TEXAS FAITH: Is America a "Christian Nation" and what does that mean?

William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, responds to a Texas Faith blog question, Is America a "Christian Nation"?

By Wayne Slater

Bill Keller writes this week in the New York Times   Magazine that this year's Republican  primary season offers an important opportunity "to confront our scruples about the privacy of faith in public life - and to get over them." Questions have been raised about Mitt Romney's  faith and Jon Huntsman's , both Mormons. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are making an explicit appeal to Christian conservatives. Perry's prayer rally in Houston included people who want religious faith to have a more prominent place in public policy.

Keller's point is that asking candidates about their faith should not be an exercise for bigotry, but people have a right, and a desire, to know what role a candidate's faith would play in the White House. One of the questions he asks the candidates is this:

Do you agree with those religious leaders who say that America is a "Christian nation" or a "Judeo-Christian nation?" and what does that mean in practice?Our Texas Faith panel weighs in.

Dean and Professor of American church history, Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University

It is a false characterization both of Christianity and of America to call the United States a "Christian nation." There certainly are a few nations around the planet that officially designate themselves by their religious identities. Iran is a Muslim theocracy, for example. The island kingdom of Tonga is officially Christian, and the monarch who rules Tonga is the head of its Methodist Church. The United Kingdom has an established church, The Church of England, and the monarch appoints its Archbishops and its Bishops. But the United States of America has no such official or formal connections between state and church. Moreover, the Constitution explicitly prohibits any such connection, stating unequivocally in the first Amendment within the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Of course, the lack of an officially authorized religion might not be the final determining factor. Perhaps the presence of an overwhelming majority of practitioners of a particular religion could lead a specific religion to become operationally established. Within the United States, for example, it is very clear that the state of Utah is overwhelmingly dominated by Mormons. Anybody who wants to seek a statewide elective office would have to recognize that the Mormon voters will probably control the outcome of the election.

But there is no evidence that Christian voters can control the results of a nationwide election because Christians are themselves an immensely diverse group of constituents. There is no unified Christian position on any of the great policy questions facing the country. Christians disagree about homosexuality, abortion, collective bargaining rights, militarization, health care, and gun control. So nothing in the arena of political decision-making leads to the conclusion that one can call America a Christian nation.

One could argue, as a posse of politicians seems to assert, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Such assertions are often based on the religious dispositions of the founders. But the amazing thing is that, even if one grants the premise that all of the original signers of the Constitution were themselves Christians, they explicitly eschewed a religious identity for the nation. Originalists surely must grant that the Constitution, as the founders wrote it, rejected the proposition that America was a Christian nation. Candidates for the Presidency should have at least enough respect for the Constitution to recognize its explicit language.

Read the full blog.

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