not without putting their reinvention through the rigorous process of amending, or re-writing, our Constitution.

That’s the way it was intended to be done and even Sarah Palin doesn’t get to make it otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Is the USA a Judeo-Christian Nation?

  1. The inane treatment of Judeo-Christianity as a proxy for Western Civilization should be first to go. Tying the moral foundations of the American Nation with cultural archetypes of prehistoric Biblical Jews, or with those of devout Europeans emulating them is beyond preposterous. The dogmatic authoritarianism inherent in Judeo-Christianity and its ubiquitous tradition of framing Man as a wretched sinful creature fallen from grace since birth, are antithetical to a societal infrastructure built around individual freedom and dignity.

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