What Does it Mean to Make America “Christian?”

In light of the Public Polling Institute survey indicating that 57% of Republicans would like to see Christianity established as the national religion of the United States, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig asks what particular kind of Christianity might be selected as the national religion if that 57% had its way–which denomination, which doctrines? Or, she continues, would we get a big-tent Christianity that amounts to a national profession of faith? Bruenig wisely points out that nationalization of Christian denominations always ends up diluting the denomination. But the latter option is much closer to what these Republicans actually want: an explicit, public proclamation of America as a Christian nation, without any of that sectarian stuff tacked on. Because they imagine Christianity to be set apart from denominational differences.

This desire has a long history. For a century after the Civil War, the National Reform Association (NRA) campaigned to have a “Christian Amendment” added to the Constitution. They saw the lack of a reference to the deity in the Constitution as either a mistake or the result of the influence of atheistic French philosophy on the framers. Initially, the NRA wanted to add language to the preamble:

“We, the People of the United States [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all], in order to form a more perfect union…”

The NRA managed to get this proposed amendment before Congress on numerous occasions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although it seldom got far in the legislative process. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on it in 1879, but then it stayed out of debate until 1954, when Vermont senator Ralph Flanders introduced the following as a joint resolution:

Section 1: This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.

Section 2: This amendment shall not be interpreted so as to result in the establishment of any particular ecclesiastical organization, or in the abridgment of the rights of religious freedom, or freedom of speech and press, or of peaceful assemblage.

Section 3: Congress shall have power, in such cases as it may deem proper, to provide a suitable oath or affirmation for citizens whose religious scruples prevent them from giving unqualified allegiance to the Constitution as herein amended.

The first section is, of course, the key element of the amendment. The other two sections comprise language intended to fend off challenges to its compatibility with the First Amendment. Note that the reference to “establishment” mentions only the establishment of an “ecclesiastical organization.” The Christian Amendment supporters were very much in favor of reestablishing Christianity, which, in their estimation, was not the same as establishing a religion.The third section illustrates that the NRA had some begrudging awareness of the realities of post-war religious pluralism, but also betrays their naïveté regarding the willingness of non-Christians to be relegated to second-class citizenship. The amendment would have divided the citizenry into those who could and those who could not give the Constitution unqualified allegiance.

At the subcommittee hearing, the Christian Amendment supporters argued that the amendment was by nature non-sectarian. In their view, since it would favor no particular denomination, the official recognition of Jesus Christ’s authority in the Constitution would not constitute an establishment of religion.

Two fundamental and common assumptions about religion and the nation inform this argument. First, there is the assumption that America has been a Christian nation since its founding—actually in its citizenry and implicitly in its laws. Second, there is the vernacular equation of “religion” in the First Amendment with “denomination,” or in the language of the amendment, “ecclesiastical organization.” Together, these assumptions produce a worldview that allows for interpreting the establishment clause as prohibiting only the establishment of any particular institutionalized form of Christianity. Other forms of religion do not enter into the calculation—this interpretation is concerned with avoiding the sort of sectarianism that existed in seventeenth century England. It does not recognize the realties of modern religious pluralism. Viewing the First Amendment in this fashion creates a rhetorical space in which arguing for legal enshrinement of Christianity is believed to be perfectly consistent with religious freedom, as when Bill O’Reilly claimed on his program of November 28, 2012 that Christianity is not a religion, but a philosophy, and thus not subject to the establishment clause.

The NRA saw the Christian Amendment to be immediately necessary because they believed the hegemony of the de facto Christian government to be threatened by the secular world, personified for them at that time by Soviet Communism. The Cold War preoccupation with the atheistic character of Soviet Communism was pervasive in American culture, but the NRA saw the threat as more than merely temporal. The de jure secular government of the United States would not be sufficient to repel the advance of global Marxism; according to the NRA, only by “bring[ing] to bear the whole weight of our Christian conceptions and traditions” could the United States prevail. Otherwise, said R. E. Robb on behalf of the NRA, the nation would face the “cataclysmic and final battle between good and evil, between Christ and Satan.” Amending the Constitution to recognize divine law would therefore shield the nation from the armies of both the Soviet Union and Satan. It would set a precedent not only in the realm of federal jurisprudence, but also in a transcendent sense. The ratification of the amendment could prevent the apocalypse itself.

Today, the godless communism of the Soviets has been knocked from its position of bogeyman number one by Islam. Those who would conflate Americanism and Christianity are unsatisfied with the hegemonic privilege Christians enjoy in America. The NRA was constantly afraid that its privilege might The same concern is in effect today in the many attempts by state and local governments to ban sharia law, or the blowback from the contraception mandate: an “embattled majority,” to use Jason Bivins’s term, fights to codify the privilege that, while implicit in the culture and much of the law, has been eroded by two centuries of Constitutional interpretation. For them, the “Christianity” they want as the national religion amounts to fighting words: fighting against the unbelievers in their midst, and fighting a spiritual war against the forces of Satan.

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