Setting McCain Straight

Ken AshfordGodstuff1 Comment

Just yesterday, I wrote about how Christian conservatives were toying with the notion of supporting a third party candidate for President in ’08, having failed to find a righteous enough Republican candidate.

But that was before McCain’s now-infamous interview with BeliefNet, in which the senator said, “I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”

Depite the obvious pandering (seven years ago, McCain dismissed the religious right as “agents of intolerance”), McCain is now reaping the some praise from the religious right.

On the other hand, he’s also generating criticism from the Anti-Defamation League.

The Anti-Defamation League is calling on Senator McCain to “reconsider and withdraw” his comment over the weekend that the Constitution established America as a “Christian nation.”

The move suggests that a statement of clarification that the Arizona senator’s presidential campaign issued on Sunday did not succeed in defusing anger over his remarks in an interview with

“We urge you to reconsider and withdraw your statements describing the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ and a ‘nation founded on Christian principles,’” the national director of the Jewish advocacy group, Abraham Foxman, wrote in a letter to Mr. McCain yesterday. “Not only were your assertions inaccurate, they were also ill-advised for any candidate seeking to lead a nation as religiously diverse and pluralistic as ours.”

But let’s get to the larger question: Is McCain right?  Did the founding fathers create a "Christian nation"?

The short answer is "no".

Bible-thumping propagandists like to point out that our founding fathers were religious men, and their writings and speeches often paid reverence and respect to God.

That point is largely undisputable, although to be scrupulously accurate, many of them were not as reverant to the notions of Christianity as some might think.  Jefferson, after all, rewrote the Bible (supposedly "the word of God") to suit how he believed it should read.  The Jefferson Bible did away with all the miracles of Jesus (which Jefferson found silly), as well as the resurrection (ditto).  Not exactly the kind of thing that would endear him to evangelicals if he were around today.  Other founding fathers were Deists and Unitarians — hardly what you could call "evangelical" (and indeed, many present-day Christians would hesitate to call those beliefs "Christian".

But let’s shelve that, and simply assume that the founding fathers were (to some degree or another) Christian in the broad sense of the word.  Does that mean that they intended this to be a "Christian nation"?  Of course not.  After all the founding fathers were all white and male.  Anyone want to make the case that they intended the United States to be a "white male" nation?

Indeed, just because John Adams or George Washington quoted from the Bible does not mean they were trying to construct a Christian nation.

But to the modern day religious right, it is inconceivable that a person who adheres to the "Christian" faith can, without contradiction, support and promote a secular society/government which allows for a plethora of religious beliefs.  (You see this as well in the abortion debate as well — to a conservative Christian, a person who opposes abortions personally can never ever be "pro-choice" — despite the fact that at least half of all Americans are this way).

Yet this is precisely how our founding fathers were: believers in the Christian doctrine who believed that government should not endorse or promote religion.  Yes, it’s true — you can be Christian and still believe that government should not be evangelical.

It’s really quite simple — if you want to know that the founding fathers intended for this country, just look at the founding documents that they wrote.  And the Constitution, which is the framework for this country, says it quite plainly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Now, if YOU were forming a "christian nation", are those the words you would use?

Of course, that was in the Bill of Rights.  At the actual constitutional convention (where the body of the original Constitution was drawn up), the only reference to religion was in Article VI, Section 3, which stated that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Now if the delegates at the convention had truly intended to establish a "Christian nation," why would they have put a statement like this in the constitution and nowhere else even refer to religion? Common sense is enough to convince any reasonable person that if the intention of these men had really been the formation of a "Christian nation," the constitution they wrote would have surely made several references to God, the Bible, Jesus, and other accouterments of the Christian religion.  Rather than expressly forbidding ANY religious test as a condition for holding public office in the new nation, it would have stipulated that allegiance to Christianity was a requirement for public office.

Clearly, the founders of our nation intended government to maintain a neutral posture in matters of religion. Anyone who would still insist that the intention of the founding fathers was to establish a Christian nation should review a document written during the administration of George Washington. Article 11 of the Treaty with Tripoli declared in part that "the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…"  President Adams (the second President) signed the treaty, which has the full force and effect of law.

If that doesn’t end the debate (and sadly, it won’t), nothing will.