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The Nation

Secular Country? Obama Sides With Jefferson, Madison, Paine

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."

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