The United States is a Christian nation.
That’s an idea former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has harped on time and time again during his political career.
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And while he didn’t explicitly talk about it today during his presidential announcement, it’s bound to pop up some time during his campaign.
That’s because most Republicans agree that the US is a Christian nation. In fact, according to one recent survey, 57 percent of them actually want to establish Christianity as the official state religion of our republic.
That’s right – 57 percent of Republicans want to turn our democracy into a theocracy!
Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.
The idea that the US is some sort of “Christian nation” is so out of whack with the both the history of this country and the Enlightenment values that inspired its founding that it just boggles the mind.
Despite what Mike Huckabee would have you believe, most of the most influential people who created this country – founders like Jefferson, Washington and Franklin – were not devout Christians, and many were actively hostile to religion having any role whatsoever in public life.
But the founders didn’t just believe that the US should be a secular nation; they actively worked to make it one.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, was the main force behind Virginia’s famous 1786 “Statute for Religious Freedom,” which ended the Church of England’s role as Virginia’s official state religion and guaranteed other faiths an equal footing under the law.
Jefferson was so proud of this law that he made it, along with the founding of the University of Virginia and writing the Declaration of Independence, one of the three accomplishments listed on his tombstone. He designed and wrote his own tombstone, and considered the Virginia Statute to be more important than that he was president for two terms – something he omitted from his tombstone.
Jefferson’s friend James Madison, although a Christian, also worked to keep the US secular.
In 1811, he vetoed a bill that would have authorized government payments to a church in Washington, DC, to help the poor, because as he put it, doing so “would be a precedent for giving to religious societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”
George Washington was no friend to theocracy, either, and one of his landmark accomplishments as our nation’s first president was, in part, a rebuttal to the idea that the US was a Christian nation.
The Treaty of Tripoli, worked out with the Muslim rulers of Libya under Washington’s guidance and then signed into law by John Adams in 1797, reads:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, —as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,— and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
But for founders like Washington, Madison and Jefferson, the fight against theocracy wasn’t just about what the United States was founded on, it was about what they wanted it to become.
As students of history who were just a few centuries removed from the great European religious wars, the Founders knew the threat theocracy posed to liberty.
And as scholars of the Enlightenment, they saw organized religion as one of the many irrational tyrannies that were holding mankind back from a rational, democratic future.
Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” even went so far as to write that, “Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny of religion is the worse.”
Only by remaining secular, the founders believed, could the US preserve its democracy.
They were actually so serious about preserving this secular democracy that some of them didn’t want to let Massachusetts into the union because its political system was, for all intents and purposes, a Puritan theocracy.
Today, of course, Massachusetts is one of the most secular and, thus small-d democratic, states in the entire country.
But that doesn’t mean threat of theocracy is gone.
Far from it, actually.
The theocratic tyranny our founders tried so hard to wipe out lives on in the modern day Republican Party, and in politicians like Mike Huckabee who repeat the lie that the US was founded as, and thus always will be, a Christian nation.
In reality, the US was founded as, and thus hopefully always will be, a secular nation.
It’s right there in the Constitution: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI), and, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” (First Amendment)
Let’s work to keep it that way, and reject the posturing and grandstanding of hucksters and hustlers like Huckabee.
Both for our sake, our democracy’s sake, and our children’s sake.