A resolution to affirm the religious heritage of the United States has resurfaced in Congress, sparking a familiar debate about whether America is a “Christian nation.”
The Congressional Prayer Caucus, a group of about 40 members of the U.S. House of Representatives that meets weekly to pray in the Capitol, announced on May 7, the day of the National Prayer Breakfast, that it is introducing “America’s Spiritual Heritage Resolution.”
Its intent, they said, is “to recognize that the religious foundations of faith on which America was built are critical underpinnings of our nation’s most valuable institution.” It also would ensure that religious history is included in public buildings and “education resources” and designate an annual “American Religious History Week.”
A similar resolution has failed to gain traction in the past, but J. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican who is co-chairman of the Prayer Caucus, made it clear at a news conference that the renewed effort was prompted in part by President Obama’s recent comment in a speech in Turkey that America is not “a Christian nation or a Jewish nation.”
News reports quoted Forbes as saying that “… the overwhelming evidence suggests this nation was born and birthed with Judeo-Christian principles, and I would challenge anybody to tell me that point in time when we ceased to be so, because it doesn’t exist.”
Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., a co-sponsor of the bill, offered a frequently repeated story about Benjamin Franklin. McIntyre said that during the Constitutional Convention, Franklin called the delegates to prayer. McIntyre said that Americans need to be educated about that as an example of how the nation was founded on Christian principles.
Forbes is a Baptist, a longtime member of Great Bridge Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va. Several other members of the Prayer Caucus are Baptists, including Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), who was quoted as saying that “honoring the one true God” is necessary for the nation’s survival.
Some prominent Baptist leaders and scholars, however, took issue with the resolution and the arguments offered to support it.
James L. Evans, pastor of First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala., said he has heard this all before. “It always frustrates me how these people who want to celebrate America as a Christian nation mangle the history. Yes, Franklin suggested prayer as a way of trying to settle an impasse on states’ rights,” he said. “It was more of a tactic than a burning desire to pray. And the delegates rejected the idea.
“It is certainly true that many of the Founders were ardent Christians, and a few of them would have been content to have created a theocracy, but at the end of the process that is not what they did. The Constitution that emerged from that convention created a secular state,” Evans said.
Mark Weldon Whitten said that the essential problem with the arguments of those who want to emphasize America’s religious heritage is that they are telling only “half the story” of the nation’s founding. Whitten is a professor of philosophy at Lone Star College-Montgomery in The Woodlands, Texas, and author of The Myth of Christian America: What You Need to Know About the Separation of Church and State.
It is true that the Judeo-Christian tradition has been important in the building of America, Whitten said. But secular enlightenment and rationalist principles have been equally important, he said, and that is what those who insist that America is a Christian nation overlook.
Anyone who cites Franklin’s call for prayer at the Constitutional Convention as evidence that America was founded as a Christian nation is “ignorant and uninformed,” Whitten said. “There is no evidence whatsoever that Franklin’s call for prayer was ever voted upon. The delegates made a deliberate decision not to begin their proceedings with official prayers. Franklin himself wrote that except for three or four persons, those at the Convention thought prayers were unnecessary.
“The very fact that Franklin had to raise the motion and that it was not well-received” is strong evidence that the Constitution was not designed to create a Christian nation, Whitten said.
The “very best scholars of the Religious Right know that the claim that America was built as a Judeo-Christian nation is only half the story,” Whitten said. He cited Michael Novak, “a very good scholar,” and his book On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. While Novak’s book is designed to show how important religious faith was to the Founders, it also acknowledges that the other “wing” was secular enlightenment, Whitten said.
Religion was and is important in America, said Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptist, and so is religious freedom.
“No one denies that religion has always played an important role in the lives of Americans. There is also no doubt that religious differences have been the cause of much controversy and conflict in our nation’s history,” Prescott said. “That is why the framers of our Constitution were careful to preserve the peace and tranquility of our free and diverse society by securing liberty of conscience for all citizens by separating government and religion.
“Those who are determined to reunite what the First Amendment has separated are challenging the wisdom of the founding order that has permitted both church and civil society to flourish in this country,” he said.
Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.