Founded as a Christian Nation
A House candidate in my state aspires to overturn the separation of church and state. This is a Christian country, she proclaims, and Christians must rise up and take control. She is not alone in seeing the United States as particularly favored by God—a new Israel, a chosen people.
What would a Christian nation be like?
As Catholics, it’s hard not to like this idea. What if God were proclaimed at every public gathering? What if abortion were to be outlawed at the federal level once and for all? What if faith and moral conviction were made a qualification for political leadership? What if we could shut down businesses on Sundays once again, setting it aside as the Lord’s Day?
This, of course, would include all the kids’ sports events now held on Sundays, which draw people away from church. It would mean that coaches would once again respect Wednesday night as church night. (I say this as a D.R.E., who fought coaches for a night when we could hold our youth religious ed classes.)
We could have prayer in schools once again, and schools could hold Christmas programs that actually feature music about the nativity of Jesus. Kids could learn traditional Christmas carols once more.
Lessons from History
But wait a minute! Schools used to do all of these things. The Bible was taught in public schools in the early decades of the 20th Century. Those were the years when Catholics in our small town had to build a Catholic school to give our kids a safe place to learn, when the Ku Klux Clan was burning crosses on our church lawn. That was when some of our kids were from Irish families, and from Italian and Latino descent, and not entirely welcome in the public school.
These are policies a Christian government of yesteryear would have supported (not KKK terrorism, of course), and Catholics may or may not have rallied behind them. Catholics certainly were not supportive of prohibition, the last vestiges of which caused liquor stores to be closed on Sundays.
No, today’s Christian America would focus on the culture war issues, I suspect. We would revisit same-sex marriage, abortion, birth control, assisted suicide, issues the Church would be glad to see opposed. Would this Christian country then also welcome the stranger and the oppressed, as the prophets have called us to do; as the Catholic Church commands in its doctrine of Social Justice?
In this more ecumenical Christian environment of today’s America, we sometimes forget that Christians came to this country to escape persecution by other Christians in their former homes. These were the Puritans, fleeing the hostile rulers James I and Charles I. Huguenots, French Protestants, came here to get away from Catholic persecution by King Henri IV.
Maryland was settled in 1634 by English Catholics under First Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, as a refuge from religious persecution in England. Unfortunately, their security ended in 1650 with the Puritan rebellion. Puritans took over the colony, banning Catholics and Anglicans. It was not until 1658 that the Calverts regained power and allowed religious freedom.
If we look honestly at the history of those times, we will see why our founding fathers included the First Amendment in the Constitution. Freedom of religion means freedom from persecution for your religious practice, freedom from a state-controlled religion, which may or may not be the one you believe in, and which may well limit your freedom of belief.
Voting Criteria for Catholics include Religious Freedom
The Catholic bishops rightly uphold religious freedom as one of the criteria as we form our consciences to make faith-based choices. In Colorado, Religious Liberty is third out of ten criteria. “Religious liberty,” it states, “is rooted in the dignity of the human person, including freedom of conscience and expression, and is central to the U.S. Constitution.”
Freedom of conscience applies to all people, and not just citizens; not just Christians; certainly not just Catholics. When we envision turning this back into a Christian country, how do we imagine that happening without serious violation of consciences? What religious freedom would this allow to Jews or Muslims? What religious freedom to agnostics or atheists? Some Christians do not recognize Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses as truly Christian. What would happen to their freedom of conscience? And, sadly, some Christians have serious reservations about Roman Catholics. Would our beliefs be protected in a Christian America?
In a letter to Mary Anne Glendon, President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Pope Benedict said the following:
“The Holy See continues to appeal for the recognition of the fundamental human right to religious freedom on the part of all states, and calls on them to respect, and if need be protect, religious minorities who, though bound by a different faith from the majority around them, aspire to live with their fellow citizens peacefully and to participate fully in the civil and political life of the nation, to the benefit of all.”
The newly planted Church put down strong roots in the Roman Empire, where there was no freedom of worship. But we are blessed with a Constitution that guarantees us that liberty.
In our voting, let us look to preserve those constitutional guarantees by upholding our democracy and government by law. A candidate that defies our laws and constitution will not uphold our religious freedom, even if they purport to support Christian values.