WHAT KIND OF NATION, THIS?
Thoughts about recent data regarding Americans' attitudes
as regards the United States being a "Christian Nation"
Saturday, September 22, 2007
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
Human Nature [is] not merely the nature of Man, but Man as he was in a State of Nature. The significance of this point for the study of International Relations is that, although in civilized countries every individual man is now under law and not in a State of Nature towards his fellow men, every political community- whatever its form, be it republican or monarchical- is in a State of Nature towards every other community; that is to say, an independent community stands quite outside law, each community owning no control but its own, recognizing no legal rights to other communities and owing to them no legal duties...
It is well to insist upon this point because those who are accustomed to live in civilized communities where every citizen is subject to the law of his own community do not always realise that the Community itself is outside law altogether. An independent community is, in fact, in that very condition in which savage men were before they were gathered together into communities legally organized: that is exactly the position in which every civilized community stands now. It is a law unto itself, subject to no legal control and therefore to no responsibility, except that... which the public opinion of the world imposes.--
James Viscount Bryce: LECTURES ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS 
[Editor's Note: the "independent political community" to which Lord Bryce above refers is, of course, the sovereign and independent Nation-State]
The Nation-State... is the widest organisation which has the common experience necessary to found a common life. This is why it is recognised as absolute in power over the individual and as his representative and champion in the affairs of the world outside. It is obvious that there can be but one such absolute power in relation to any one person and that, so far as the world is organised, there must be one; and, in fact, his discharge from one allegiance can only be effected by his acceptance of another... It should be noted that the principles of the family, the district and the class not only enter into the nation in these definite shapes, but affect the general fabric of the national State through the sense of race, of country and of a pervading standard of life and culture. The reaction of ideal unity on the natural conditions of a State is exemplified by the recent tendency to substitute ideal frontiers- a meridian or a parallel (e.g. the map of North America)- for frontiers determined by natural boundaries.
The Nation-State as an ethical idea is, then, a faith or a purpose- we might say a mission, were not the word too narrow and too aggressive. It seems to be less to its inhabitant than the City-state to its citizens, but that is greatly because- as happens with the higher achievements of mind- it includes too much to be readily apprehended. The modern Nation is a history and a religion rather than a clear cut idea; its power as an idea-force is not known till it is tried... The place of the idea of the Nation-State in the whole of ethical ideas may be illustrated by the Greek conception of Happiness as that organisation of aims, whatever it may be, which permits the fullest harmony of life. The State, as such... is limited to the office of maintaining the external conditions of a good life, but the conditions cannot be conceived without reference to the life for which they exist and it is true, therefore, to say that the conception of the Nation-State involves at least an outline of the life to which, as a power, it is instrumental.
The State, in short, cannot be understood apart from the Nation, nor the conditions from the life, although in exerting political force it is important to distinguish them; as an ethical idea, the idea of a purpose, however, it is essential to hold the two sides together if we are not to walk blindly.--
Bernard Bosanquet: THE PHILOSOPHICAL THEORY OF THE STATE [Third Edition-1920]
[Editor's Note: the "Greek conception of Happiness" to which Bosanquet above refers is, in its essence, the same as that understood by the authors of the American Declaration of Independence- principally Thomas Jefferson- in their utilization of the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness" in that document]
The store of American myths is available to all Americans, but not all Americans participate in the same myths. And not all use the same myth in the same ways... The regional, cultural and group variations in the use of American myths are legion: it's a big country with a lotta people. But these myths are American. They are available to Americans. Their existence and their availability are what make us, all of us, Americans.--
James Oliver Robertson: AMERICAN MYTH, AMERICAN REALITY 
September is a month of quite important anniversaries within the constitutional history of the United States of America:
As of the 17th of this month, it has been 220 years to the day since the Convention in Philadelphia formally adopted the original text of the Constitution of the United States and Benjamin Franklin opined that the half-Sun decorating the back of the chair in which sat George Washington, serving as that Convention's presiding officer, throughout the nearly 4-month-long proceedings was, indeed, "a rising, and not a setting, sun" (it would be on the next day [the 18th], at a post-Convention reception, when- as recorded in the diary of Maryland delegate to the Convention James McHenry- Franklin would answer the question posed to him by a Mrs. Powel, to the effect of whether the United States would be a monarchy or a republic, thusly: "A republic- if you can keep it")
Meanwhile, on the 26th of September 218 years ago now- in the waning days of the First organizing or "Quorum" session of the First Congress of the United States met under that very Constitution- the United States Senate formally accepted a Resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives of two days earlier officially dropping the lower house's objections to the form in which the Senate had altered that document which we Americans refer to as 'the Bill of Rights' (the Senate had taken 17 proposed Amendments to the original Constitution sent to the upper chamber by the House and, after some modification, had reconfigured them into 12 proposed Amendments to be sent to the States for ratification [of which 10 would, soon enough, become the earliest Amendments to the U.S. Constitution to be ratified; an 11th took a 203-year-long journey to ratification, while the 12th has been mooted by time and experience]: the interested reader can find this very process outlined in a Commentary of mine from more than five years ago now); two days later, on 28 September 1789, the 'Bill of Rights', engrossed and signed by both Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Frederick Muhlenberg and Vice President John Adams, in his capacity as constitutional President of the Senate, was formally sent out to the several States of the Union for potential ratification as Amendments to the Federal Constitution.
In between these momentous dates of 17 September [re: 1787] and 26 and 28 September [re:1787] lie two other far lesser known dates worthy of commemoration, anniversaries of important constitutional happenings which, in their own respective ways, are no less momentous. First, there is yet another 28 September- in 1787- at which time the Continental Congress, at the time still the only governmental entity of that which was known as "the United States of America", adopted a resolution that formally acknowledged the results of the Philadelphia Convention and, in addition, sent said results on to the States (this was important because it was only during the previous February that this same body had merely authorized the Convention to "revis[e] the Articles of Confederation": the Convention having clearly gone well beyond its original charge, the formal acceptance of the Convention's work by the Confederation Congress was of the highest priority-- it should also be noted that the Confederation Congress so accepting was "resolved Unanimously" [only Rhode Island was absent]).
The second of these lesser known anniversaries is from 1788- the year in between that which produced the Federal Constitution and that which brought forth the first attempt to amend that same document: on 13 September of that year, the Confederation Congress gave its own "Going Out of Business" notice by formally acknowledging that, with at least 9 of the 13 States having ratified the new Constitution by its own terms (rather than the unanimity of 13 States required by the now-obsolete Articles of Confederation) and, having so accepted this, furthermore setting up a schedule under which the new Federal Government could come into existence as of the following "first Wednesday in March" (which, in 1789, happened to be the 4th of that month: thereby, 4 March would be the date terms of all elected Federal officers would begin until the 20th Amendment to the Constitution would come into effect in 1934).
All of these September anniversaries are rather interesting to ponder in light of the release, earlier during this September of 2007, of the results of a poll which shows that some 55% of Americans believe that the Framers of the Constitution intended the United States of America to be a "Christian Nation". The mainstream media reporting on this found this- among other adjectives- "astonishing"; I, however, find it far less astonishing (frankly, I am not all that shocked; certainly I am not at all surprised) than it is at least somewhat disturbing- not only for reasons I myself touched upon in a much more recent Commentary on this very subject (as well as the seeming pressure, by at least some within this country, to turn the War on International Terrorism into something resembling a veritable "Ninth Crusade" of Christian vs. Muslim) but also for the very ignorance (some of which, at least, is purposefully promoted by the nefarious amongst those so remaining ignorant) of the historical facts surrounding the very founding of this Nation.
As I pointed out, in that very "much more recent Commentary", dated this past 9 February:
Problem is: nowhere in the Constitution drafted at the justly famous Convention in Philadelphia is God- or, for that matter, Jesus Christ- ever even mentioned! (other than a perfunctory reference to "the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven" in which that Convention met which immediately follows the Enabling/Ratification Requirement clause in that document's Article VII).
I could have also gone on to note that, while many- if not most- Americans believe the words "so help me God" to be part and parcel of the Presidential Oath of Office, it is- in fact- not! (don't believe me? then please see Article II, Section 1, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution: there are 35 words in the Oath of Office prescribed for the President of the United States; "so help me God" is not at all amongst them!)
In fact, the only overt reference to Religion in the entirety of the original document is that found within its Article VI, clause 3 where it is specifically, where not also emphatically, stated that no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Yes, it is true that the Preambles of the several Constitutions of the States almost always refer, in some way, to a Supreme Being (and, indeed, reasonable argument can be made that no reference to same was at all necessary in the Federal Constitution precisely because of this very fact-- as I myself noted in my Commentary dated 1 July 2002:
Indeed, the [1787 Constitutional] Convention (with some objections by a vocal minority in that body) decided that what they would have called a "Declaration of Rights" was not even needed for the Federal government the way such a Declaration might, of necessity, be placed in State Constitutions (the prevailing theory was that the civil rights and liberties of Americans was best protected in their capacity as State citizens: that, since the new Federal Constitution was one in which the States would be giving up- to a central government- some authority that the States already had, and that the States could not give to this new central government authority they did not have, therefore any right or liberty protected by a State Constitution was also automatically protected as regarded the new Federal government).
In much the same way, the references, in some form or fashion, to a Higher Authority in the Constitutions of the several States making up their "more perfect Union" might have been seen- by those meeting in Philadelphia throughout the Summer of 1787 and, thereby, framing a Federal system made up of these constituent States- as already ample expressions of the type of feeling seen, for instance, in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of 1780, still in force [albeit much modified], in which We... the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish, the following, etc.
[The more recent State Constitutions, by the way, tend to be far less florid in their language; that of the State of New York, for example, the Preamble of which (from 1894) reads, simply- where not also rather tersely: We, the People of the State of New York, grateful to Almighty God for our Freedom, in order to secure its blessings, do establish this Constitution... period!]
Thus, no reference to "Almighty God" or "Divine Providence" or "the Great Legislator" or some such would have been seen, by the Framers meeting in Philadelphia, to be at all needed within the text- including the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America itself.
A separate argument- where it is not seen as one furthering the argument above- could also be made that, although the Declaration of Independence is not Law [as the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution or those of the several State Constitutions also are not], the Framers of the Federal Constitution innately understood that the blessings of Liberty they were secur[ing]... to ourselves and our posterity were, indeed, those very unalienable Rights... endowed by their Creator [I myself have, already and so often, opined on this very website that the Constitution cannot be at all properly understood without at least some reference to the principles contained within the Declaration] and that, by ordain[ing] and establish[ing] this Constitution for the United States of America, they were- by very definition- secur[ing] these Rights via Governments... instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Again, the very act of securing such Creator-endowed Liberty, here on a scale beyond that which could be secured in each of the several States alone, through the "more perfect Union" established via the Federal Constitution itself perhaps made specific reference to said Creator in that document altogether redundant.)
Whatever the intention of the Framers as regards the relationship of their Federal Constitution to the many references to a Higher Authority in State Constitutions or even the more ethereal concept of "Creator-endowed Rights" so protected by said documents, two important points must here be considered:
first, that- even in the State Constitutions- rather emphatic declarations of Religious Freedom were made and are still maintained. For instance, in that very same Constitution in which the People of the State of New York expressed their gratitude "to Almighty God", there is the following- as that document's Article I, Section 3:
The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all mankind; and no person shall be rendered incompetent to be a witness on account of his opinions on matters of religious belief; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this state.
"Licentiousness", of course, is in the eye of the beholder and ever the subject of much public debate; as to "practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this state", we are here in the realm of what I, in one of my responses to a 'vox Populi' on this website, once called the "STOP sign test" (my altogether flippant take on that constitutional concept known as Rational Basis- that Law, in order to be constitutional, must have a "rational basis" for its enforcement; I here utilized the purposes and efficacy of a STOP sign as an admittedly simplified illustration of what Rational Basis so clearly implies): we have to answer the questions: a.) just what is the "peace and safety of the state" and b.) precisely which religious practices would- applying Rational Basis- be deemed to be so "inconsistent" with same.
The keys within the New York provision quoted above for purposes of this Commentary, however, are that it admits of "liberty of conscience" being "hereby secured" and it also should be noted that "free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship" also clearly implies a right to not at all so freely exercise and enjoy same (to the devoutly religious person reading this who might be tempted to disagree with me, I ask that person to well consider that he or she also has the right to "freely... enjoy"- to here borrow New York's constitutional language regarding Religious Freedom for an admittedly secular purpose- say, a film or stage production; if that film or stage production should happen to be offensive to the devoutly religious person, that person is perfectly free to choose to not so enjoy it- by analogy, the same be true of "religious profession or worship" or, for that matter, the lack thereof!)
Similar analyses can readily be applied to the similar provisions regarding Religious Freedom to be found in the Constitutions of other States of the American Union.
second- and I here repeat myself, that the only reference to Religion made by the Framers of the United States Constitution themselves was one that was stated in the negative: again, that no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States... an admonishment against a potential excess, not at all an encouragement, of Religion-- note well: no "religious Test"!
So why, then, is it so important for at least half (if one diminishes the results of the aforementioned poll by its own Margin of Error) of all Americans to believe that the United States was intended, by its very founders, to actually be a "Christian Nation"?
For one, there is the notion presented by the same James Oliver Robertson from whom I quoted near the beginning of this piece. In the same work from which I quoted him above, Robertson notes that "[p]eople live out of the past into the present. They cannot see, and for all their efforts, they cannot predict the future. They depend, therefore, on their knowledge of the past to create a rational pattern which leads from present to future. Their working knowledge of the past is based on the myths they have inherited".
In America, such myths are inseparable from the very concept carried by the word "Nation" (and yes: here, at last, the patient reader of this Commentary will finally come to discern the reason for the respective quotations from Bryce and Bosanquet which head this piece)--
At least within Western Civilization, that very word "Nation", prior to the mid-17th Century, did not quite mean what that same word connotes today; and this is as ancient as the Holy Bible, made up of Judeo-Christian Scripture, itself:
in the famous passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah where (in Chapter 2, verse 4) it is written that ... they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more, the Hebrew root word the King James translators here translated as "nation" is goy, a word that is instantly recognizable to pretty much every Jew, as well as many non-Jews (thanks to the success of Jews in the many and varied fields of mass entertainment going back at least a century), in America today.
Nowadays, goy (the usage of which within modern American English is somewhat colored by its coming to these shores via its use in Yiddish) means "Gentile"- that is: a non-Jew; and, indeed, it was quite often used in this very same context in the Hebrew Bible= Christian Old Testament (where, often, a "nation" was someone else's, not one's own). But, at its very heart, goy simply means "a People" in Biblical Hebrew.
Likewise, within the equally famous story- in the New Testament's The Acts of the Apostles- of the first Christian Pentecost, there is (here, again, utilizing the King James Version) the following (in Chapter 2, verse 5): that ... there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. The word "nation" was here translated from the Greek word ethnos. The connection of this Greek word to English "ethnic" or "ethnicity" is rather obvious but, in Koine Greek, it also primarily meant "a People" or "a Tribe" (there is also an apparent relationship between ethnos and the Greek word ethos, meaning "a custom" [note that this is the root of English "ethic" and "ethics"]-- an ethnos was, therefore, a recognizable group of persons who evidently shared the same customs or culture [though, again, it usually referred to a culture other than the culture of the person actually using the term]).
Note that, in neither case, is the "nation" at all necessarily a jurisdiction, a territory. Rather, in the Bible (even to those putting forth a new translation of same into English as late as those coming up with the King James Bible early in the 17th Century), a "Nation" is a "people", a "tribe", a group of persons of the same ethnicity- thus, the use of the word "nation" in Ancient times (as transmitted to we here in the Modern world) is, indeed, the very root of the modern "nationality" (itself, in modern use, a synonym for "ethnicity")! In the Ancient world (as, indeed, this continued into and through the Medieval period), one's person- that is, an individual's parentage and/or birthplace- alone determined one's Nation. A Greek-speaking Jew living within the Roman Empire, such as the Apostle Paul preaching that which would eventually emerge as Gentile-dominated Christianity, might well have been a Roman citizen, whether as Paul or, earlier, as Saul of Tarsus- that is, both before and after the Road to Damascus: nevertheless, as far as the Roman authorities were concerned, Saul-become-Paul ever remained a Greek-speaking Jew who happened to be under Roman jurisdiction. Put another way: a Paul might be a citizen of the Roman Empire, but he would never ever be considered a Roman- that is, Paul was not at all of the Roman "nation".
And later Medieval Feudalism did nothing much to change this idea of one's "nation". In feudal society, persons were vassals to those who themselves were, directly or indirectly, vassals- ultimately- to the King (or Prince or Grand Duke or Margrave, etc.) who might, in turn, further accept the suzerainty (but, note, not necessarily the sovereignty) of a further higher-up (the rulers of German states accepting the overlordship- in name, if not in practice- of a Holy Roman Emperor; the Holy Roman Emperor, as well as other monarchs, accepting- however begrudgingly at times- the authority of the Pope as regarded Church matters). But such vassalage did not necessarily well dovetail with one's own nationality: for example, those who happened to live in the portions of France controlled by King Henry V of England at the time of his death in 1422 were, in fact, no less French than those living in other parts of France which recognized the authority of the Dauphin; English jurisdiction did not make the French under it any the more English- or the less French- as regarded a person's nationality and, while the seeds of future French Nationalism were so widely sown during the Hundred Years' War (thus, Joan of Arc's place as a French national heroine as a result of her aiding the Dauphin in his being crowned King Charles VII of France), one could survive as a Frenchman whilst still being ruled by an English king--
likewise, in an earlier "reverse version" of this very same relationship, the Plantagenet Kings of England established upon the throne of that "Scepter'd Isle" by virtue of being the lineal descendants of those Normans who had conquered England in 1066 did not at all think themselves English; indeed, they regarded the English spoken by those they ruled as "vulgar" (a term that originally meant, simply, "common"- after all, the French-originating Norman/Plantagenet rulers were vastly outnumbered by their subjects- but which would, soon enough, come to have its more familiar, modern, negative connotation)- thus, Norman French was, instead, the language of the Royal Court. And this attitude was rather common throughout all of the "known world" (meaning, of course, the Western World- even where the Western actually touched that of the Eastern) influenced, however indirectly, by a once-mighty Roman Empire receding further and further back in time: for example, the rulers of the Byzantine Empire- themselves, in reality, Greek- continued to refer to themselves as "Romans" (thus, the Arabs so quickly establishing the Islamic Caliphate through the 7th Century thought they were driving "Romans" from the Eastern Mediterranean Rim and such terminology eventually would lend itself to the very name of the Romanov Dynasty that would produce many a "Czar of All the Russias" well after Constantinople-become-Istanbul had already been conquered by the Ottoman Sultan in 1453) even while the peoples these so-called "Romans" thereby ruled continued to include, among others, Slavs and Turks.
All this changed for good in 1648 (and it is rather interesting to note that the King James Version of 1611 predates this), with the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War- the last major of the many conflicts (some merely intellectual, others more violent) growing out of the Protestant Reformation which had burst upon Europe a century and a quarter earlier in the wake of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church at the University of Wittenberg. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg (which was intended to end ongoing conflict between German-speaking Catholic and Lutheran rulers within the Holy Roman Empire) had already established the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio- "whose be the territory, his be the religion" (that is: the officially established religion of a particular jurisdiction would be that of the ruler of that jurisdiction: the toleration of religions or denominations or sects other than that of the ruler within his territory so ruled would be solely at the sufferance of the ruler): the Treaty of Westphalia would now extend this concept throughout most of Europe.
Although the Thirty Years' War was to be the last of the so-called "Wars of Religion" on that continent, therefore the Treaty itself was dealing principally with religious jurisdiction, Westphalia also permitted- and even encouraged (however inadvertently)- the modern concept of "Nation" because cuius regio, eius religio clearly implied "sovereignty"- meaning, political sovereignty: in which the ruler was sovereign within his own jurisdiction and not at all beholden to any other jurisdiction (and this is what Bryce was talking about in the quote from him with which I began this piece). Thus, the concept known- within the sphere of International Relations, the so-called "Law of Nations"- as the "Westphalian" Nation-State (and this is the "Nation-State" to which Bosanquet, in the quote from him above, refers: the very same as the "community" of which Bryce speaks).
"Westphalian" sovereignty was, of course, as much religious as it was political, at least at first. In England, very soon after the Stuart Restoration had replaced the Puritan "Commonwealth" of the Cromwells, Parliament adopted the Corporation Act of 1661 which restricted office-holding in chartered Boroughs to only those taking the sacraments in the manner prescribed by the Church of England of which the King was temporal head (since the King was Anglican, cuius regio, eius religio clearly implied that the territory he ruled be Anglican): the Test Act of 1673 extended this restriction to all office-holders throughout the Kingdom. Dissenters (those Protestants not in compliance with the Anglican Communion) would, however, easily get around this provision by taking the sacraments once a year (though, obviously, doing so would be far more difficult for a devout Catholic and, it could be argued, even more difficult for a religious Jew). It should also be noted that these provisions would have not been the least bit offensive to the leadership of early Virginia (indeed, these political sentiments- but for the actual Protestant denomination so established, of course- would not, in themselves, have been at all in at least philosophical conflict with those very Puritans who led most of the New England colonies at the time! Cuius regio, eius religio was- save in places such as Roger Williams' Rhode Island or William Penn's Pennsylvania- the norm within most of British America during the 17th Century).
The 18th Century, however, was to prove rather different: many, on both sides of the Atlantic (but particularly in British America), began to see the enforcement of such laws as the Test Act as "persecution" and the "workarounds" utilized by Dissenters as "hypocrisy"; in the spirit of the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening, even many Anglicans came to see such as the Test Act as a secular desecration of what was otherwise, to them, a most sacred rite. There was also the concomitant argument that such laws actually served no useful governmental purpose (ah!-- Rational Basis- my "STOP sign test"!), for dishonest Anglicans could so freely serve in public office, while honest men- who otherwise might be perfectly suited to public duty- would be prevented from so serving simply on grounds of their religious belief.
Nevertheless, it is true that most of the early State Constitutions enacted rather hastily in the wake of Independence in 1776 did contain some form of "religious test" for office-holding within their provisions- indeed, this was so in at least 7 of the 11 constitution-writing States (keep in mind that Connecticut and Rhode Island continued to operate under their colonial charters until 1818 and 1843, respectively): Georgia, New Jersey and South Carolina required adherence to some form of Protestantism; Delaware required belief in the Trinity, while Maryland (which had, after all, been founded principally as a haven for Catholics) merely required a generic Christian faith; North Carolina and Pennsylvania, meanwhile, required acceptance of "a future state of rewards and punishments" without specifying specific Faiths.
While there was, in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 itself, apparent early sentiment for a something along the lines of the North Carolina and Pennsylvania provision (the idea here being that a personal fear of eternal damnation might be the only possible external "check" on the actions of those holding public office [other than, of course, the possibility of being voted out of said office as a result of the next election])- or so recorded the appropriately named Maryland delegate- considering the subject here under discussion- Luther Martin (who ended up not signing the finished document: thus, his opinion as to the original wishes of his fellow delegates- who, unlike him, did become Framers of the Constitution- has to be taken with at least a pinch of salt) in his journal, the issue of an actual religious test for holding public office became, in the context of the debates on the floor of the Convention, inexorably intertwined with the whole issue of oath-taking at the Federal level in general:
In the original Virginia Plan, which became- by default- the original "rough draft" agenda driving the proceedings in Philadelphia, there was a proposal binding, by oath, all State legislative, executive and judicial officers to the new "more perfect Union" the Convention would end up so framing. The fear of many of the delegates was that, by not doing so, one could end up with one set of officers merely bound to support their respective States (the early State Constitutions all required its officers to take an oath to support their State's fundamental document) while another, separate, set would- alone- be bound to support the Union: by binding State officers to the Federal Constitution as well as the Constitutions of their own States, there would be formal fealty to one general system which could, nonetheless, still support two distinct sovereignties- Federal and State.
The debate over the efficacy and enforcement of this original proposal would, ultimately, culminate in that which makes up most of Article VI of the original text of the U.S. Constitution (that is: the Federal Constitution- along with all constitutional Laws and authoritative Treaties- being the Supreme Law of the Land; the judiciary of every State being bound to this Federal Supremacy of Law; and all officers- State, as well as Federal- required, by oath, to support the Federal Constitution). It was into this mix that the issue of a religious test for office-holding came rather late in the game.
For it was not until 20 August 1787 when Charles Pinckney, delegate to the Convention from South Carolina (interestingly, a State with, at the time, one of the more restrictive religious requirements for office-holding, as heretofore already noted), first advanced- among a host of such items- a proposal providing that "No religious test, or qualification, shall ever be annexed to any oath of office under the authority of the United States" (note that this proposal- seemingly originally intended as a stand-alone clause or section within the overall constitutional text- did not at all touch upon any State religious test of the time: thus, Pinckney's proposal did not at all conflict with the Constitution of his own State [important to take into account because, technically, the delegates to the Constitution were themselves each "deputies" from their own respective States and, thus, at least in theory, temporary State office-holders]).
Pinckney defended his proposal on grounds that it was "a provision the world will expect from you in the establishment of a system founded on Republican principles and in an age so liberal and enlightened as the present": thereby, in one fell swoop, did Pinckney take a proposal that could have merely been argued for on grounds of mere practicality (it would have been nigh unto impossible to fashion a Federal religious test for office-holding that would have pleased the political and religious feelings within all 13 States) into one argued for, instead, on the basis of "no religious test for office-holders" being an essential element of "liberal and enlightened" Republican governance!
Pinckney's proposal was, to be sure, merely one among many others of his which were, that day, simply referred to the Committee of Detail without debate or consideration by the Convention itself; in the end, nothing came of this particular proposal within that Committee and so- on 30 August, when the oath-taking provision as reported out of that Committee was being considered by the whole Convention- Pinckney abandoned his stand-alone provision and moved that the words "but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the United States" be appended to the already accepted constitutional provision on oaths (a provision that would, should Pinckney's motion carry, thereafter read pretty much as Article VI, section 3 currently does).
Roger Sherman of Connecticut voiced the only serious objection to Pinckney's motion, arguing that it was "unnecessary, the prevailing liberality [of the document as a whole] being a sufficient security against such tests" (essentially, the same argument used against a 'Declaration of Rights' being a part of the new Federal Constitution- that the checks and balances inherent in the document were, in themselves, an effective enough bulwark against encroachment upon Civil Rights and Liberties by the new Federal Government: the notion here being that a government could not do that which it was not authorized to do in the first place [thus, since no religious tests for office-holding were even being authorized in the document, they needn't be specifically prohibited by it]). Despite Sherman's original objection to it, however, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania and Pinckney's fellow South Carolinian and collateral relative, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, seconded Pinckney's original motion, which carried nem con (that is, nemine contradicente- Latin: "without objection", "with no one in dissent"); when the entire oath-taking provision, now including Pinckney's amendment, was, immediately thereafter, voted upon in the Convention (by States), it passed 8 States to 1 (North Carolina alone voting 'nay') with 2 (Connecticut and Maryland) equally divided (New York and Rhode Island were not represented in the Convention at the time) and, thereby, the 'no religious test' clause of Article VI, section 3 forever became part of the U.S. Constitution.
Granted, there were almost certainly more than a few mixed motives- where not also mixed emotions (if Luther Martin is to be believed)- behind the ultimate adoption of this provision. The Framers were, indeed, Christian gentlemen yet, at the same time, as even the writer of 'vox Populi' critical of my aforementioned 9 February Commentary, one James T. Smith, acknowledged, while "[t]hey had Christian beliefs and Christian values, and their Christianity was a spiritual way of life which affected decisions they made. Did they want everyone to be Christians? No. Did they want people to have the freedom to worship who and what they wanted to, or nothing at all? Yes. Freedom is a key component of Christianity.And therein lies the answer to your question."
I responded to Mr. Smith thusly:
if this be the question as to whether the United States of America was, or was not, intended to be a "Christian Nation", your own words clearly show the answer must be 'No'. For, if the Founding Fathers did not want everyone to be Christians (and I also don't think they did) and, indeed, did want people to be free to worship- or not worship- pretty much as they pleased (subject to reasonable and minimal restrictions relating to the maintenance of the good order of society and the community), then they could not have intended that the United States of America be a "Christian Nation".
Instead, the Founding Fathers most fervently wished for a Republic of Civic Virtue- in which people could freely go about their daily lives, worshipping- or not worshipping- as they pleased, reading whatever Sacred Scripture or equivalent philosophy of life they wished, while- at the same time- respecting the source(s) of spiritual and ethical truth of others in the greater community with whom they might not necessarily agree as to what these source(s) should, in fact, actually be.
Yes, indeed- as you have said, Mr. Smith, Freedom is a key component of Christianity... but it is also a key component of, for example Judaism (Passover- Pesach- is, indeed, celebrated by Jews as "the Festival of Freedom")- and would this fact at all mean that the USofA was, therefore, intended to be a "Jewish Nation"?
Of course not!
Freedom is, in fact, a key component of any number of religions, denominations within religions and sects within denominations: thus, no religion- not even the Christianity which is predominant here in the United States- has a monopoly on an ethic of Freedom.
I could have also noted that the phrase which encircles the upper part of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (and which, in fact, gives that particular icon of American History its very name)- and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof- is from the biblical Book of Leviticus (Chapter 25, verse 10)- yes, as quoted in (again) the King James Version used by Protestants of the time, but originally a product of the Hebrew- that is, Jewish- Scriptures. Again, "no religion... has a monopoly on an ethic of Freedom"!
But, as James Oliver Robertson points out: "Myths are self-justifying. Because they often carry social ideals, the people who use them and participate in them assume that the ideals justify the past out of which these ideals came". Thus, the myth of "America as a Christian Nation"...
thus, also, the myths- largely religious, but also political- of a once-mighty Islamic Caliphate: myths which, today, give solace to such as Al Qa'eda, however.
Once nations ceased to be solely based on race or ethnicity and principally became a political jurisdiction to which one happens to give one's due allegiance- that is, the "Westphalian" Nation-State- such a "nation" was well primed to become what Bosanquet called an "idea-force", his "a history and religion rather than a clear cut idea". In a country such as the United States- where, as is so often said, "everyone is either an immigrant or descended from immigrants" (in other words: one's nationality [=ethnicity] is, nonetheless, subsumed within a Nation called "America"; put another way, there is really no such ethnicity as "American", thus are we Americans all "[whatever ethnicities in our respective backgrounds]-Americans", whether we think about ourselves in those terms or not)- the issue is even further exacerbated: hence, for instance, recent debates over bilingualism or even multilingualism (debates which are, in themselves, the quintessential "Fool's Errand": if one can survive as a storekeeper in, say, a Spanish-speaking neighborhood without ever once speaking a single word of English, then the prevailing attitude toward the storekeeper should be Vaya con Dios, for- if the "English Only" crowd is correct in their contention that English is necessary to economic survival in the USofA- then the very laws such people support are wholly unnecessary to begin with! The "marketplace" will ever determine if [and when] the non-native English speaker utilizes English [as it once did for my own Finnish-speaking, Swedish-speaking and Norwegian-speaking grandparents (including one Finnish-speaking grandmother of mine who, although born in the United States, did not at all speak English until she first attended public grade school), people who needed no law in order to speak whatever they spoke at any given time]: if it does not, then the whole premise by which those in favor of "English Only" legislation so argue is, in fact, incorrect and their arguments collapse like the proverbial "house of cards").
Likewise, the contention that America is a "Christian Nation"!
In his 15 February 'vox Populi', Mr. Smith complained that "Another problem with your [9 February Commentary] is your lack of a clear definition of 'Christian Nation' ", to which I responded:
it is not my lack; rather it is a lacking on the part of those who so bandy about this term in their own defense of their notion of America having been intended to be a "Christian Nation". I purposely left the concept undefined precisely because those who so claim seemingly have no coherent definition on which most, if not all, of them might agree.
But this is, in the last analysis, the least of the problem.
Fact is: one need not be a Christian in order to treat people fairly whilst "cutting them some slack" (that is, applying Justice tempered with Mercy- even in one's personal dealings)- the very essence of the Judeo-Christian concept of "Loving One's Neighbor As One's Self"- or doing (or, at least, trying one's best to do) that which one thinks is right while not doing (or trying one's best to not do) that which one thinks is wrong- thereby applying one's own Heart, Soul, Mind and Might (to, again, borrow an essential Judeo-Christian concept) to one's personal Morality and Ethics. After all, even Atheists have a conscience!
But, sad as it is for me to so state, there are some within our Nation (and, in my 9 February piece, I labeled these 'Christian Fascists', for that is precisely what they are) who simply can't bring themselves to accept that which I have just stated. And, in so doing, they actually bring us further from- rather than closer to- that "Republic of Civic Virtue- in which people could freely go about their daily lives, worshipping- or not worshipping- as they pleased, reading whatever Sacred Scripture or equivalent philosophy of life they wished, while- at the same time- respecting the source(s) of spiritual and ethical truth of others in the greater community with whom they might not necessarily agree as to what these source(s) should, in fact, actually be" of which I wrote in my response to Mr. Smith. I can here only, once again, reiterate that with which I concluded that very response to Mr. Smith:
There is a great deal of difference between long-ago Christians- such as the Founders of Our Nation- allowing for all, whether Christian or non-Christian (religious or secularist) alike, to freely believe that which they wish to believe (even if this "allowance" be largely based on Christian ethics surrounding the concept of Freedom) and at least some present-day Christians- on the theory that the United States can only be (because it was ever intended to be) a "Christian Nation" (whatever that means!)- requiring even non-Christians (again, whether religious or secularist) to adhere to their own religious and spiritual ethos.
This is all the more important to consider in a world in which, as Bryce points out in the quote from him which heads this piece, a "Westphalian" Nation-State "is a law unto itself, subject to no legal control and therefore to no responsibility, except that... which the public opinion of the world imposes". Despite all the paranoid frenzy of the 'Black Helicopter' crowd, the United Nations is not a World Government- nor is it a New World Order- and the United States of America is not at all lacking its inherent "Westphalian" sovereignty (else, the March 2003 Invasion of Iraq in the face of largely negative opinion globally [including rejection of an authorization of same by the UN Security Council] would never have even taken place): thus, declaring America to be a "Christian Nation" is potential "Fire" in danger of so easily engaging the "Gasoline" of the United States so being "a law unto itself" by virtue of its being an independent, sovereign Nation-State.
I reminded Mr. Smith that, in an earlier Commentary of mine I was not at all claiming that what we Americans preach in our continuing reverence, if you will, for the Declaration of Independence or Our Constitution was necessarily inherently superior to any other similar "preaching" about the necessity for respect for Human Rights; rather, I was saying that America's failure to adhere to those very principles which we generally claim to so hold dear was nothing short of abject hypocrisy.
In the context of the War on International Terrorism, begun in the wake of yet another very important September anniversary (that commemorating the terrible events of 11 September 2001), Christians must respect the rights of non-Christians, including Muslims, here in America to so fit themselves into our "Republic of Civic Virtue" in much the same way that Christians themselves seek to do. And failure to do so is that very "abject hypocrisy" of which I wrote in my response to Mr. Smith: hypocrisy that will only serve to make the War on International Terrorism that much more difficult for us all to fight.