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Secular Country? Obama Sides With Jefferson, Madison, Paine

John Nichols

 by The Nation

President Obama made one of the most important statements of his young
presidency when he said in Turkey that the United States is not "a
Christian nation."

Rob Boston was right when he noted on the Americans United for Separation of Church and State site, Obama's secular declaration "reflects the best of Jefferson's thinking."

Unfortunately, ahistorical social conservatives are not inclined to
share the sense of presidents past or present that, in Obama's words,
"(America is) a secular country that is respectful of religious
freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom, upholding
these values and being willing to stand up for them in the
international stage."

The president has taken hard hits in recent days for his
announcement in Turkey that: "I've said before that one of the great
strengths of the United States is -- although as I mentioned we have a
very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a
Christian nation, or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider
ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of
values."

Constitutional rewritemen Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly disagree, as does noted historian and Biblical scholar Chuck Norris,
who argues that, "the idea that Judeo-Christian ideas and practices
must be kept separate from government would have struck our Founders as
ridiculous..."

As difficult as it may be counter with that sort of "reasoning," it probably makes sense to turn, once more, to Mr. Jefferson.

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely
between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his
faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach
actions only, and not opinions," the third president wrote to the Danbury Baptists
in 1802, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole
American people which declared that their legislature should make no
law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and
state."

Was Jefferson an outlier?

Well, James Madison,
the essential arbiter on matters constitutional, explained that: "The
Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a
national religion."

And the common sense of the most visionary of the founders, Tom Paine,
led him to observe that: "All national institutions of churches,
whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human
inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power
and profit."


© 2017 The Nation

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