Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #093. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Apr.4, 2015; in print Apr. 5

Easter. My first Sunday column. Time to engage the debate about whether we are a Christian nation.

The answer is simple: No.

How can it be "no," you ask? Aren't the Founding Fathers invoked as establishers of a Christian nation?

But here are words from the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated under President George Washington, debated in the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams: "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Thomas Jefferson wrote of his statute for religious freedom in Virginia that it was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." (I believe that Jefferson, if alerted to the fact that the proper term is "Muslim," because the religion is not about Muhammad, would have made the change.) Minnesota's 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison's taking his oath of office on Jefferson's copy of the Quran was a quintessential American moment.

Whether rooted in a bogus claim about the Founders, or in the wish, widely held on the conservative right, that Christianity be declared the national religion, the portrait of America as a Christian nation is groundless.

The question whether America is a Christian nation is much less interesting than the far more unsettled question about what it means to be a Christian in America today.

Two photographs in recent news reports vividly illustrate the sharpness of the argument.

One: The re-enactment of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on its 50th anniversary, with Christian leaders in the front ranks now as then.

Two: Nuns in full traditional habit standing, smiling, alongside Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana as he signs the "Religious Freedom" bill that quite obviously gives Indianans the right to refuse service to gays and lesbians. There are others in the photo, including some monks and what looks like a female pastor and of course a number of male pastors, along with a rabbi, but the governor has refused to name them.

Christian leaders publicly identifying themselves, in Selma and Indianapolis, with two radically different understandings of what it means to be a Christian in America today.

The people gathered in phalanx around Pence in Indianapolis are visible testimony to one way of being Christian in America. According to this way, there is a godless world out there, and it is the job of Christians to defend a fortress. Religious freedom is seen as the right to pull up the drawbridge, so those on the inside can remain righteous and uncontaminated.

The people marching across the bridge in Selma are visible testimony to another way of being Christian in America. According to this way, God is out there in the world already, and the job of Christians is to break down the dividing walls that people have constructed out of fear, greed, pride, myopia. It is sin, not righteousness, that sets up the barriers, and religious freedom is seen as the right to dismantle them.

The fact that religious pluralism is protected in America means not only that religions other than Christianity (and no religion at all) have the same rights, but that competing convictions about Christianity have equal rights. I am not claiming that the barrier-breaking way of being Christian is the only way, though it's obvious I think it's better than the fortress way.

But the Indiana legislation presupposes that some religious convictions trump civil laws.

However, the genius of America is precisely the rule of law.

Would Pence say that people who deeply believe God cursed black people with "the mark of Cain" — as millions of Americans used to believe and some undoubtedly still do — have the right to refuse to serve them at lunch counters?

Or that people who still deeply believe, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that females are intellectually inferior to males (an inferiority that, according to him, contributes to the order and beauty of the universe), have a "religious freedom" right to say "no females need apply"?

Nobody is saying people can't believe those things. But in public they shouldn't be free to discriminate on the basis of those things. And the same goes for deeply held negative beliefs about homosexuality.

Some Christians smile while Pence signs into law a permission to discriminate against gay and lesbian people. Some Christians cross bridges in defense of others' rights. This latter way matches better what the Founders meant by religious freedom.