Monday, July 2, 2012
Our Least Christian President
In an editorial in today's USA Today, Stephen Prothero criticizes David Barton's characterization of Thomas Jefferson as a Christian, decries the vitriolic invective of much of today's political discourse, and then advocates, as a solution, what he calls "The American Bible," a canon of significant speeches, songs and stories that describe what we are as a nation ("Our least Christian president" – July 2, 2012). Mr. Prothero's suggested canon includes texts running from the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, and would presumably be something upon which we could all agree.
We have previously expressed our own reservations about the quality of David Barton's work ("Did the Founding Fathers Create a Christian Nation?" – Oct. 20, 2011), and would certainly agree that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian, at least not in any orthodox, evangelical sense of the word. But is it true, as Mr. Prothero suggests, that "Americans have never agreed on a common creed of our public life"?
It is certainly true that America, as an independent nation, never adopted a formal religious creed, and we treasure the right of each individual to follow the dictates of his own conscience in matters of religious belief and practice. But the Declaration of Independence is, arguably, a kind of "creed of our public life," in that it lays out the basic philosophical principles upon which our republic was founded. And that statement of principles says quite explicitly that "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." While it is true that Jefferson was no orthodox Christian, it is also true, as Mr. Prothero himself points out, that he was not an atheist either. He genuinely believed what he wrote in the Declaration. Our rights and liberties are not man-made, but are grounded in "the laws of nature and nature's God."
Time and time again, in times of crisis and doubt, we have come back to these golden principles enshrined in our nation's founding document. Our wisest leaders, including both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., have appealed to its ringing cadences in pleading for justice and humanity in our public life.
No, America is not a Christian nation, if by Christianity we mean belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. But America has always acknowledged God as the Author of its liberties, and of its peace and prosperity. Without God, our system of government withers and dies.
Note: Our readers may be interested to know that someone actually has put together a collection of speeches, poems and stories that epitomize our values as a nation. The book to which we refer is George Grant's The American Patriot's Handbook (Cumberland House, 2009).