Coffin, 7-7-2017

My Word: Did the Founders intend the United States to be a Christian nation?

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, July 7, 2017)

By James Coffin

The July 4 issue of the Orlando Sentinel contained a fascinating compendium of historic quotations in a full-page advertisement titled “God Bless America.” The ad was sponsored by Hobby Lobby, Hemispheres and Mardell stores.

The ad’s carefully selected quotations could easily lead a reader to assume that our nation’s Founders planned for the United States to be a Christian nation. The reality is far less tidy and considerably more nuanced than the quotations imply.

When in 1776 a rag-tag group of North American colonies declared their independence from Britain, our nation’s Founders had the advantage of not having to deal with all the deeply entrenched traditions of Europe. They probably had as near to a clean slate as any group of would-be nation builders ever had. It was an excellent context in which to test Enlightenment theories.

But they didn’t have a clean slate. Considerable tradition had arisen during the 156 years since the Mayflower’s arrival. And a lot of tradition had been imported holus-bolus from Europe. So the Founders’ groundbreaking ideas concerning how government could and should function weren’t mere affirmations of New World status quo.

Take, for example, the Constitution’s provision that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That was particularly radical, granted that nine of the original 13 colonies at some point had a legally designated religion.

If our nation’s Founders had wanted to make an unambiguous statement about Christianity in general being the official religion, the drafting of the Constitution provided the ideal opportunity. But they chose not to make such a statement.

Nevertheless, the Founders left little doubt about not wanting a replay of the sectarian conflicts that had wreaked havoc in European governments for centuries.

Most of our nation’s Founders had considerable respect for religion in general and Christianity in particular — especially those aspects that promoted morality and the common good. But they likewise weren’t shy about criticizing religion’s blemished record.

Even Thomas Paine made occasional positive comments about religion that, if read in isolation, would make him appear to be a card-carrying traditional believer. Which is precisely the problem posed by the selective nature of the quotations in the “God Bless America” ad: They give a false impression because they fail to share the full, complex picture.

In courts of law, not only is “the truth” important, but so is “the whole truth” — because facts, taken in isolation, can have the ring of truth but actually lead to the wrong conclusion.

I suggest that a careful assessment of all the pertinent historical data leads to the conclusion that a major reason that both Christianity and an array of non-Christian faiths have so flourished in the United States is because our nation’s Founders wisely recognized that nonsectarian government works to the advantage of all religions — and nonreligion — alike.

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