Bock

The USA: A Christian Nation or A Nation Rooted in Judeo-Christian Values?

The Episcopal church has posted a fascinating commentary by Richard Hughes giving conservative Christians a hard time for claiming that our nation was founded as a Christian nation. Clarity on this point IS important. Our Constitution does endorse religious freedom, separation of church and state, and does not provide for a state religion.

The Episcopal church has posted a fascinating commentary by Richard Hughes giving conservative Christians a hard time for claiming that our nation was founded as a Christian nation. Clarity on this point IS important. Our Constitution does endorse religious freedom, separation of church and state, and does not provide for a state religion. However, this complaint also obscures an important fact. The roots of our culture at its founding were deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian values. For citizens to consider such values as important as they vote is part of their right as citizens–and this view dates back to the time of our nation’s founders. This means one should and can distinguish between a religious test for President (best not applied) and a role for values (inevitable). In fact, all of us probably seek a candidate who we believe will govern with values that serve our nation’s interests. So let’s keep this additional distinction in mind as we discuss our country and the role of the influence of religion on people’s politics. (We have blogged on Romney and the issues his run for office raises before. Nothing we are raising here changes anything we said there, see Romney Speech on USA and Religious Liberty and Tolerance Dec 6)

For the Hughes piece, see http://www.episcopalchurch.org/80050_94466_ENG_HTM.htm

4 Comments

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    dopderbeck1

    Judeo-Christian Values?
    Darryl, I understand what you’re saying here, but….. don’t forget that the Constitution, as originally ratified, considered black people not fully human, and didn’t consider women capable of voting. Don’t forget that one of the primary purposes of the religious liberty clause in the first amendment was to protect Baptists from Presbyterians — i.e., for many of our founders, their values didn’t include tolerance of any religious diversity. The Puritans might have executed many of the DTS faculty for heresy. Don’t forget that working people enjoyed almost no protections from abusive bosses, that it was perilously easy to fall into debt, and that this often meant a horrid debtor’s prison with no hope of escape. Don’t forget that the man who wrote about the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence clipped all the miracles out of his copy of the gospels with scissors (Jefferson would have gotten along famously with the Jesus Seminar folks). And so on.

    In light of this history and much more, I don’t know how we can claim America is a nation “rooted in Judeo-Christian values.” We are rather a nation founded on a curious melange of values, including the values of 17th Century Puritans and the values of the 18th Century elite intellectual class. True, some of those values reflect Anglo Christian notions about responsibility, propriety, and property, mostly as mediated by John Locke. But the “roots” of our nation are as complex and twisted as our present branches.

    One other note — as a law professor, it baffles me that some theologians and pastors think themselves expert enough to write books about American political and Constitutional history (Darryl, I’m not picking on you or your post here at all). If I’ve learned one thing from delving into Biblical studies, it’s that the field is incredibly complex and requires special analytical tools. Not to say that I’m afraid to take a position or to comment on some particular matter after I’ve studied it — but study usually adds an appreciation for complexity that tempers my positions and comments. I think pastors in training should be required to take some kind of class in epistemic humility.

  • Avatar

    bock

    Judeo-Christian Values? dlb

    Dear Prof:

    What do you think the point was in distinguishing between the claim of a Christian nation (often made by Christians) and a nation rooted in Judeo-Christian values but to suggest that our roots are complex, more complex than we give credit. If you had checked an earlier blog on John Meacham’s book on the gospel in America, you’d also see that some of the very points you make I have made before on this site. Yes, the values at the roots of America, especially in our national documents, are mediated and mixed, but the need for checks and balances, for example, was because sin was seen as corrupting people so that power should be divided. If we look before the founding of the nation and why many people came, those values are even more prominent, even touching the founding of many of our universities. They certainly are a part of the American mix. Part of my point was that God has been a part of the American public square from very early on (And, yes, I was a history major in the University). So I believe the point I made here is still on point.

    dlb

    • Avatar

      dopderbeck1

      Checks and Balances and Locke
      Hey, it’s Dave, no need to be so formal! I didn’t intend to be so argumentative. But I am deeply concerned about the amateur political theory I so often hear from our pulpits.

      So, maybe I’m wordsmithing too much, but “rooted in” seems very different to me than “roots include.” Absolutely, our national roots include Christian influences. But I’d argue that our nation is not “rooted in” Christian values as if Christian values are the very soil from which America has grown. To me that’s a very different kind of claim.

      As to the specific example of checks and balances — that’s very interesting. I’m not so sure it’s correct to say that the Constitutional system of checks and balances reflects a specifically Christian notion of sin. I’d suggest that the influences of Montesquieu in particular here is more rooted in Enlightenment values of individual liberty than in Christian concerns about sin. The primary value for Montesquieu is that people should be free to govern themselves. Concentrating governmental authority in one place facilitates tyranny, meaning that people are not free to govern themselves. The separation of powers, then, specifically responds to the Christian notion of the Divine Right of Kings.

      It’s true that Locke’s version of liberty and separation of governmental powers is more particularly rooted in Christian themes, but we might question whether Locke’s belief that individual liberty could best reflect the state of Nature involved an adquate understanding of sin. It’s also true that some of the founders, such as John Adams, probably had a deeper Puritan-informed notion of sin with respect to governmental powers. So again, interesting and tangled roots.

  • Avatar

    bock

    Checks and Balances dlb

    Dave:

    Nice response. Yes, checks and balances had a tangled web as well. Thanks for the details. I had Locke in mind, to a lesser extent someone like Adams. The mix of Christian and Enlightenment values, especially in those who mixed the two together with a high element of commitment, is probably a common combination in the national building period.

    dlb