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What Exactly Is a Christian Nation, Anyway?

In thinking about Senator John McCain’s comments in his interview with Beliefnet– that America is a Christian nation–I spent some time online trying to figure out what the substance of the label is. Certainly ‘Christian nation’ sounds like it should be a clear concept, but I’m not sure that it is. And the various evangelical websites I explored didn’t shed much light on the question either.


Is it a historic statement, referring to the orientation of our Founding Fathers? Certainly, many of them were practicing Christians who took their religion seriously. But, as John Meacham points out, they were at great pains to explicitly keep religion out of our Constitution–for either its specific provisions or the rationale for its implementation. Steve Benen observes that the fact that the founders were Christian doesn’t make America a Christian nation any more than them being male makes America a male nation.
Is it a statement about specific policies we should be upholding? Certainly there are certain policy positions that are common to those who hold that America is a Christian nation, from anti-abortion to anti-gay marriage, to prayer in schools. These are clearly positions most evangelicals support. But other positions that garner strong support in these groups are tax cuts, small government, and “strict Constitutionalist” judges. What’s Christian about any of those? It sounds like conservatives are claiming the Christian banner to unite under, but given how few of the positions they take are explicitly Christian, it throws their claim of operating from Christian concerns into real doubt.
Does it refer to specific values or principles? McCain alludes to this when he says:

We were founded as a nation on Judeo-Christian principles. There’s very little debate about that. And I think the noblest words ever written are, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all, all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator.”

But as Rabbi Stern correctly points out, these “principles” are so broad that it is both meaningless and divisive to label them “Christian.” McCain stops quoting before the end of the sentence from the Declaration of Independence: “…are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These certainly are American values, but I defy anyone to tell me what is explicitly Christian about them. Christians also support love, compassion, and generosity but that doesn’t mean these are uniquely Christian qualities.
McCain’s statement strikes me as a particularly awkward and incoherent statement of a position that may sound compelling in theory but has no meaningful basis or substance.



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Hali

posted October 11, 2007 at 1:47 pm


If there had ever been any doubt, the first words in the First Amendment to our Constitution makes it very clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
Anyone who make the claim that we are a “Christian nation” needs to go back to middle school.



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Anonymous

posted October 11, 2007 at 2:42 pm


Anyone who make the claim that we are a “Christian nation” needs to go back to middle school.
You’re being generous. This is taught in grade school.



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kazem

posted October 11, 2007 at 2:54 pm


I’m not an American, but I do have a bone to pick with the term “Judeo-Christian” principles. I doubt whether at this juncture, some 2,000 years after the death of Jesus, anyone can hold that Judaism and Christianity have common principles. I know that Christians see their faith as an offshoot of Judaism, but that was the faith of a very different kind of Jewish world. Since the wisdom of the Torah, Writings and Prophets, most of which also appear in the Christian Bible, Jewish scholars have produced the Talmudic writings, the Zohar, Pirkei Avot, numerous commentaries, and the rich folk traditions that have evolved in farflung Jewish communities. I would suggest that the past 2,000 years has marked a divergence in Judaism and Christianity to such an extent that I question whether the principles that are held out to be “Judeo-Christian” actually have any Jewish quality to them. So don’t they just mean Christian values and a Christian interpretation of Torah?



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Saadaya

posted October 11, 2007 at 6:00 pm


A ‘Christian nation’ (if by that we mean one that follows the teachings of the Christ) is a secular nation with strict separation of church and state!
“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s
and unto God what is God’s”
In light of this parable (and the fact that he asked, just before he said this, ‘whose is the face on the coin?’) – in a Christian nation we should not have God mentioned on our currency! That is ANTI-Christian! It contradicts the words of the historical Christ.
Matthew 23 is an angry indictment against the clergy. The whole entire chapter is a rant against the clergy. A Christian nation would be, if not firmly anti clergy, at least anti giving power to the clergy, and would distrust anything that would seem like an adulterous relationship between church and state. Jesus called the clergy hypocrites, vipers, ‘greedy dogs who neither eat nor do they let others eat’, etc. A so called “Christian” nation would never give power, privileges or legitimacy to people whom Jesus called vipers and greedy dogs, particularly where their high priest is known as ‘Papa’, clearly in defiance of the words of Christ in Matthew 23 against calling ‘anyone on Earth father’.
In other words, we are NOT a Christian nation, we are a nation that is losing its way by mixing politics with religion, like they do in the Middle East.



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Marian Neudel

posted October 11, 2007 at 9:01 pm


Kazem, I find your analysis interesting, but you might want to read Maurice Samuels’ “The Gentleman and the Jew” for another perspective. Samuels says, essentially, that Christianity is an amalgam of Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism, and that everything in Christianity that is not Jewish in its origins is pagan (and vice versa.) Give it a thought.



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eastcoastlady

posted October 12, 2007 at 8:48 am


kazern and marian,
both very interesting posts. thanks for the thoughts and persepctives.
I wonder how Christians would react to your statement (your quote of Samuels, rather) that everything in Christianity that is not Jewish is pagan. I would hope that it would be taken as a statement of fact rather than an insult. Certain customs adopted from socities that were in existence at the time and modified for use in then-current (and perhaps also in today’s practice) should not necessarily be seen as a negative thing; e.g., the Christmas tree, the Easter rabbit, etc.
I’m not sure, however, that I agree entirely with the statement, either, as Judaism does not in any way support the worship of a human deity, a trinity, or any modification of that sort. The next part of that thought is that I’m not sure if pagan cultures support that, either, not knowing enough about paganism to comment on that. My understanding of paganism is that it is polytheistic, primarily worshipping or celebrating gods of nature. I apologize in advance if I have this incorrect.



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Cully

posted October 12, 2007 at 11:17 am


If John McCain, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell or anyone else of that ilk thinks that the Christian Right is *Christian* then they need to get themselves a copy of a Red Letter New Testament and read everything that is written in red and get the straight (or as straight as can be expected) story right from the horse’s mouth.
Cully



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kazem

posted October 12, 2007 at 3:25 pm


From what I’ve read (including Samuels), Christianity is a remarkably syncretistic faith in its ability to bridge Jewish monotheistic concepts, Central Asian myths, Greco-Roman(so-called pagan)beliefs, and elements of various neolithic goddess and nature worship cultures. In effect, it had to, in order to appeal to the wide growing body of Christians in the early church: they were Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc. I guess if you want to group these cultures into “Jewish” and “pagan”, that’s one way of doing it. However, I have to concur with Eastcoastlady that some Christians might take that classification the wrong way.



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KLBA1

posted October 12, 2007 at 5:56 pm


I interpret Christian nation to mean that culturally, we are Christian, as the preponderance of the citizens and residents of the country since 1776 have been culturally Christian — i.e., of a European background. Even African slaves who were imported against their will were converted to Christianity, at least the forms of it. This is not really a religious thing. You can see this in other nations too– India has a very large Muslim population and a considerable number of Christians, and it’s a secular government, but can anyone deny that it’s a “Hindu nation” as well? That’s why they get Diwali off as a national holiday and we get Christmas. It’s just tradition and culture, not really religion per se.



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David

posted October 13, 2007 at 5:26 am


I call America a Christian nation, because it was founded by mostly believers in Jesus. Yes, back then and more often now, many Americans are anything but Christian — and I think America is now in a post-Christian era, never to return until Jesus does. But you must take each individual person in the world, and forget the national boundaries — and based on their belief in Jesus and based on their fruit, you then get a glimpse of whether or not a person is Christian.



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Andrew Starin

posted October 14, 2007 at 1:54 am


I think McCain was quoted out of context. He was saying this because he either did not see the wording for what it is, or, he just did not understand that it was a neutral wording in the clause in the first place.
Yes, the Constitution unto itself is actually rather secular in nature. The “creator” clause is a good example.
The term “creator” itself is neutral. Define the word “creator.”
Also, an interesting note that should be made, is that the word “their,” immediately proceeding the word “creator,” if understood correctly, meant anyone’s “creator” is counted on a singular and personal level for the purposes of the individual’s right to participate in any religion they so choose.
Nowhere in the US Constitution is it written about Jesus and/or Christianity.



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laura t mushkat

posted October 14, 2007 at 12:16 pm


Thank goodness this is a country where we are not officially a Christian Nation. All countries, including Israel and England, that have official religons usually have problems caused with the help of that idea. A Christian Nation to answer the question is based on only Christian principals-good and bad alike.
We will only be a true secular nation when the word G-d is off all our money, when there is no official Christmass tree or Channukah menorah, you do not swear on a Bible or do any religous thing in court to prove you are being truthful, there is no chaplain in Congress, etc.
For good or ill that will never occur here.
Laura



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Julie

posted October 14, 2007 at 12:49 pm


I am Jewish and I am not bothered by anyone saying that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian ethics. I am comfortable with who I am, and am not on the defensive. I am simply happy to live in a country where I am totally free to practice whichever religion I choose. It is true that times have changed, but the historic facts are what they are. Also a fact, life and the world are in constant motion. I would say that TODAY this country is a Christian-Judeo-Islamic nation. And who knows what it will be referred to one hundred years from today? Hopefully my Jewish brethren will still be part of the mix.



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T.Bradley Kartel

posted October 14, 2007 at 5:36 pm


What makes Christianty different is like what made the Jewish faith different. Where Christians believe that Jesus is the Anointed One of the God of the Law and the Prophts. THe Jewish Faith has had for Centuries belived in One God, as in Deut.Chapter 6 when we read “Hear,O Israel, The Lord,The Lord Our God Is One…
THe Christan Church (Idealy) is ment to be built on the intorralance of ones Sins, and Acceptance of the Sinner, and is ment to help the sinner to walk in a right relationship with God,as we Had in the Garden Befroe the Fall of Mankind.
The Jewish Faith is the Front Runner of The Christian Faith which has ALWAYS BEEN MENT TO BRING THE WHOLE EARTH TO THE KNOWELEDGE OF OUR UNIVERSAL SINFULL CONDISHION AND SEPERATION FROM GOD.



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Chana

posted October 14, 2007 at 7:15 pm


I think the U.S. is indeed a “Christian nation”.
Yes, we are diverse and yes, no more prayer is allowed in the Public School system; However, as long as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are nationally celebrated even if it is more Santa Claus and baby chicks and hidden eggs than the religious reason, there are public displays of the religious reasons. These holidays are nationally recognized as Christian in origin. What about the crosses on the graves at Arlington cemetery? Feels like a Christian nation to me in all its
“Bible Belt” glory.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? So far it has been a good place for us Jews to live – but for how long? We are still a minority. We are still in exile. It might be a pretty good nation growing in tolerance for people of all faiths, but it is still a “Christian nation”.
Yes, Christianity has some Jewish roots but it IS NOT Jewish. We will not see Churches and Synagogues uniting for services. Many Christians still see us as on our way to hell because we do not “accept Jesus”. How long will their tolerance last? Let us not be deceived.



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Chana

posted October 14, 2007 at 7:31 pm


Hi All – I just want to add a few more “cents”.
Want to know just how much of a minority we are? – Try joining and being active in a political party – we may find politically much in common but we will never be a part of the “in crowd”.
Being humanistic or “generic” is more inclusive than being religious in some circles. As for the “right wing” or even moderate Republicans, Christians rule. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Who knows! Nobody is beating me up (yet). Not to take it all too seriously but lets call a spade a spade. People – America IS a Christian nation and even the heathen’s agree on this point!



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Georgie

posted October 15, 2007 at 6:10 am


This Thanksgiving try reading a copy of the Mayflower Compact at the dinner table.
We are a God fearing nation. The begining of wisdom is to fear the Lord.
Abraham was a Hebrew (one from across the water)(Strong’s Concordance),not a Jew (from the tribe of Juda).
There are 10 scattered tribes of his decendants.
The Pilgrims left Europe and even Holland because of the desire to provide a God centered life away from the decidance in there home countries. All travelers on the Mayfolwer were required to sign the compact. Yet none were required to adhear to a faith or support with thithes any worship home.
Across the pond the Nobel of the land chose the faith you had to be to earn a living on his land. That is why our Constitution provides the the Government shall not ESTABLISH a national religion.Every American is allowed to worship or not worship according to his own mind.
There is no such thing as Seperation of Church and State. That was a man made perversion of the Constitutional anti-establishment clause.
Our Government and its Laws are grounded in the Old Testament. Although secular progressivs have tried there best to Suprem Court them out existance. Talmud Scholars have tried to refine them down to five granes of wheat constitutes harvesting on the sabbath. God will not be mocked.
God recalls his promises and leads his people forth in joy with shouts of Thanksgiving.
IN GOD WE TRUST
Strongs Concordance,Religion:a healing salve for the eyes.



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eastcoastlady

posted October 15, 2007 at 1:15 pm


Boy, George, are you ever misled!
Are most Americans Christian?
Yes.
Does this make the USA a Chritian nation?
Absolutely not.
There is a separation of church and state, like it or not. No “perversion” involved (boy, that’s a strong word!).
If you want an educated, unemotional perpsective on the matter, read Jon Meachem’s op-ed piece published in the NYT on October 7, 2007.
Oh, BTW, the Mayflower Compact is not the law of the land.
Abraham was indeed the first Jew. God made a covenant with him.
As wonderful as the Torah is (what you call the “OT”) as a guiding document for principles about how to live, charity and lovingkindness existed prior to Judaism and Christianity – these are not uniquely Christian principles. And also, please don’t pervert what Talmudic scholars interpret; clearly you don’t understand.
Exactly which of the Constitution’s laws and amendments find their root in the Torah or Christian Bibles? Freedom of speech? Unreasonable search and seizure?
Sheesh.



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chaim baruch-chaim

posted October 15, 2007 at 2:38 pm


You go, eastcoastlady! Couldn’a’ put it better.
But we should perhaps allow Georgie a little space on one thing (if he’d just drop the attitude):
He insists that Abraham wasn’t the first Jew. In one sense he is right: neither Abraham nor his immediate descendants would have applied that word to him. The approach you used, equally valid and also normative outside fundamentalist Christian circles, depends not of the history of the word origin but of the word’s connotative, derivative and associative meaning, which, if I can form the syllogism properly, goes very roughly like this: Those God made the Abrahamic covenant with are Jews; God made covenant with Abraham; therefore, Abraham was a Jew.
Of course, Georgie makes illegitimate use of the version of truth he has… Still let’s settle for destroying his arguments that are utterly without merit rather than the one which displays one aspect of truth.



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William Woods Higgins

posted October 15, 2007 at 5:45 pm


Although I find the comments as interesting as anything Senator McCain has to say,let me just stick to a critique of some of his statements.
For instance,Thomas Jefferson is a deist, not a disguised Christian, Jew, or Moslem. Being a historical degree of Free Masonry is as close ashe came to the spiritual powers of the House of King David and Solomon. As a matter of fact identifying him as one espousing Judeo-Christian principles is projection rather than description.Identifying his theological orientation with Christianity on the basis of race, would be analogous to identifying every Israeli with being a member of the Jewish religion, or every Arab to be a Moslem. When race is a criterion for judging theological ideology I believe we have taken a dangerous step on a slippery slope that has been responsible forsome of the greatest atrocities in the history of the human race.
John McCain states:
We were founded as a nation on Judeo-Christian principles. There’s very little debate about that. And I think the noblest words ever written are, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all, all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator.”
These self-evident truths and concept that all men are created equal is as far away from the way certain Abrahamic religions openly view one another, i.e.,the chosen,gentiles,illegitimate children. These concepts such as equality and self-evident truths are justified by what “the powers of the Earth…The laws of Nature…Nature’s God entitle them.” Biblical mythologies,in particular, and Abrahamic religions,in general, were/are responsible for the divine rights of Kings endowing such individuals as King George (no relation to the present one)to be the rightful representative of God on Earth. The Abrahamic God structure has little to do with Deities of this world or deities of nature such as those espoused by the Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Native American, Taoist, Aztec, Inca and many other religions based on the sun,moon and stars. Abrahamic God structures openly espouse they are not of this world; other than being man-made;they are aliens.
It should likewise be kept in mind that religion is a man-made phenomenon, and making these invisible shapes visible phenomena through artistic mediums is the genuine interdisciplinary goal of our age.I have said enough,but the idea that this country is based on Biblical principles is simply prejudices becoming values, which in an age of ostentacious Epicureanism where every vice is elevated to the level of a virtue, the step is a short one.
Why are we not as concerned about what the safe eye of Atlantis and the Eagle looking towards the olive branches rather than the fasces means.Plato and Aristotle whose philosophies form a substantial basis for a secular morality evident in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution believed their ancestry linked back to Atlantis,not to apes or Eden.
My sincere apologies to those offended by this commentary,but when three major religions of the world justify themselves through any type of self-referential deification has produced an intolerable state of affairs…All that anybody has to do regarding the principles this country was/is founded upon and its relation to Judeo-Christian principles is read the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Thank you for your time, I am by no means attempting to waste it.



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David

posted October 16, 2007 at 2:52 am


Chana, the Jewish Nation is Where It’s At. You can say that they’re not the “in crowd” — but Jerusalem will always be, and all the nations will go to Jerusalem to pay homage. But first, all the nations of the earth will gather around Jerusalem (and I hope my America won’t join that gathering bunch) — to try to destroy Jerusalem — but God himself will cause their eyes to fall from their sockets before their bodies hit the ground. I wish I were a Jew. But I have been grafted into the branch, and so I can benefit from the blessing of Abraham also. If you bless a Jew, you will be blessed; If you curse a Jew, you will be cursed. Perhaps Israel IS “the last” in this world — but then that would mean that they will be First. Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, how often has he wanted to gather your children under his wings, like a hen does her chicks. God bless Jerusalem and give it peace, I pray.



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eastcoastlady

posted October 16, 2007 at 9:04 am


Chaim,
Thank you for all your comments.
William,
Thank you also for your insights.



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Anonymous

posted October 16, 2007 at 4:13 pm


“We were founded as a nation on Judeo-Christian principles. There’s very little debate about that. And I think the noblest words ever written are, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all, all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator.”
Our Founding Fathers were indeed very smart, Christian or not, when they wrote “We hold these truths to be self evident that all, all people (ie, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddist, Janaist, etc) are created equal and endowed by their Creator (ie, G_d, Allah, Jesus, Buddah, etc). So it would seem to me that they intended this nation to be a haven for ALL, regardless of their beliefs. It would also seem to me that they did not intend this country to be just Christian, by Christians and for Christians… They left room for all people.



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Homer Wiggins

posted October 17, 2007 at 11:04 pm


Most of the time we are just talking about words. The evidence of history is that this nation following the precepts of the BIBLE THE MOST JEWISH BOOK IN THE WORLD, BOTH TESTAMENTS AS WE DIVIDE THEM. This nation has provided a haven for the childdren of Abraham , Isaac , and Jacob . These precepts have worked for all races in this nation. Not always automaticly , but left to time always brings peace and truth to the forefront. These precepts so carelessly thrown to the wind by the uninformed and misguided will bring ruin to the greatest bastion of freedom ever conceived by man. Our schools with prayer and the 10 commandments were havens of peace. Now we have metal detectors and armed guards . the offence is not chewing gum and talking in class but rape and murder . This only one example.
There is a G-D IN HEAVEN AND HE WILL DEAL JUSTLY with all men.



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Marian Neudel

posted October 24, 2007 at 12:49 pm


“Exactly which of the Constitution’s laws and amendments find their root in the Torah or Christian Bibles? Freedom of speech? Unreasonable search and seizure?”
Well, the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination is certainly paralleled in the Talmud.



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