Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Christian Nation? I Don’t Think So

Christian conservatives love to spout sayings like the “United States is a Christian nation” and “since our national motto is ‘In God We Trust’ it proves that we are a nation founded on the Bible,” etc. This is logical rubbish, of course, since the words God, Bible, Ten Commandments, etc., appear nowhere in the founding documents, specifically the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. Where do they get these ideas? Well, partly, there’s a reading dysfunction going on here, there’s an element of wishful thinking, and there’s a great deal of ignorance about just who the authors of these documents were in regard of their understanding of philosophy and politics, as well as a lack of appreciation of their being in the midst of a paradigm shift in the relationship between governments and the governed. Of course, a lot of them are just shit heads.

To take a single example, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson pens the phrase “Nature’s God…” This is not a reference to a benevolent sky-god or gods; as a man of the Enlightenment, and classically educated, Jefferson was referring to the concept of natural powers inherent in the universe and to man as a creature of that universe. Try to explain that concept to a Bible-thumper. Jefferson himself was often accused of being an atheist, but as a rational man, he was willing to let others believe whatever they wanted, as long as they weren’t pushy about it. Theologically, he was a deist, and he rejected the concept that rights were “granted” from a sky god. To him, as well as to the other Founding Fathers, all men’s rights are inherent and rationally demonstrable and arise as a result of the natural order of the created universe. Jefferson also famously wrote, “The United States is in no wise a Christian nation.”

Again, the thrust of the Declaration is to proclaim that the rights of man are inherent in the man, in and of themselves, and to declare their intention to establish a nation founded on rational principals, for enumerated reasons. Jefferson, and all the political thinkers at that time, went out of their way to hammer home that the United States government was to be secular, deriving its power from the “consent of the governed,” and not from any authority in the sky or anyone sitting on any throne.

Contrary to popular belief, the United States had no "official" motto for almost two hundred year after its founding. The United States got along just swell with a couple of widely-used de facto official mottos, the first being “Novus Ordo Seculorum” or “A new order in (or of) the world.” This is a reference to the paradigm shift of authority from top-down government to bottom-up and a reinforcement of the concept of the denial of government’s powers accruing from divine authority. The phrase is ascribed to either Ben Franklin or Tom Jefferson.

We do know that "E Pluribus Unum" has a long well-established claim as being the unofficial official motto of the United States. The other original motto was “Annuit Coeptus” or “Always watchful.” Sounds to me like they were telling us to be on our guard against people who would have us stamp meaningless slogans like “In God We Trust” on our currency. This gem was the wish-fulfillment of the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P Chase, who pestered members of Congress endlessly, and, as it was thought mostly harmless, they allowed Chase to print the slogan on US currency. The law making it the "official" motto of the US wasn't passed until July, 1955. Congress uses alternately "In God We trust" and "E Pluribus Unum," but what do they know?"

The Founding Fathers are all dead, but it is doubtful they would have permitted a religious slogan on official US documents, although they might have appreciated the irony of its usage on our cash.

So beware of people who tell you that the official motto is “In God We Trust.” It is only one of four, and a Johnny-come-lately at that.


Ralph said...


That is a very cool post. Are you a historian? It's the most concise, cogent refutation of "Christian nation" I've read. It deserves wider exposure. I didn't even know that Jefferson was an atheist. Great news. Throw it in the face of those... um, stay polite, Ralph... those not-very-smart people who think Jesus inseminated the whole thing.

Ralph Dratman

Bill said...

Nice post Randy. I have mostly given up trying to defend religious freedom and the seperation of church and state to my Christian relatives and friends. For some reason the facts in this case don't seem to penetrate. It is nice to see such a well constructed argument as yours. I will try to carry some of this into my next encounter.