Sunday, November 4, 2012

Is America a Christian Nation? What Focus on the Family Gets Wrong

This piece never found a home in an Iowa newspaper, so I am publishing it here.  --JF

In the last twenty-four hours many citizens of Iowa have received a brochure in the mail from CitizenLink, a political affiliate of the evangelical Christian group called Focus on the Family.  The brochure calls attention to the fact that Barack Obama does not think the United States is a Christian nation.

As an evangelical Christian, someone who has learned much about being a father and husband from Focus founder James Dobson, and an American historian, I would ask you to think twice before making a decision on Tuesday based on some of the information provided in this brochure.  My concerns with this brochure are motivated not by politics, but by the irresponsible way that groups like Focus on the Family have twisted history, particularly the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, for political gain.

While the brochure is helpful in distinguishing Obama and Romney on questions related to life, marriage, and religious freedom, it assumes that such ideas can only flourish if the United States is a Christian nation.  

The quote attributed to Barack Obama at the top of the brochure is correct.  In 2008, while running for president, he said: “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation—at least not just…We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”

What Obama meant was that we are a nation defined by religious freedom.   America belongs to everyone who abides by its laws.  The First Amendment does not support one religion over another and provides for the free exercise of religion by people of all faiths, or none at all.  

Granted, Christians today far outnumber people of other faiths, but the Founding Fathers set out to create a republic in which religious minorities could flourish.  The Founders were not interested in creating a nation built on religious “toleration.”  This implies that one religion is supported by the government or the culture and others are merely tolerated.  When translated into common language, “toleration” often means something like: “I don’t like you and your religion, but I will tolerate you.”

Religious freedom, on the other hand, implies religious equality for all.  Unfortunately, many conservatives are unwilling to accept this reality. Many of them are not yet ready to come to grips with the implications of the Immigration Act of 1965, a law that opened the doors of the United States to a host of new immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.  The Act profoundly reshaped our religious landscape.

In other words, religious liberty—an idea that the Focus on the Family brochure praises Romney for upholding—implies that the United States is not a Christian nation.  Though Romney has not blatantly proclaimed this (to do so would be a bad political move), his views on the matter are quite similar to Obama’s.  The brochure is thus misleading.

In reality, the question of whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is a difficult one to answer.  I have spent a lot of time exploring this question and have concluded that the answer is complex.  It is an issue that cannot be decided by sound-bites or campaign brochures.   

But I do think that subsequent amendments to the Constitution (such as the 14th Amendment) and later Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that the United States, as it exists today, is not a Christian nation.  

On the other hand, I think that a pretty good argument could be made for the idea that we are not a Christian nation based on the coarseness of our popular culture, our rampant materialism, our disregard for human life, and our failure to care for one another and love our neighbors.

In fact, the question of whether or not the United States is, or ever was, a Christian nation, should be irrelevant to one’s views on life, marriage or religious freedom.  Christians are to promote life, family, liberty, peace, justice, care for the creation, care for the poor, and humility in foreign affairs whether we are a Christian nation or not.

Why do Christians need the nation to be Christian, or a leader who upholds the idea that America is Christian, to live faithfully in the world?  I think I remember something about the first-century Christian church thriving amidst a Roman government that no right-minded historian would call “Christian.”


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation—at least not just…We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”"

In what way are we a Hindu nation?

That's PC pap.

Sir Phobos said...

This was refreshing to read. I typically find evangelical Christians to be of the opposite opinion, so I'm glad to see someone thinking clearly about our founding. I do have a question, though. Since you definitely understand the separation of church and state, what is your stance on issues such as abortion? I assume you're pro-life, so what arguments would you make against it that are also available to those of different faiths (including atheists)? Christians typically use the Bible and God's word as their argument against abortion, but since the government shouldn't be promoting one religious belief over another, in order to take the side of pro-life, you would need arguments based on rationality, logic, etc.

Tom Van Dyke said...

What Bible passages do Christians typically use to argue against abortion, Mr. Phobos?

Constitutional Insurgent said...

Excellent and rational piece....I'm posting it on my site.

Susanna said...

Probably one of my favorite pieces to read that you have written Prof. Fea. And even more fitting to read it on election day, thank you!

Silverfiddle said...

Officially, we are not a Christian nation. That's a given.

Still, the essayist is biased and commits the error of viewing Obama's comments in a charitable light, seeking to interpret and explain them for us, as if he knows what the president meant.

Meanwhile, he does not view Dobson's accurate quote of the president in the same light.

Go look at the brochure and then read the essay again. The author is reading in his own biases.

The pamphlet does not assert that we are a Christian nation. It contrasts two statements.

Amateur. Obamateur?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sir Phobos said...

@ Tom

As far as I know, the Bible doesn't specifically reference abortion at all. Be that as it may, plenty of Christians try to use certain words of phrases from different passages to justify their belief that God doesn't want any abortions, ever. Phrases such as "made me in the womb," "filled with the holy spirit, even in his mother's womb," "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me," are some examples. Exodus also talks about punishments for injuring an unborn child. Pope John Paul II said abortion is a "moral disorder" that is based not only on natural law, but "the written word of God."

So, I'd say plenty of Christians use it as justification without even attempting rational argument. I was simply wondering what you would say on the subject considering your (correct) view that the government should make no laws in favor of any religion.

Silverfiddle said...

Sir Phobos,
Google "Didache"

It is a first century document written during the time of the disciples who knew Jesus.

It specifically prohibits abortion.

The Bible also doesn't prohibit running someone over with a steamroller, but I'm sure God frowns upon it.

Silverfiddle said...

So, I'd say plenty of Christians use it as justification without even attempting rational argument.

You haven't been listening or looking very hard.

God forbids murder. Murder is the taking of an innocent human life.

A fetus is an innocent human life (it has a complete genome).

Therefore, killing a fetus is murder.

Sir Phobos said...

My intent wasn't to hijack the thread by getting into a back-and-forth about abortion. I was curious about the OP's (whom I confused with Tom) stance on it because of what he said in the article.

That said, Silverfiddle, I have looked. Rational argument is not just "God said ___, therefore ___ is wrong/right." My morals aren't dictated to me. They come through careful consideration of cause and effect. That's also how societies function. So if you want to enact laws for an entire society, they have to be rational, not just because God said so. That's what the article is about.