Friday, June 07, 2013

Church and State in America

Many Christians misunderstand the issues surrounding the Constitution's first amendment. That amendment says:

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.

This amendment protects the American citizen's right to the free exercise of religion. It also states that the Federal Government will not establish a religion. Christians commonly believe, and I have taught, that this simply means that the government will not name a particular denomination as a state church. Most Americans in the late 1700s knew that a national religion limited freedom of individual conscience. The European standard was one nation, one sovereign, one religion. Therefore Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed leaders held to that standard in the hope it would avoid dissension, division, and bloodshed. So it had been from the time of Constantine.

What many Christians fail to see is the fact that this amendment, added to the Constitution of 1787 in 1789, was written during a time when an overwhelming majority of the population professed Christianity. Christian values were almost universally accepted even though church membership was abysmally low in 1800. Judaism was a minority faith but it too expressed biblical values. There were those who denied the existence of a Supreme Being but they were few. Admittedly some of the early founding fathers were Deists but there were few consistent Deists and they too recognized and lived by an overwhelmingly Christian value system. I won't say there were no Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists but if they existed at all in the new world their numbers were so few they could not have any influence on American culture. The United States of America was indeed a Christian nation but that was true simply because most of the nation's inhabitants professed Christianity.

An investigation of the body of the U.S. Constitution as passed in 1787 reveals no significant mention of God.The Declaration of Independence does! Jefferson's language in the Declaration reflects his Deism and rejection of miracles in favor of the God, or is it god, of Nature. The Declaration states:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice the language. Jefferson uses the terms "Creator" and "Nature's God." Jefferson, as an heir of the Enlightenment, looked upon God as Creator involved in nature. While Jefferson acknowledged Christian values his faith was certainly inconsistent with biblical Christian faith. 

Do not become incensed with the term Deist attributed to those labelled as such. Deists generally believed in the supremacy of human reason, individual conscience, and individual liberty. There was as much variety in Deist thought as there is in the average Christian denomination today. There were no consistent Deists just as there are few consistent Christians. I say this with some assurance since research shows that while some 80 percent of the American population confesses Christianity only about 4 percent actually practice consistent teaching! When Jefferson speaks of "Nature's God" he is speaking of the Creator who put the universe in motion and left it to develop by the mechanistic principles He put in place.

It must also be noted that while Christianity and Christian values prevailed in America the First Amendment, by speaking of religion, left the door open to others whose conscience led them to follow religions that were anything but Christian. Jefferson spoke of the day when the Muslim and the Hindu would feel free to exercise their conscience in this land as freely as those in  the variety of those in the multiple Christian denominations.

America in 1800 was a Christian nation because an overwhelming majority of its citizens professed Christianity and at least recognized the superiority of Christian values.

This is no longer true! From 1800 to the present there has been a persistent erosion of Christianity and Christian values. Many factors conspired together to bring this about. I don't have the time to go into this to any great extent but suffice it to say the following certainly contributed to a lessening of Christian influence:

  • The impact of Enlightenment thinking:
    • Elevation of the individual
    • Elevation of the inductive method - only that which can be tested by the senses is true
    • Elevation of Evolutionary thinking
    • Rejection of the Supernatural
      • Rejection of God's existence by reason as untestable
      • Rejection of the possibility of revelation as a way of knowing
  • Destructive critical analysis of the Bible due to the rejection of the supernatural 
    • Bible is seen not as God's Word but as man's growing understanding of God/religion
  • Impact of immigration
    • Immigration from Asia in the mid-1800s from China - Buddhism
    • Immigration from Asia in the mid-1970s from S.E. Asia - Buddhism
    • Immigration from the Asian sub-continent in the 1960s and 1970s - Hinduism
    • Immigration from the Asian sub-continent and the Near East beginning in the 1970s - Islam
While Christianity remains the predominant religion in the United States those faiths which once had only slight influence are now able to exert sizable influence. In addition, the secular-progressive educational system has produced an increasingly secular society of which a growing number reject the reality of God, the truth of the Bible, and Christian values in general.

We are watching the nation's Christian values erode before our very eyes. The blame however does not rest upon those who teach falsehood for truth. They play their part to be sure. The blame rests on a moribund church more concerned with relevance than revelation, with excitement than evangelism, and with personal success than the savior. Our once Christian nation is eroding because the believer no longer feels the compulsion to persuade others of the truth of God as seen in Jesus Christ.

Garry Wills points out in his book Head and Heart that the First Amendment, while recognizing the right of the individual to let his conscience guide him in his belief system, actually promoted the spread of Christianity making the United States the most Christian nation on earth. Why is that so? Because there were those who took Christ to the people.

If we wish to see Christian values restored in our communities they must first be restored in our churches. If we wish to see Christian values voiced in the public square they must be resoundingly preached in our pulpits. But it isn't is the source of those values that needs the attention. So I leave you with this admonition: Preach Christ!

I'll have more to say on this in subsequent posts.