From ........ Human Quest

MAY - JUNE, 1994

page 17

Baptist Forebears Rejected Notion of Christian Nation

The speaker? Madalyn Murray O'Hair?


Some modern secular humanist?

Not on your life.

The man who spoke these words was John Leland, a hell-fire preaching colonial Baptist from Virginia. What' s more, Leland was simply echoing the sentiments of Baptist Roger Williams who, 150 years earlier, had told us that civil authority has no "commission from Christ Jesus" to declare what is the true church.

Both Leland and Williams understood that God has favored no nation since ancient Israel with a special covenant. The "New Israel" is the church of Jesus Christ, not any nation - not even the United States.

No one can deny that Americans are a religious people or that Christianity had a profound influence on the civic values and public philosophy of many of our Founders. But our civil compact - the Constitution - is a decidedly secular document. It never mentions Christianity. The word "religious" is there only once - and then to disallow a religious test for public office.

Two years later the Bill of Rights again dispelled any lingering suggestion that America is a Christian nation when it prevented the federal government from establishing or privileging any religious tradition. Further, the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated under George Washington and ratified by the Senate under John Adams, declared:

This language remained in the trade agreement until it was renegotiated in 1805.

Thus, the Constitution enshrined the democratic Virginia model of Jefferson, Madison, and Leland; the theocratic experiment of John Cotton and the New England Puritans lost out. So, Americans do not have a Christian nation in any legal sense. Americans have a constitutional democracy in which all religious beliefs are honored and protected.

Baptists treasure religious liberty. Their forebears experienced heavy persecution at the hands of both the state and the established church. They fought and sometimes died to defend soul freedom and the sanctity of conscience - not just for themselves but for everyone else, too.

How strange, then, it is for some Baptists today to claim that America is a Christian nation: In making that assertion they are not only rewriting history and forsaking Baptist heritage, but consigning all who profess a different faith or no faith to second-hand citizenship. Neither the Constitution nor even Christian charity will countenance such a view.

But do not despair, good Christians. That the United States is not a "Christian nation" does not prevent Christians from trying to "Christianize" its people. Christians are perfectly free to evangelize their neighbors, to criticize their government, to allow their religious ethics to inform their public policy stances, and even to run for office. Indeed, it is precisely because government has not taken sides in matters of religion that Americans are turned loose to exercise their God-given religious freedom with near impunity.


Reprinted from Report from the Capital, Washington, D.C.