Wednesday, July 05, 2006

One nation, (out from) under God

What with this being the closest I am going to come to posting on American Independence Day, I was planning to cover the topic of separation of church and state. There's a lot to be said in that area, and if I manage to do well in discussing the topic, I should have enough material to offend everyone.

There is a prevailing bit of conventional wisdom among Christians that America is, was, and always will be a Christian nation. I think one can definitely say that the majority of the founding fathers were Christians, although a few of the more notable ones (Franklin and Jefferson come to mind) weren't, at least in the sense we modern evangelicals like to see ourselves defined. The founding fathers most likely had in mind, among other things, the fact that Britain was a country with a state religion, and they and their ancestors had largely come to the "New World" to be allowed to worship in peace as they saw fit.

From what I do remember of the earliest settlers, there wasn't a whole lot of real religious freedom; it was more like leaving England, where one was forced to be Anglican, so that one could found a new colony where we could force everyone to be Methodist, or whatever the local majority religious flavor was. The founders must have learned something from all of this recent history, or at least they were smarter than many who had come before them, and decided that forcing anyone to have any religion was just a bad idea.

So while the Bible, which we Christians like to claim we live by, gives us Ten Commandments, the Constitution gives us Ten Amendments, a.k.a. the Bill of Rights. And looking at these side by side, it's interesting to see some startling contrasts. If the founding fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation, they sure did a bad job of expressing it.

U.S. Constitution, Amendment I
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.

Exodus 20:2-3
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

Fascinating. The First Commandment regards both "an establishment of religion" (you must worship God) and "prohibiting free exercise thereof" (you may not worship anything else). Actually, concerning "free exercise thereof," we can look at the second commandment as well:
Exodus 20:4-6
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand {generations} of those who love me and keep my commandments.
See, God's not so much into that "free exercise" thing. But the founding fathers were, it seems. Something else other than religion that comes up is the whole free speech thing. The founding fathers wanted people to be able to say whatever they wanted. How about God?
Exodus 20:7
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Doesn't sound like it, does it?

The point here is that if you want to make Christianity the state religion, and you want to make the laws of the Bible into the laws of the land, you're going to have to toss out not just a lot of the laws that have recently been created, but many that form the bedrock of our society. While not all of the items found in the Ten Commandments (or even the rest of the Bible) conflict with existing law, many of the most fundamental precepts of both our religion and our government are at cross-purposes to each other, at least if you try to blur the distinction between one and the other.

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