Is America a Christian nation?
People have sent me a quote from no less an august body than the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that the U.S. is a Christian Nation. The case quote cited in support of this proposition was made by Justice David J. Brewer in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892). Brewer wrote: “There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning. They affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons. They are organic utterances. They speak the voice of the entire people. While because of a general recognition of this truth the question has seldom been presented to the courts, yet we find that in Updegraph v. Com., 11 Serg. & R. 394, 400, it was decided that, ‘Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.”
It always makes me nervous when people, concerned about a social or religious issue, take single thoughts or lines from cases, statutes or official documents and hold them up as the case decision. All too often they pull the single line and back it with the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court, ignoring the rest of the opinion and the growth and development in the law since the case was decided.
It is also important to remember that the editorial comments of judges in a written decision are called “dicta.” The editorial comments are just that — opinion, not the holding or “ruling” of the court.
Recognizing the confusion he had caused, Justice Brewer published a book in 1905 titled The United States: A Christian Nation. In it he said: “But in what sense can [the United States] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that 'congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. [...] Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions.”
Taking items out of context in Supreme Court decisions, official documents or the Constitution itself is a dangerous practice. Prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women could not vote. Should we look back now to pre-1920 case law and, pulling language from that case law, go back to the whole barefoot-and-pregnant-in-the-kitchen thing? Wait, some people are trying to do that.
Moving on — the Dred Scott decision in 1857 helped push us into the Civil War. The Supreme Court determined that Scott (a slave) did not have legal standing to sue for his freedom because he was property and not a man. The Dred Scott case provides some interesting quotes. Pulling language out of context from this decision makes for interesting reading: The “Indian race” is “uncivilized.” “Any white man or white woman who shall intermarry as aforesaid, with any Negro or mulatto, such white man or white woman shall become servants during the term of seven years, and shall be disposed of by the justices as aforesaid, and be applied to the uses aforesaid.”
Pulling language out of context from any case is a tricky practice requiring years of law school and a certain lack of conscience and even lawyers rarely get away with it because there is usually a lawyer on the other side or on the bench to point out the changes in the law..
The law and the U.S. Constitution are constantly evolving documents designed to meet the needs of a diverse, changing and eclectic society. It is not just the laws and Constitution that are in a constant state of evolution. The men and women who write and interpret them are also a product of that evolving society. Justice Hugo Black (U.S. Supreme Court from 1937 to 1971), was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth. He renounced those days and became one of the Court’s defenders of the First Amendment and the Civil Rights Movement.
The laws and the people who write and interpret them change over time to reflect a society more interested in protecting all individual freedoms than in serving a potentially volatile majority. The law is both a sword and a shield. What would the religious right have us do with Justice Brewer’s 120-year old statement that America is a Christian nation? Should we use it as a sword to smite our neighbor? Should we use it to prevent the exercise of other faiths and religions? Should we use this statement in our classrooms to proselytize at the expense of other deeply held beliefs? Should we require Christian prayers in school? Or, should we rely on the First Amendment and the entire body of law that has developed in the interpretation of the “establishment” of a state religion and use it as a shield to defend all of our rights to worship freely so long as our neighbors can too?
A moment of silent reflection should also be taken the next time someone takes a passage from a court decision, wields it as a sword and fails to consider the entire body and development of the law and society in this great nation.
So, is America a Christian nation? If by “Christian nation” you mean a tolerant nation that allows Christians, to walk past atheists going about their business on the street, and a nation that allows Baptists to worship next door to Unitarians, down the street from Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Wiccans and fellow Christians who hold to differing views and interpretations of Christianity, then this is a Christian nation. I'm proud to live in that nation. If you mean a nation where a Christian majority uses its beliefs to hammer minority groups — I have to admit that I'm not so proud of that nation.