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How Christian were the U.S. Founders? Does it matter?

By Ben Boychu & Joel Mathis --

An education fight in Texas pitting religious conservatives against secular liberals once again raises the question: Did America's Founders establish a "Christian nation," a nation of Christians, or something else entirely?

Tea PartyImage by Susan E Adams via Flickr
The New York Times Magazine recently delved into the controversy in Texas, the second-largest textbook market in the country, where a Christian conservative bloc on the state school board wants the social-studies curriculum to promote the idea that America was founded on biblical precepts.

As one member of state school board put it: "The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next." But does it matter today what the Founders thought about religion and government 230 years ago? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

Ben Boychuk:

Many well-meaning Christian conservatives err when they insist America is a "Christian nation." That's not quite true. America is a nation founded on the proposition that "all men are created equal" in the sight of God and endowed with certain unalienable rights -- that is, rights that no government of mere mortal men can legitimately grant or legitimately take away.

Without question, the separation of church and state was central to America's founding. It was no afterthought. But the church-state divide so vital for securing Americans' religious liberty should not be confused with a prohibition against mingling religion with politics. That would be the modern liberal view and a profound misreading of history.

Truth is, whether or not the Founders were devout Christians to a man, they generally took it for granted that government had a duty to support religion. Thomas Jefferson was a deist who famously edited the Gospels to strip out references to Christ's divinity. Yet he wrote in his Notes on Virginia: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?"

The Texas State Board of Education may be wrong on some specifics, but they're right on the merits. The ideas they should be promoting are not exclusively Christian, but they are revolutionary and they're under assault. Those ideas form the basis of American citizenship, which must be renewed and cultivated with every generation. And they matter more than anything.

Joel Mathis:

How Christian were the Founders? Who cares?

Not the Founders themselves, certainly -- at least, not as it pertained to governing the new United States. They thought a lot more about slavery than religion in putting together the Constitution: The entire legislative branch was designed to let slave-owning states ensure that free states wouldn't run roughshod over them. But religion makes no appearance until the First Amendment, added four years after the main body of the Constitution had been adopted. For the Founders, religion was a legal afterthought.

The good Texans who want to shoehorn the Founders into their dream of a Christian America are working, really, to trump the rest of us who live in a secular world and are happy to keep it that way. Though Christians remain a majority of this country -- and will for the foreseeable future -- the country is too diverse to let a small number of them force their vision and version of history on the rest of us. Especially because their version of history is obviously wrong.

Remember, the Founders lived in a much less ecumenical age than we. The Catholics of Maryland thought the Puritans of Massachusetts were going to hell, and vice versa. Connecticut and Rhode Island were, in fact, founded by splinter groups that found the Massachusetts folks too stifling. If the Founding Fathers had sought to enshrine Christianity in the nation's laws, then, they would've had to answer a critical question: "Whose Christianity?" It's likely the whole project might've died in the cradle.

It's fair to say, then, that the United States exists because the Founders sidestepped the question. So the project to confer a "Christian" history upon the United States isn't merely annoying -- it's also deeply dishonest.


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