On July 4, Hobby Lobby, Hemispheres and Mardel Stores — as their custom has been for several years — ran a full-page advertisement in major newspapers around the country (Orlando Sentinel included) in an effort to convince readers that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
Spoiler alert: They’re wrong.
But they are tenacious. Their approach is living proof of two of the primary rules of propaganda: “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it” (Walter Langer in “A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler”).
By providing a collection of cherry-picked and decontextualized sound bites, the preparers of the ad make it appear that our founders intended the newly formed United States of America to be a Christian nation. However, a broader survey of the facts clearly precludes such a conclusion.
In the ad, John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, is quoted as saying that it’s “the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” But for Jay, the term “Christian” didn’t include Catholics.
And the single quote used from President Thomas Jefferson (chief drafter of the Declaration of Independence) implies that he saw religious fidelity as the prerequisite to liberty. But an array of comments in which Jefferson pillories religion are conveniently ignored.
“In every country and in every age,” Jefferson wrote, “the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
In his autobiography, Jefferson tells how, when someone proposed an amendment to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom calling for the inclusion of a reference to Jesus Christ, it was heartily voted down, thus ensuring that the legislation would provide protections to “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
Granted such concern for full and equal inclusion, it’s understandable why Jefferson would say: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
When the Puritans came to the new world seeking religious freedom, they didn’t share Jefferson’s expansive understanding, thus they sought religious freedom only for themselves. In the theocracy they created, religion dictated and government enforced. But the two were effectively one.
When one of their own, Roger Williams, a member of the clergy, began questioning this unholy alliance and advocating for true religious freedom, he posed such a threat to the established order that he was excommunicated and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Being in exile gave him time to expand his thinking on the relationship that should exist between religion and government, leading him to describe a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Jefferson later adapted and popularized Williams’s insightful description.
As a member of the Christian clergy, whose particular branch of Christianity is a direct descendant of the Puritans’ reprehensible theocracy, I strongly oppose the misguided efforts under way to re-establish the theocratic fiasco that my spiritual forebears embraced with such enthusiasm and that yielded such deplorable results.
As President James Madison, chief drafter of the U.S. Constitution (who was also quoted in the ad) made clear: ”The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider, one of the Three Wise Guys on the radio program Friends Talking Faith, is chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.