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Why the Founders Rejected Christian Nationalism & Desired a Separation Between Church & State

Many conservative Christians today want to break down the wall between church and state that the founders of our nation created in the 1790s. These individuals, known as Christian Nationalists, believe that our policies and laws should be guided by their interpretation of the Christian bible rather than science and secular notions of liberty and equality. The majority of these individuals are white evangelical Protestants who have aligned with the Republican Party in the Southeast and Great Plains states. Many advocate for a return to prayer in the public schools, reject evolution and the Big Bang theory, oppose abortion, LBGT rights, and immigration, and support a return to the traditional role of women. "Christian nationalists insist that the United States was established as an explicitly Christian nation, and they believe that this close relationship between Christianity and the state needs to be protected—and in many respects restored—in order for the U.S. to fulfill its God-given destiny. Recent scholarship underscores the extent to which these efforts to secure a privileged position for Christianity in the public square often coincide with efforts to preserve the historical status quo on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. And the practical ramifications of such views involve everything from support for laws that codify specific interpretations of Christian morality, to the defense of religious displays on public property, to nativist reactions to non-white, non-Christian immigrants."

Christian nationalists believe that the founders shared their vision of America, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that most of the founders were Christians and believed that religion was a positive force in society, but their understanding and experience with religious persecution in Europe and the colonies informed their desire for a separation between church and state in America.

Moreover, the idea of a singular "Christianity" would have seemed alien to them. They didn't view Christianity as a unified religion with minor variations as we do now. They were Baptists or Anglicans or Catholics or Quakers, and the differences between those faiths were quite meaningful to them.

Today we tend to view Christianity as one religion, one creed with some minor differences, but all part of the same tribe. That was not always the case. Europe was torn apart by religious strife for 150 years. "For nearly 150 years, the battle for “true” Christianity tore early modern Europe apart. The spiritual divisions created by the Protestant Reformation led to a series of international and domestic conflicts that caused incalculable destruction and tremendous loss of life. These conflicts ranged from international wars – including the Schmalkaldic War (1546-47), the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) – whose causes were rooted in religious differences. In between these campaigns, religious violence continued in a seemingly endless series of riots, persecutions, and massacres committed by the general populace."

Those wars eventually settled the religious boundaries within Europe, but they didn't stop the persecution of minority Christian sects within each nation which led to many fleeing to North America to establish colonies. "Anglicans, who conformed to the Church of England, populated Virginia. Massachusetts was home to the Puritans. Pennsylvania was full of Quakers. Baptists ruled in Rhode Island. And Roman Catholics found a haven in Maryland, where they could establish themselves amid the other colonists’ protestant majority. Each of these colonies maintained a distinct religious character and favored one religious denomination’s power."

Unfortunately, these sects often established colonies in the new world with their own brand of religious intolerance and American history is replete with instances of conflict between Christian sects. The whole notion of one "Christian nation" would have been baffling to our ancestors.

Smithsonian: "Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

The animosity between Christian sects continued right up to the Revolution and even after America gained its independence. "The period after the Revolutionary War saw a lot of infighting between the various states and Christian denominations. Virginia, which was home to the largest portion of Anglicans loyal to the Church of England, was the scene of notorious acts of religious persecution against Baptists and Presbyterians. Anglicans physically assaulted Baptists, bearing theological and social animosity. In 1771, a local Virginia sheriff yanked a Baptist preacher from the stage at his parish and beat him to the ground outside, where he also delivered twenty lashes with a horsewhip. Similarly, in 1778, Baptist ministers David Barrow and Edward Mintz were conducting services at the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of men rushed the stage and grabbed the two ministers, took them to the nearby Nansemond River swamp, and dunked and held their heads in the mud until they nearly drowned to death."
"The period during and soon after the Revolutionary War also saw abundant political manifestations of religious conflict. At the time, some states abolished churches, while supporting others, issued preaching licenses, and collected tax money to fund and establish state churches. Each state constitution differed in its policy on religious establishment, or state-supported religion. It would not be until well after the adoption of the Constitution of 1789 and the First Amendment religion clauses that the disestablishment for which the United States is so recognized became the de facto practice."

The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written against this historical backdrop and the founders sought to unify disparate regions with a variety of religious beliefs into a nation. So when they wrote the 1st Amendment guaranteeing religious liberty and a separation of church and state, they sought to curb the persecution of religious minorities and create a unified nation in which religion would not be divisive and in which everyone could follow their conscience. In doing so, they wanted to prevent the new federal government from legislating a specific religious ideology.

That's why the 1st Amendment of the Constitution bars our government from favoring one religion over another or mandating specific religious principles. In America, laws must have a secular purpose and a rational basis. Congress [and, after the 14th Amendment, states] can't cheery pick something out of the Bible and make it law unless they can demonstrate that it does more than satisfy a religious belief. That's why states can't mandate Christian prayer in public schools or insist that biology instructors teach their students that the Christian God created the universe in seven days.

The founders of our nation understood that mandating religious views would be divisive and they had no desire to repeat the mistakes of the past.

If you are interested in knowing more about America's religious history, you may want to read a new book by James Byrd and James Hudnut-Beumler entitled The Story of Religion in America. They are professors of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

#religion #culture #law

By: Don Lam & Curated Content

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