A Christian Nation?

On August 6, 2007, the New York Times reported on an interesting dispute between the campaign of Sam Brownback and that of Mike Huckabee. According to Times reporter Sarah Wheaton, the following remark set off the dispute:

"'I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002," Mr. Rude wrote. "Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor's." The message struck some as an attempt to highlight Mr. Brownback's Catholicism in a state with a large Protestant electorate.

The comment interested and even amused me, because on another website, I've recently been fielding comments from people who believe that we live in "a Christian nation." Yet here they were, Catholic and Protestant political figures, quarreling just as they did back in the 16th and 17th centuries-the very reason that a separation was proposed between Church and State.

My correspondents also informed me that the Founders were personally devout and orthodox in their views and that the Constitution was derived from the Bible. No doubt they also believe that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of our legal system (actually, it's the Code of Justinian.)

It's hard to figure where in the Bible my correspondents found any discussion of checks and balances, the separation of powers, the regulation of commerce, or impeachment.

What about the influence of John Locke? I asked them. Locke, himself a devout Christian from a Puritan family, inspired Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom written in 1777 and passed, thanks to James Madison, in 1786. Jefferson's statute is particularly indebted to Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), which you can read in its entirety here. In it Locke declared, "Neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion. The Gospel commands no such thing."

As Locke knew, religious strife-not only between Catholics and Protestants, but among Protestants-had resulted in "factions, tumults, and civil wars," causing the death or exile of thousands of Europeans. "It is not the diversity of opinions (which cannot be avoided)," Locke wrote, "but "the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions (which might have been granted) ... that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world upon account of religion." The only way to avoid such conflicts was to separate Church and State, he concluded, because

"If each of them [Church and State] would contain itself within its own bounds - the one attending to the worldly welfare of the commonwealth, the other to the salvation of souls - it is impossible that any discord should ever have happened between them."

Locke was not only the first influential proponent of religious toleration and freedom. His ideas inspired every Revolutionary in the Founding generation-all those who signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Ideas, passages, and phrases from his two treatises on civil government are echoed in numerous speeches and pamphlets of the American Revolution, including those of the teenaged Alexander Hamilton.

Right now, both a Marxist group and the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom, as well as many universities, have the second treatise of Locke posted online. Although the YAF calls it "a timeless classic of conservative thought," Locke is widely considered to be the father of liberalism, in the original sense of that word. The renowned historian C. Vann Woodward wrote of "the Lockean liberal consensus, from Benjamin Franklin to Abraham Lincoln, and on down." All major American statesmen and politicians, Woodward asserted, have been to varying degrees "apostles of Locke" and thus "liberals under the skin."

It's therefore all the more unfortunate that American citizens like my recent correspondents are ignorant of, or hostile to, our intellectual history and credit the Bible for every idea under the sun. It's unfortunate also that the MSM, particularly CNN, sees fit to interrogate presidential candidates about their "faith," because such interrogation is profoundly un-American. " I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another," wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1816. And to the scientist Joseph Priestly Jefferson complained:

"The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion & government, by whom it has been recommended, & whose purposes it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure."

Carol Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley, an M.F.A. from Vermont College, and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals, including The Paris Review, The North American Review, Poetry Miscellany, The Gettysburg Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Scotland, and Frank (in Paris). Poems are forthcoming soon in DoubleTake (Johns Hopkins UP).

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