Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian Nationalist?
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jul 04, 2006 at 09:22:10 PM EST
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After the family gathering; after the picnic, after the fireworks, it is worth considering something. It is something about the way that the so called culture war, is partly a struggle over American history.  

On this Independence Day, the day we mark to celebrate the launch of the revolutionary new nation -- let us recall that leaders of the religious right use the Declaration to justify their ideology of Christian nationalism.  "Ugh," you may think to yourself. "I really don't want to think about that."  

But hey, chill.  I have good news.  I know we could think of this as part of a revolting parade of horrors that never seem to stop. But there is another way of looking at it:

The reason they are trying to hijack the Declaration -- is because they are desperate.  

Yup. You read that right.

They do this out of political desperation. In fact that is part of what I said in rebuttal to D. James Kennedy who invoked the Declaration in support of his claim that America was founded as a Christian nation in our appearance on National Public Radio's Fresh Air last year.  

The problem they face is that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the history of these documents; the documents that form the foundational legal framework of our nation do not support their claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.  

While there is an entire industry that promotes Christian historical revisionism, in the end, weaknesses of thier argument are evident. Christian right theorist Gary North, who holds a legitimate doctorate in American history has written explicitly on the point; that Article VI is "a legal barrier to Christian theocracy" that led "directly to the rise of religious pluralism."  North recognizes that the ratification of the Constitution was "a judicial break from Christian America."

Therefore, propagandists resort to two main tactics. One is to cherry pick quotes from various of the founding fathers (often out of context, sometimes fabricated), that tend to support their view.  The other is to cite the Declaration of Independence, which invokes the "Creator" and "nature's God."  Given the importance of the Declaration in our history, and the way we revere the document, it is a shrewd choice. But as powerful a role as it played in our history, and in our national identity, it is a document with no constitutional or legal signficance.

Written in 1776 the document was a revolutionary manifesto used to rally people to rise up in revolt against the king of England. As such, it is unsurprising that it invokes the deity, while being very cagey about the nature of the deity.  The story of the Declaration at the web site of the National Archives, gives the invocation of "Nature's God," no emphasis, however.

The Declaration...  asserted a universal truth about human rights in words that have inspired downtrodden people through the ages and throughout the world to rise up against their oppressors.

Jefferson was not aiming at originality. The Declaration articulates the highest ideals of the Revolution, beliefs in liberty, equality, and the right to self-determination. Americans embraced a view of the world in which a person's position was determined, not by birth, rank, or title, but by talent, ability, and enterprise. It was a widely held view, circulated in newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, and schoolbooks;

Still if Kennedy were correct, that the framers of the Constitution were set on a course of Christian nationalism, surely, when the framers, some of whom were also signers of the Declaration, would have made it a centerpiece of the Constitution. But, umm, no.

The Constitution, written in 1787, makes no mention of God or of Christianity. The only mention of religion in the text is in Article 6, which states that there shall be no religious tests for public office. This meant that citizenship would be based on religious equality.  If there was no religious test for public office, then obviously there would be no religious tests for citizenship either.  Simply put, you can't have a Christian nation, if people of any religion or no religion are eligible to hold public office.

Two years later, the  Bill of Rights, of which the famous First Amendment is a part, was passed by the first Congress and sent to the states for ratification. This further clarified the matter of religion in public life. It was Article 6, followed by the First Amendment, that led to the disestablishment of the official state churches.   Prior to the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, we had 13 little Christian nations. These were overthrown by the people and their elected representatives.    

For the first time in the history of the world there was a nation based on religious equality.

The Constitution was written and approved by some of the same men (and many of their closest colleauges) who wrote and signed the Declaration. If they had wanted to include God and Christianity in the nation's charter, they certainly could have done so. But they didn't, and for very good reasons. And this is the problem faced by the Christian nationalists. The Constitution and everything about its history and development belies the assertions of the Christian nationalists. They did not invoke God or declare a Christian nation, it starts out simply, "We the People of the United States" -- no deities, no higher law.

There would only be what "we the people" decided would be our laws and our governing principles; and how they would evolve over time.

So, friends. That is why the Christian Right invokes the Declaration to anchor their argument. They have no choice, and they are that desperate. And all too often, they get away with it.

Now let's go back and consider D.James Kennedy, the founder of Coral Ridge Ministries, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida -- the hub of a large political, religious and broadcasting empire.

In a press release, issued in response to a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court last year that declared a display of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse in Kentucky to be unconstitutional,  Kennedy railed:  

Our nation came into being because we acknowledged God. Independence, the Founders said, was something to which they were entitled by "the laws of nature and of nature's God." Without the public acknowledgement of God, who is mentioned four times in the Declaration of Independence, America would not exist.

Nor would we be endowed with inalienable rights without a Creator. Those inalienable rights, by the way, are guaranteed in the Ten Commandments.... Do away with the Ten Commandments and you do away with our inalienable rights.

This Court has not only abandoned the text of the Constitution, it has forsaken and forbidden the historic recognition of God in American law and public life. It has placed itself above the people, above the Constitution, and above God.

Look at the slippery way that  Kennedy tries to shoe horn the idea that the mention of God in the revolutionary manifesto of 1776 means that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American law in the Constitution, written in 1787.  Hmm. The framers were smart guys. you'd think they might have said something about that. What does Kennedy know that James Madison, George Mason, and John Adams did not?

Here is what Rob Boston wrote in a 1999 profile in Church & State magazine:

What does Kennedy think about the separation of church and state? He doesn't like it. Kennedy's 1994 book, Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search of Its Soul, is riddled with attacks on the constitutional principle. Among other things, Kennedy calls church-state separation "diabolical," a "false doctrine" and "a lie" propagated by Thomas Jefferson... "This phrase does not appear in the United States Constitution at all, but in Article 52 of the Constitution of the Soviet Union -- now the Soviet disunion. Defunct, because they tried to get rid of God."

A 1996 Kennedy tome, The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail: The Attack On Christianity And What You Need To Know To Combat It, coauthored with Jerry Newcombe, calls the wall of separation a "great deception [that] has been used to destroy much of the religious freedom and liberty this country has enjoyed since its inception."

Kennedy asserts that although the United States was once a "Christian nation," that is no longer the case because today "the hostile barrage from atheists, agnostics, and other secular humanists has begun to take a serious toll on that heritage. In recent years, they have built up their forces and even increased their assault upon all our Christian institutions, and they have been enormously successful in taking over the 'public square.' Public education, the media, the government, the courts, and even the church in many places, now belong to them."

This stuff is consistent with the religious right's frame of the past few decades of blaming -- usually unnamed -- "secular humanists" for a everything they see wrong under the sun, and in this instance taking over the government.  

Here is what D. James Kennedy has to say about America as a Christian nation. It sure doesn't sounds much like the universal principles of human rights written into the Declaration by that liar Thomas Jefferson and the others he reverently invokes when the ocasion suits him.  

"As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government ... our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors -- in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

So on this Independence Day, I am thinking of people like D. James Kennedy, the avuncular demagogue of Christian nationalism, and his theocratic cohort who are attempting to hijack history.  Invoking the Declaration of Independence to justify Christian nationalism, is a backdoor way of saying that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian nationalist.

And I wonder, will we let them do it?

The flames kindled on the Fourth of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.


by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Jul 04, 2006 at 09:25:46 PM EST

In his last sermon broadcast on the Coral Ridge Hour, Dr. Kennedy claimed that the Bible, more than the Constitution, is our nation's founding document (see it here).  Maybe this is the newest twist for Dominionists to claim that America is a "Christian Nation."  What do you think?

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Wed Jul 05, 2006 at 06:54:52 PM EST

It's great to know how dedicated Christian Nationalists are to the actual teachings of Jesus.

Jesus was a well-known supporter of state-sanctioned religion in the Roman empire.

by Tenoch on Wed Jul 05, 2006 at 10:31:27 PM EST

The Theocon/Neocon folks like to cite the use of "virtue" as proof that the Founding Fathers wanted a nation built upon Christian principles. The only problem with that, as Garry Wills observed, is that Madison in the Federalist Papers were drawing from Montesquieu's L'Esprit which was discussing secular, not religious vitrue.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Jul 07, 2006 at 07:27:00 PM EST

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