Saturday, March 10, 2007

We're a Christian Country

That's the rationale I heard tonight explaining why we should be bothered by Keith Ellison's decision to take the oath of office on a Koran rather than a bible. We were founded by Christians, after all, so we're a Christian nation, and we should be using the Bible. (Some excellent commentary on this, IMO, is here.)

Well, yes and no. It is an undeniable fact that the founding fathers were pretty uniformly Christian. But I think this point is pretty irrelevant, and an exceptionally weak argument for justifying almost anything that it is used to justify. Actually, it's worse than that, because the logic of using this fact to justify fairly innocuous things like "in God we trust" on our currency (something I don't , by the way, have a problem with, but for other reasons), is equally valid for justifying quite noxious things as well.

I get why people are on edge about Muslims these days; saying that the western world is suffering from challenges in the Islamic world would be an understatement. Many Muslims have sworn to defeat the west and not enough Muslims have stood up to disavow that ideology. But letting that lead to intolerance and prejudice - and distorting our history to justify that - is hugely problematic.

And yes, the Bible and other Christian derived traditions have some pretty prominent places in our society. For example, people swear in court on a Bible to tell the truth. But the thing about this that many people seem to miss is that it isn't the Bible that's the relevant part of that particular process; it's the fact that people are swearing on something that means something to them. I frankly am quite comfortable with an oath to tell the truth made by an atheist if they simply raise their hand, but if they have to do it on a religious text which I know they do not accept, then I do not trust their oath either. (And my understanding is that the courts take the same view - raising one's hand is sufficient; certainly, that's all that was done in the court cases where I've been a juror).

There are at least two reasons why the "we were founded as a Christian nation" rationale is so bothersome to me. The first is the fact that it omits the minor detail of the constitution and the government that these Christians forefathers created. It is no accident that the government is explicitly a secular institution. The first amendment prohibits establishment of religion (or free exercise thereof - keeping government quite explicitly neutral!). And even more significantly, it requires no religious test to hold office. So Ellison's decision to use a Koran is constitutionally strictly a personal decision; it holds absolutely no legal or official significance. (And, of course, Jews and even other Christians have declined in the past to use a Christian Bible for their oath, somehow these decisions never generated controversy.) Our forefathers had the foresight to deliberately create a government that was secular and that stayed out of religious matters; this much is pretty clear, so I don't understand why they would do this if their intent was in fact to achieve the opposite (a Christian nation).

But the more disturbing reason that the "founding fathers were Christian" argument bothers me is that that same logic leads to some rather frightening conclusions. After all, our founding fathers were all white, so if the fact that they were Christian confers special benefits to the Christian Bible, then you have to also presume that being white also had special implications - perhaps that there is a problem with non-Europeans holding office. Oh, wait, they were all male, maybe that means that we shouldn't afford women equal rights. And of course, many of them owned slaves; I don't need to draw conclusions about what that must mean.

Our founding fathers were great men - visionaries who created the greatest nation on earth. But they were not without flaws, and it is dangerous and IMO frankly ignorant to assume that because they created a great nation that everything about them was a template for all to follow, and to then extrapolate from that. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with being white, Christian, male, or (gasp) all three, but there is quite a bit wrong with assuming that there is something wrong if you fail to meet all three criteria.

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