Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Reflections On A “Christian Nation”

Depending on your point of view, this is either the perfect time to reflect on the United States not being a Christian nation – as the evangelical right and even many ordinary Protestants and Catholics insist it is – or a total sacrilege. My hunch is that most readers here believe in the former so there’s little risk of being crucified for writing this on Easter weekend.

Last week in Turkey, Pres. Obama reminded both the world and his fellow Americans of our non-denominational heritage to explain why America is not at war with Islam. In doing so, he was reaching back to principles dating from the very settlement of the country, a concept established long before there was a United States and its remarkable Constitutional guarantee of freedom of (and from) religion. This single, revolutionary idea even pre-dates the Declaration of Independence and defines the nation as much as anything else.

Indeed, as anyone who remembers eighth grade history knows, Rhode Island was created as a sanctuary from religious intolerance. So ingrained and unheard of was this in the 1600s that 15 Jewish families made the perilous crossing from Europe in a tiny boat to flee persecution and founded the first synagogue in the “new world.” The Hebrew Congregation of Newport is still going strong, one of the oldest, continuously operating, houses of worship in the land.

Yet, somehow, evangelical fringe artists and far right Republicans – cheered on by noxious crazies Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, other assorted if less famous wacko’s and countless goofball websites – got it in its head that the US is a “Christian nation.”

It’s remarkable so many Americans have so little grasp of a premise so basic to their nation.

Jefferson The Radical

As America’s foremost early thinker, Thomas Jefferson believed in a kind of God but only to the extent that a god may have given man a complex brain to use for independent thought. But he had no use at all for the idea of Jesus, a supposed saviour born to a virgin as the son of God, a human who walked on water, fed the 5,000 and performed miracles left and right. The resurrection? To Jefferson, the whole idea was poppycock, a silly fairy tale created by Christian lunatics promoting their imaginary friend, as TV’s House puts it.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson outlines his radical view that produced the "Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom," enacted years before he wrote the Constitution: "(I)t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Hardly the intellectual basis for a Christian nation from one of the key men responsible for creating America.

A Core Right

Thus, Jefferson created a core right – along with speech, press, assembly and protest – to not just worship any way or no way a person wants but banning a state religion, de rigueur at the time in Europe even during the Age of Enlightenment. For example, Jefferson knew that the Church of England was created as a state religion solely because Henry VIII was furious at the Catholic Church for preventing him from divorcing one of his wives. It’s why heirs to the British crown are still barred from marrying a Catholic.

Jefferson wanted none of this religious phooey to infect the new nation.

Although a devoutly believing Anglican, George Washington fully agreed with Jefferson. At one point, members of Rhode Island’s Hebrew Congregation wrote the new president, pleading that they be considered citizens of the nation and not just tolerated.

Washington wrote back, “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

The synagogue’s rabbi must have been stunned as he read Washington’s letter. For 5,000 years, Jews were persecuted and here was Washington welcoming them as citizens. The congregation still proudly displays the letter behind glass, its paper yellowing and the brown ink Washington used fading with age. But the words keep ringing out loudly and clearly: The United States is not a Christian nation.

But try telling this to O’Reilly and his feigned “War on Christmas.” Explain to Limbaugh that Christianity is as important to America as Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Hottentots, atheism and worshipping trees if that’s what you want to do. Each creates an American nation. Watch Beck fake another bout of weeping when he hears that a Founding Father thought the Jesus story was dreamed up by pranksters. And if, as George Carlin believed, at death your soul goes to a garage in Buffalo, then America is also a nation of mini-warehouses stocked full of used souls somewhere in upstate New York.

Christian nation my ass.

Evangelical's Business Roots

For that matter, Christian fundamentalism is no more a part of America’s founding that any other religion despite what the Mega Church millionaire pastors preach.

The rise of evangelicalism in America was a shrewd, calculated business ploy by coal mine owners after World War I. They didn’t give much of a hoot about Christianity one way or the other but had a deep, abiding belief in stopping coal miners from drinking because it affected their work. By chance, the owners stumbled upon a teatotalling, charismatic, unordained preacher named Billy Sunday who they paid handsomely to wander through Appalachian towns, fervently sermonising against demon rum, philandering and straying from the word of the gospel.

Nearly every miner was a devout Protestant anyway so Rev. Sunday tapped easily into their belief system. And it paid off just as mining company owners hoped: While men weren’t keen about giving up whiskey and whores, their wives grabbed onto the idea and became apostates armed with brooms and frying pans. So, alcoholism among miners slowly declined as did venereal disease transmitted by the prostitutes who lurked around every mining town on pay day.

As evangelicalism took root among Protestants, it steered well clear of politics until cable television became widespread in American homes, allowing Pat Robertson & Friends, Inc., easy access to an audience – and gobs of money from unsuspecting believers – to spread their often-hate filled views of an “us and them” America.

And with the rise of media churchiness came the bizarre perversion of the US being a “Christian nation.” Now we are stuck with the ill-informed fringe claiming it to be fact.

Happy Easter, Shana Tova, Whatever.

Personally, I have no issue with anyone believing or not what they choose. My own religious upbringing was something of a hybrid, the result of a mother who had no religion herself but wanted to ensure her two children learned that how someone prayed or didn’t had nothing to do with who they are as people.

Both as an American and an individual, foisting a “Christian nation” idea on a country - and me - founded on anything but is thoroughly repugnant. A Christian nation? That’s an idea that, at its core, arose from the business-backed temperance movement of the early 20th century. If you want to believe Jesus was the son of God born to a virgin, good for you; if you think your religious friends are wasting their time talking to an imaginary friend, good for you, too.

But please stop telling me America is a Christian – or Hebrew or Moslem or Hindu or anything else religious – nation.

We are a nation of laws, of people, and of the freedom to think and practice whatever we like. But we are not a Christian nation that believes, institutionally, that Jesus Is Magic as Sarah Silverman once proclaimed. That said, Happy Easter, Shana Tova, Good Eid, a Wicked Wican Wonderland, a Portentous Pagan Picnic, or whatever else might be appropriate for you and yours this weekend.