Throughout American history, Christians have sought to spread their faith and influence the nation in a way consistent with that faith. They have done this in many ways, including religious (missions, Bible societies), social (temperance, abolition, poverty-relief), and political (electing Christian leaders, voting for biblically-inspired laws).
Christians have always had the right, and even the responsibility, to apply their faith in the public square. However, many Christians have gone beyond this, and have claimed that Christianity deserves a special seat at the national table. For support, they argue that the United States is a Christian nation, with a Christian Constitution.
Their is one glaring, foundational problem with this argument:
The Constitution of the United States is not a Christian document.
Read the Constitution here, which includes the Amendments (it’s really not very long!), and consider the following:
1. There is nothing specific to Christianity mentioned in the Constitution.
2. There is no mention of any deity, much less Jesus Christ, in the Constitution. A “Creator” appeared in the Declaration of Independence from a decade earlier, but disappeared by the time the Constitution was written
3. The Constitution only mentions religion twice, and neither time has anything to do with Christianity in particular. One mention is in the First Amendment, which guarantees that Congress will “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof.” The second mention is in Article VI, and it bars the federal government from ever requiring a “religious test” as a qualification for any office. Together, these two clauses basically state that the government will not establish an official religion, and will not require anyone to profess a particular religion to participate in that government.
4. Some of the writers, framers, and signers of the Constitution rejected orthodox Christian doctrines, and/or rejected the idea that the Constitution should be a uniquely Christian document. Some who argued for Christianity having some sort of established role (like Oliver Ellsworth) were soundly defeated.
Now, I am not arguing that the Constitution is an unChristian or anti-Christian document. It is certainly true that the Constitution was born out of a western European tradition which grew out of many streams of ideas, including democracy, republicanism, commonsense philosophy, classical liberalism, and Christianity. But it was a meld, a mix, a compilation. There was not direct transition between Christianity and Constitution. Christianity was one of many influences, not the fountainhead.
So, Christians, be thankful for the Constitution of the United States. Enjoy the free exercise of your religion. Rejoice that you do not have to pass a religious test written by the government in order to serve in federal office. And by all means, exercise your faith in the public square by sharing your faith, serving the poor, and arguing for laws consistent with biblical morality. This is your right and privilege.
But don’t enlist the Constitution as a Christian document, as your second American Bible of sorts. When you do, you do damage to the document, to American history, and to your faith.
Teaser: This entire post refers specifically and purposefully to the national Constitution. In my next post, I will explore a surprising and critical issue: how the same nation which rejected establishing an official religion at the national level in 1789, simultaneously championed official religious establishments in many of the states.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)