Friday, October 29, 2010

Why the United States Is a Christian Nation

I'm guessing that headline will provoke some readers to start mentally drafting an angry reply before they have even read the post. It IS a controversial statement today, although it was accepted when our nation was founded. Despite the fact that our Constitution prohibits demanding adherence the Christianity or any other religion, there are other ways one could consider this a Christian nation.

In today's post I am looking at a statements made by President Obama, specifically a summary of several statements he has made on the world stage. The President stated publicly that we are not a Christian nation. His statement surprised many in this country and caused David Barton to put together a refutation consisting of a fine collection of disagreeing statements by various figures throughout our history.

For example, did you know of the following statement by Supreme Court justice Earl Warren (1891-1974)?

I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people. . . . I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country.

He did not say we are officially a Christian nation, which of course we are not. Similarly, this next statement talks about Christianity's nature within our justice system (from the Supreme Court in 1903):

[I]n decisions of this court, the Indian right of occupancy of tribal lands, whether declared in a treaty or otherwise created, has been stated to be sacred. ... Thus... "It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people..."

But the best summary I saw in the article is made by Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910):

[I]n what sense can [America] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation -- in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world.

There he clearly states what I've been addressing on this blog, that we are not officially a Christian nation, but we are nonetheless a Christian nation in other ways. The article goes on to explain Brewer's statement:

So, if being a Christian nation is not based on any of the above criterion, then what makes America a Christian nation? According to Justice Brewer, America was "of all the nations in the world... most justly called a Christian nation" because Christianity "has so largely shaped and molded it."

Read the entire article below (and see the citations for the quotes above):

Is President Obama Correct: Is America No Longer a Christian Nation?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Importance of Choosing the Best Words

What does the Constitution more firmly guarantee: freedom or religion, or separation of church and state? That wording is, of course, somewhat unfair because is uses common phrases rather than the actual wording of the Constitution. The general principle of "freedom of religion" is not stated that way in the Constitution's Bill of Rights, but it's a reasonable paraphrase of "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." But is "separation of church and state" as reasonable (or clear) a paraphrase of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..."?

The "separation..." phrase was used one time by Thomas Jefferson in a letter, and was intended to assure the recipients that the Federal Government would not interfere with their religion. But Jefferson, who was not in the USA during the debates leading up to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, wrote to those drafting it appealing for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights (which was intended to clarify the Constitution, not to actually change it). In Jefferson's letters he used the phrase "freedom of religion" to explain the right that the First Amendment would help clarify.

If you look at the wording of the First Amendment next to either "freedom of religion" or "separation of church and state" the words all seem compatible. It does guarantee freedom of religion, and it separates church and state in that it prohibits the government from making a law respecting an establishment of religion. But it is important to understand the context of "respecting" in the First Amendment. Many of our states had official state religions at the time of the Bill of Rights' ratification, and those states needed reassurance that the federal government would not interfere with those establishments. So the Founders wrote language that would prohibit the Congress from making a law that either establishes a national religion OR limits the power of the states to have their own religions. So their language was not vague by accident; it was vague so that it would cover both situations.

But if you do as our courts have done and look at the phrase "separation of church and state" (which is not contained in the Constitution or Bill of Rights), especially if you do so without also looking at the actual wording of the First Amendment and without looking at the actions of the Founders, you could distort "separation" into much more than was intended. And they have done so. They have used it to remove religion from aspects of public life, a removal the Founders would not have approved.

Suppose a court used "freedom of religion" without regard to the actual words of the First Amendment? That phrase is also from Thomas Jefferson and was used more often by him. If you rely on "freedom of religion" as the main guidance, you could justify much more license for religious actions than the Founders wanted. A court could reverse the current situation, which I believe has caused too many restrictions on religious expression, into a situation where churches and believers had more license than the Founders ever intended.

If courts are going to interpret the Constitution in making decisions, then it seems reasonable to expect that at the very least they will use the document's words. It would also seem smart to gain more guidance from the actions of the Founders and the decisions of early courts (which were much closer to the Constitution's creation).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Congress Goes to Church

Having just take a little vacation time to visit some of our nation's historic sites, I was reminded about the marvel of our new country in 1789, electing a President of the United States... one chosen by the people. And of course a few years later that President handed over the power to our next President, also elected by the people. I was also reminded that in two years, our country will either elect a new President or will decide to keep the existing man for one more term. All this happens peacefully. It's no wonder that over 100 other countries have used our Constitution as an inspiration for writing their own versions.

Now go back in time to the inauguration of our first President, George Washington. There is at least one thing that has changed since that time. After Washington was sworn in on April 30, 1789, he and the Congress walked to the nearby Trinity Church and worshiped together. Can you imagine the uproar if that were to happen today? There is already a little disgruntlement about using a Bible to swear in the President. But having so many of our top government officials go together to church as a follow-on to the official ceremony... well, that's not likely to happen. We would hear about that not being allowed because of "separation of church and state." That phrase, we are told, sums up a provision of the Constitution's Bill of Rights. Is it possible that all these public servants, many of whom participated in writing and ratifying the Constitution, understood that document so poorly that they would violate its intention?

Read more about the historic Trinity church below:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ignorance of First Amendment at Law School

You can read the "long version" of this story at the links below. Here is the short version, which goes to the point of this blog.

There was a debate at a between Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell on October 19, 2010, for Delaware's open U.S. Senate seat. The debate was held at Delaware's Widener Law School (that's an important fact). The debate at some point wandered into whether local schools could teach creationism or should stay with Darwinism, and the phrase "separation of church and state" came up. O'Donnell then asked, "Where in the Constitution is "separation of church and state?" The law school audience laughed and some were heard to say "Whoa!," and the context seems to be that they were laughing at O'Donnel. Coons claimed that is is in the First Amendment and made light of her question.

I would think a room with a high population of law students would not laugh at the question, hoping they would know that those words are not in the First Amendment. When quoted, the reference is to a private letter of Thomas Jefferson, and in the legal world that should be an important distinction. Not that the phrase should be overlooked, but its context is important. Also important is the fact that the Founders signed a document that did not contain that phrase. But the laughed at her. In my opinion the [sad] joke is on them, not her.

You will read in some of the text below that some in the media are also making fun of O'Donnell's question. Political journalists should know the Constitution and some of the important Supreme Court cases well enough to understand her question. Clearly they do not all meet my own preferred standard. But I'm not paying their salaries, I don't live my life around what they tell me, and I don't hold them as accountable as I do law students. That's partly because I keep hoping that law schools will point out that in the 1947 Supreme Court case that first brought "separation..." to a legal status, the court only used that quote without actually quoting from the words of the First Amendment and without looking at prior decisions and court writings. They can agree or not with the spirit of that 1947 court decision, but they should take note of the distinction between personal writings and the dictates of the Constitution.

Now that I re-think all this, I don't know why I am surprised. I have done random testing with various demographics and learned that it is probably the majority of the U.S. population who believe that "separation of church and state" is literally in the Constitution. That's my primary motivation for starting this blog in the first place.

Read more at the three links below (one include a media file):

Monday, October 18, 2010

Christian Pastor Arrested for Witnessing to People in Front of a Mosque

Many who read this blog, and I hope most of the rest of the USA, know at least roughly what the First Amendment protects. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, it protect freedom of religion, and also protects freedom of speech. The courts have had so much respect for the right of free speech that they have declared shopping malls (privately owned) to be part of the "public square" and therefore to be a haven for free speech.

I believe it was in the 1950's that the Supreme Court specifically protected the right to hand out religious tracts on a public sidewalk. So how does it come about that a pastor can be arrested for doing the same thing?

Pastor Mark Holick, from Wichita, Kansas, was recently arrested and handcuffed for witnessing and handing out religious information in front of a mosque. I believe the police overreacted in this case, but we'll see if it goes to the court system for redress. The non-profit Rutherford Institute is taking up the pastor's case.

As I write this the case has not been posted on the website, but perhaps it will be by the time you read this post. Visit Rutherford to learn more:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Do the Courts Understand the First Amendment?

That's a provocative headline, and probably is not fair. But I fear that the courts, even the Supreme Court of the United States, still have ideologues among them. We all have opinions, and it would be super-human for a judge or justice to be totally objective. In some cases, there ARE some human judgments that have to be made; the laws don't give complete guidance in all cases.

But the Founders were prolific writers, and the words and deeds are well preserved in various libraries and compilations. The original introduction of the metaphor "separation of church and state" was in 1947, I believe. In any case, I'm quite sure that was the first time the phrase was used without further justification from actual quotes of the Constitution. The metaphor is from a letter of Thomas Jefferson and certainly gives a small piece of insight into his views on the First Amendment. But if one searches his writings, one finds almost no other use of that phrase, but rather a repeated use of "freedom of religion" or "religious freedom" to describe the need for a Bill of Rights.

There is a good article on the Examiner's site discussing this. Follow the link below to learn more:

The truth about "separation of church and state"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Limits of Censorship

Nebraska schools had better watch their step(s). The ACLU has sent letters to all public schools warning them that they had better not invite in any speakers whose message or organization might be related to religion. The justification, of course, is the so-called separation of church and state. That metaphor is supposed to represent the First Amendment's religion clauses, but is woefully inadequate to do so and is even misleading if used alone.

Forgetting for a moment that the part of the the First Amendment referenced is about prohibiting lawmakers from making laws establishing an official religion, what about the concept of inviting speakers of all types except one?

What if you wish to have a speaker addressing programs to fight alcohol addiction? You would be afraid to invite someone from AA because part of their method is religious faith. But you could invite someone who recommends non-standard or unproven methods that were not related to religion, and that would be OK. Would balancing speakers in this way make an impression on the students? Would a reasonable person assume that if certain groups are not allowed to speak at a public school assembly, then they must not be mainstream or simply are not worthy of such discussion?

I'm not objecting to schools not inviting charismatic preachers to speak about his/her faith. My personal view is that such a speaker is not unconstitutional, but I wouldn't endorse the choice for reasons unrelated to the Constitution.

Read more on the Nebraska story below:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Should We Use the Bible in Public Schools?

Benjamin Rush was one of the signers of our Declaration of Independence. One could suppose that men who were so involved in the founding of our nation might have a good idea of what was allowed and not allowed by our form of government.

Today no teacher in a public school would even consider teaching from the Bible, or even allowing daily Bible reading as part of class. Teachers and administrators have stated that such a practice would be against the "separation of church and state" (by which they mean against the Constitution).

Certainly many modern-day parents would not be in favor of such a practice. Even many Christian parents would not want to trust the teaching of the Bible in an environment that has often been hostile to the Bible. But that leaves the question of whether or not it is constitutional to do such a thing.

Consider the opinion of Benjamin Rush. In 1786 he said the following:

I do not mean to exclude books of history, poetry, or even fables from our schools. They may and should be read frequently by our young people, but if the Bible is made to give way to them altogether, I foresee that it will be read in a short time only in churches and in a few years will probably be found only in the offices of magistrates and in courts of justice.

From Benjamin Rush. “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic” from American Political Writing during the Founding Era, 1760-1805, Volume 1, p. 684, edited by Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983)

Perhaps Rush might think that, if parents wish the Bible to be excluded from teaching, that the point be made on the basis of logic or desire, but not because doing so would be disallowed by our nation's laws and founding documents.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mainstream Media: Is It Reporting or Creating News?

We live in a large country with a diverse population. We naturally have people who disagree about various issues, and our nation was founded with a guarantee of the right to express your thoughts in words. Our courts have either clarified that right or possibly extended it by saying that certain actions are protected "speech" as well. Flag burning would be in that protected category, for example.

Now we see news of a pastor in Florida who wants to have an "event" on September 11. He announced he would be burning a copy of the Koran. This man leads a congregation of perhaps 50 people at most. He is not, to my knowledge, famous in any of the conventional ways. I don't see books by him at my local Barnes & Noble or on, I don't see a Sunday morning TV show with him preaching, etc. But he has been made famous in this country because of this Koran burning event. [He has announced just recently that he would cancel the event.]

It seems to me that various entities with something gain from it have played this up more than it deserves. Not that such an intention is not an awful thing; it is worthy of criticism. But this should not be an international event. A couple years ago there were incidents overseas of burning of Muslims using rocker-propelled grenades to break into a church, after which they desecrated the church, tore Bibles apart, etc. Was our press filled with stories of this? Had you even heard about it?

Does this pastor in Florida have a "free speech" right to burn a book, even one that is holy? Yes, apparently he does based on what our Supreme Court has ruled in various decisions. But having a right to do something does not mean you should do it. Does the press have a right to make an international issue of this pastor? Yes, they do. But that doesn't mean they should. Would the press report someone burning a Bible to the extent that it became an international story?...

Read more below:

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Article: Is the USA a Christian Nation?

This blog has often discussed the reasons that one might say the USA is a Christian nation. Of course that does not mean in the sense of a theocracy; there has never been an official national religion. But there are still many reasons such a viewpoint could be valid.

Some are discussed in the article below. It makes interesting reading. But be warned: it quotes such right-wing religious radicals as Woodrow Willson and Harry Truman.