Tuesday, July 8, 2008

U.S. State Religion?

I found this website via a commenter at my blog. Having read through the material, I'm of the opinion that it's a carefully constructed argument based on a number of false assumptions. Such assumptions lead to faulty conclusions. I'll offer some quotes, followed by commentary:

The "...government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion...", according to Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli on November 4, 1796, and passed by the United States Congress.

Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S.A. Constitution states: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land...".

With "religion" defined as "belief in God or gods" (first definition, 1977 World Book Dictionary), the existence of an official U.S.A. state religion is evident from the word "God" found

(1) in the U.S.A. Declaration of Independence,
(2) in the U.S.A. Pledge of Allegiance,
(3) on the U.S.A. coins,
(4) in the U.S.A. national motto,
(5) in the U.S.A. national anthem, and
(6) in the opening of each session of the U.S.A. Supreme Court.

First, let me point out that the "Treaty of Peace and Friendship" was a diplomatic act; sometimes diplomacy leads to exaggerations or attempts at alleviating concerns of the opposing party. In other words, sometimes people present an inaccurate portrait of beliefs or values as a calming effect. I may not agree with such duplicity, but we all know it happens. ". . .not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. . ."? Please. All one needs do is read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to be disabused of that notion. Second, I believe the assurances in Article 11 were of the nature that the U.S.A. isn't a theocracy, like the Barbary States. This is true. Third, the possibility exists that the controversial portion of Article 11 is a mistranslation or a paraphrase. Fourth, Article 11 doesn't exist in the above form in the Arabic text of the Treaty. Fifth, an 1800 State Department review of the English translation described it as "extremely erroneous." Incidentally, the Pasha of Tripoli rendered the Treaty null and void, when he declared war on the United States in 1801. So right away we have a premise built on shifting sands.

Constitutionally speaking, if treaties become the "law of the land," they lose that position when later nullified.

As to the characterization of "religion," the word usually is more expansive in its definition than mere belief in deities. Furthermore, recognition of God's existence isn't the equivalent of a state religion.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, long after the nation's founding, and the words, "under God," came later, still, in 1954. "In God we trust" didn't appear on U.S. coinage until 1864, and became the national motto in 1956. Though "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written in 1814, it didn't become the national anthem until 1931.

To summarize the author's first two assertions: the U.S.A. isn't a Christian nation, but it does have a state religion.

The Declaration of Independence, which has not been rescinded by Congress and is still in effect today, endorses Thomas Jefferson’s god for entitlement of Congress to their rights. Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence.

This is like saying that Paul wrote the New Testament: it's simplistic, and only half-true. The Declaration was a statement of the Continental Congress. Each of its members played a role in what went into the document, and what was excised or excluded from it. Congress commissioned Jefferson as its author, due to his unique flair in turning a phrase. Congress had the final say on the document's completion. In fact, Jefferson objected when the other members took his wording and added conspicuous references to God, which he had neglected including. They noted his objection and overruled him, and so we have the Declaration with which we're so familiar. Jefferson deserves credit as its author, with the stipulation that he spoke for a whole group of people, not just himself.

Adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence provides the following doctrine of the U.S.A. state religion:

(1) the Laws of "Nature’s God" entitled Congress to certain rights;
(2) all men are endowed by their "Creator" with certain unalienable rights;
(3) the Representatives of the U.S.A., in General Congress, Assembled, appealed to the "Supreme Judge of the world" for the rectitude of their intentions;
(4) the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged with a firm reliance on the protection of "divine Providence"; and,
(5) the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged to each other their "sacred Honor".

So recognition of God's existence, his creation of Man, and his endowment of Man with certain inherent rights is a religion? Really? Which religion?

The state religion of the United States of America is a religion with belief in Thomas Jefferson’s god. Thomas Jefferson was a deist. See The Deist Roots of the United States of America by Robert L. Johnson.

Here, we get into the nitty-gritty of the author's beliefs. His third assertion is that the U.S. is a deist country. But of course, this tortured conclusion rests on the presumption that Jefferson spoke for himself in the Declaration, rather than serving as mouthpiece for a committee. Was the average Continental Congressman a deist? No, most were devout, orthodox Christians.

Thomas Jefferson denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and the miracles that Jesus Christ performed as recorded in the King James Bible.

Sad but true.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter that the following are "artificial systems" "invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him" (Jesus of Nazareth): "The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy".

Here's where Jefferson fell into error. How can one be "ultra-Christian?" One is either Christian, or un-Christian. He's right about the immaculate conception, corporeal presence in the Eucharist, and Hierarchy (assuming he's addressing the Catholic concept), and wrong about everything else, as an honest reading of the New Testament attests. It's unfortunate that--were he alive, today--he'd make a fine candidate for the Jesus Seminar.

Thomas Jefferson’s definition of a "real Christian" is different than many other people’s definition of a "real Christian". Thomas Jefferson was a disciple of the doctrines of the Jesus of the Jefferson Bible but not a disciple of the doctrines of the Jesus of the King James Bible.

Notice how the author seems to be basing his understanding of America's religious character on the mistaken beliefs of one man: Thomas Jefferson. Why should I, as a Christian, care how a deist who rejected Christ's divinity defines a "real" Christian? Yes, he admired Jesus as a moral instructor. And yes, he denied Him as our Creator and Savior. Unless you believe that Jefferson was the Prime Mover of the Founders, or is representative of the typical Framer's religious views, I don't see how this is a compelling or even relevant point, though I agree that it's an accurate picture of his views.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...". The First Amendment, signed in 1789, in effect stated that the existing U.S.A. state religion could not be changed. In 1789 and after 1789, Congress could make no law respecting an establishment of a U.S.A. state religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of a U.S.A. state religion, according to the First Amendment. The U.S.A. state religion was already established as of July 4, 1776, when Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

That's a tortured explanation of the First Amendment. The Framers wanted a non-theocratic government, one in which no denomination of Christianity rose to prominence over others, with state approval. The author's claim is that the First Amendment enshrined the very eventuality that it prohibited.

I see the author's argument as a house of cards. One slight breeze, and the whole thing comes a-tumblin' down.

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