Friday, March 04, 2005

America, the "Christian Nation"?

This is an old debate. One side says that America was founded upon Christian principles. Another says that the founding fathers were not Christian at all. Well, a new article in The Nation (Thanks Vince) brings up a nice primary source to address the issue. From the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli:

"As the Government of the United not in any sense founded on the Christian religion--as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen--and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

This was signed by President Adams, and ratified by a unanimous vote in the Senate. While this was the 339th recorded vote in the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote. There was no debate over the wording.

That should make things pretty clear.

Jefferson, Franklin, Paine... the most clear-cut deists and atheists, and also the people who really laid the remarkable framework of our nation. This seems to set up a pretty interesting trend: The more you base your life on the mistranslated words of a probably-fictional Jewish carpenter who supposedly regurgitated a bunch of common sense, interspersed with psilocybin-induced hallucinations some 2000 years ago, the less likely you are to do anything good in government.


Anonymous said...

reading the article, especially about the insertion of "under god" into the pledge of allegiance during the McCarthy era, makes me wonder how much of our "Christian Nation" comes from our recent anti-communist (and therefore anti-atheist) past. Is it a coincidence that the American Right Wing, those most opposed to communist ideals, is also the most religious? (Not in the sense of personal religion, but in the integration of religion into the workings and policies of our government.)

As atheism was a part of the communist revolution (at least in our perception of Soviet communism), is religion necessarily a part of the Right Wing's spreading freedom/democratic revolution?

Rainbow Demon said...

Thanks for the reaffirmation, Jeff... I guess that Bu$hco doesn't actually know what the words "Mehomitan nation" means... and of course, 1797 was before the discovery of 'black gold' and all the reconfigurations that we've experienced in society ever since.


Jason Godesky said...

Oh, that last part's a little harsh. While none of the actual gospels are reliable in and of themselves, there's more multiple, independent attestation for the crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth than damn near any other figure from antiquity. Everything else is pretty much open; myself, I go with Crossan's Jewish Cynic sage idea.

Jeff Vail said...

Personally I like Marvin Harris's Jewish Rebel Leader concept, but I have to say that "The Christ Conspiracy" (book) brings up just way too many potential alternate explanations to convince me of the historicity of Christ. I don't believe that he's a fake, but I certainly don't believe that he's real. There are just a few too many astrological coincidences to the whole story, and a few too many "crucified saviors" that came before him (Mithras, to name the most significant for the Christ tale), not to mention our collective-mind's penchant for creating evidence. R.A. Wilson said it best: maybe.

Anonymous said...

If our government was not created with Christianity in mind then why do most of the country’s icons have references to God? How are words from a fictional character mistranslated if the words are not literal in the first place? If the "sense" that he spoke from was/is so common, how come you don't see, hear, feel, it more often on a daily basis?

Jason Godesky said...

I don't think there's any question that the gospels are heavily fictionalized. The Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and damn near everything in between is pulled from various mythologies and legends.

That said, I think there's also significant evidence that there *was* some real personage that those legends were attached to--someone who may even have been a bit of a faith healer. I used to be heavy into historical Jesus studies; in those circles, "The Christ Conspiracy" is considered more of a joke than anything else.


Most of the founding fathers were secular Deists who owed more to the Enlightenment than to Christianity. They shared the Enlightenment's simultaneous low regard for organized religion, and its constant usage of religious terms and symbolism.

Words are easily mistranslated, whether literal or metaphorical. If I say, "Life is a rowboat," that's a metaphor. If you translate that as "Life is hand grenade," you've mistranslated that.

As for "common sense," I've never held it in very high regard, so I can't speak much to it. Though, I find the core of the historical Jesus' teachings lies less in common sense, and more in subversion of the very concept of hierarchy and authority. Relevant PDF.

Jeff Vail said...


"The Christ Conspiracy" does smack of standard conspiracy theory fare. That said, most major reassessments of history in the last 100 years--those that have revealed the most revolutionary reconceptions of our past--have spawned from materials that appear just like that. Who knows where this will happen next--but it seems to me that the more we "believe" things, the more we risk such a deception, or at least such a misperception. Sometimes too many coincidences really is too many coincidences. That said, I do think that there is a good chance that Jesus was a very real, very historical figure. I'm just not convinced. I'd recommend Michael Parenti's "The Assassination of Julius Ceasar" for anyone interested in the extremely radical potential for a reconception of history...

And anonymous, most of the "under god"-ness in our national heritage was added much later than the age of the founding fathers. The "in god we trust" on our currency was added Civil War era, and the "under god" in our constitution was a McCarthyist backlash to communist atheism.

Anonymous said...

I am not a religious person. It is a fact that the nation was not created to be a christian nation. but it was based on judeo christian morality. With the concept of respecting all religous beliefs within reason. There is a difference.

This is not to say that it was founded without a belief in GOD. this is clear in the declaration of Independance. The imprtance of this concept is very important to our rights in this country. If this country removes GOD from the Govt, which is not a religion BTW, then where do our unalienable rights come from? If not GOD, then from the government? So we now have reduced ourselves to the level of many other governments and we see how well that has gone for individual rights. Talk about your slippery slope.

Jeff Vail said...

The very concept of "unalienable rights" is a fiction. An appealing fiction that sounds very nice when rolling off the tongue.

I'll say this again: there are no rights, there is only power. If you can create a system of "government" that distributes the power adequately so as to prevent any one person or group from controlling too large a share, then there is a good chance that YOU will have enough power to think that you have rights. But be careful that you do not begin to BELIEVE in "rights".

Rhizome is, at its core, an attempt to do the same thing that I think the more enlightened of our founding fathers were attempting when drafting our constitution: to create institutions of power distribution that systemically prevent the accumulation of power and that create the appearance of "rights".