Coffin 7-10-2012

My Word: Is the United States a Christian nation?

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, July 10, 2012)

By James Coffin

The Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday published a full-page advertisement featuring highly selective quotations from historic Americans declaring the United States to be a Christian nation. The content should have been right up my alley.

You see, I believe in God. Strongly. I’m also a Christian. A clergyman. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to strengthen the faith of Christians and trying to portray Christianity in such appealing terms that others will check it out. So when it comes to God and Christianity, I don’t need convincing.

But I still felt uneasy when I read the collection of quotations — because I happen to know quite a few highly moral citizens who subscribe to a non-Christian faith, or to no faith at all. I’m trying to figure out how they fit into the Christian-nation picture painted by the quotations.

Undeniably, our Founding Fathers were Protestant. Of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, only one was Catholic. He was privileged to be included, because when the colony of Georgia received its charter in 1732, Catholics, and Jews, were excluded from its territory.

Irish immigrants weren’t mistreated in the Northeast just because they were Irish. It was because they were Catholic. So if we label the U.S. a Christian nation, should we treat Jews, Muslims and Buddhists the way Catholics were treated by those who considered it a Protestant nation? As recently as 52 years ago, we were still engaged in a national debate about whether any Catholic should be president.

What was the purpose of the page of quotations? Was it to make non-Christians feel unwelcome? Unworthy?

What are the practical implications of claiming to be a Christian nation? Should we keep non-Christian immigrants from entering our country? Should they not be allowed to build houses of worship?

Should non-Christians not be able to run for public office? Should all children be required to study Christian doctrine in public schools? Should all private schools be forced to teach Christianity?

No one is arguing about our nation’s having been founded primarily by Christians or our current national statistics regarding religious adherence. But there’s a huge difference between being a nation with a super-majority of Christians and claiming to be a Christian nation. One merely describes demographics; the other plays footsie with theocracy.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.