The Constitution is Christian?

That’s what John McCain said last week on Belief.net. And that’s what a recent email said that my mom forwarded from Tennessee which also claimed that Barack Obama is Muslim (nothing like some mean Christians who slander in Christian love). That email stated, among other outrageous things, that the “Constitution is founded on biblical principles.”

I teach the Constitution, its history and its interpretation. I can not find any biblical principle in the Constitution. I find no reference to the Christian religion in it. I can find no history that would indicate that its founders thought of it as a religious document. It is not antithetical to Christianity — well, except that it is also pro-slavery in its original form — but it certainly was not meant to reflect Christian principles or biblical ideas.

Jon Meecham, the editor of Newsweek, does a great job of responding to McCain’s statement in his op-ed in the NY Times today:

Mr. McCain repeated what is an article of faith among many American evangelicals: “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” According to Scripture, however, believers are to be wary of all mortal powers. Their home is the kingdom of God, which transcends all earthly things, not any particular nation-state. … In fact, there is no distinction if you believe Peter’s words in the Acts of the Apostles: “I most certainly believe now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is welcome to him.”

The kingdom Jesus preached was radical. Not only are nations irrelevant, but families are, too: he instructs those who would be his disciples to give up all they have and all those they know to follow him. [The editor of Newsweek understands the current idolization of “the family” in evangelical churches is as unChristian as nationalism, and I am glad he mentioned this here].

The only acknowledgment of religion in the original Constitution is a utilitarian one: the document is dated “in the year of our Lord 1787.” Even the religion clause of the First Amendment is framed dryly and without reference to any particular faith. The Connecticut ratifying convention debated rewriting the preamble to take note of God’s authority, but the effort failed.

While many states maintained established churches and religious tests for office — Massachusetts was the last to disestablish, in 1833 — the federal framers, in their refusal to link civil rights to religious observance or adherence, helped create a culture of religious liberty that ultimately carried the day.

Andrew Jackson resisted bids in the 1820s to form a “Christian party in politics.” Abraham Lincoln buried a proposed “Christian amendment” to the Constitution to declare the nation’s fealty to Jesus. Theodore Roosevelt defended William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, from religious attacks by supporters of William Jennings Bryan.

The founders were not anti-religion. Many of them were faithful in their personal lives, and in their public language they evoked God. They grounded the founding principle of the nation — that all men are created equal — in the divine. But they wanted faith to be one thread in the country’s tapestry, not the whole tapestry.

In the 1790s, in the waters off Tripoli, pirates were making sport of American shipping near the Barbary Coast. Toward the end of his second term, Washington sent Joel Barlow, the diplomat-poet, to Tripoli to settle matters, and the resulting treaty, finished after Washington left office, bought a few years of peace. Article 11 of this long-ago document says that “as the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” there should be no cause for conflict over differences of “religious opinion” between countries.

The treaty passed the Senate unanimously. Mr. McCain is not the only American who would find it useful reading.”

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