THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

What Do You Mean By “Christian Nation”?

A couple of weeks ago an article appeared in The Christian Post on how America was departing from the values of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  The idea was that the principles espoused by the Founders were essentially Christian, and that therefore the United States is properly a “Christian nation.”

To be human is to pursue virtue.

A number of comments come to mind, the first of which is that human persons can be Christian — or Jewish, Muslim, or Holy Momzer, if they prefer — but not a country or a nation . . . at least not in a religious sense.  Only “natural persons” can have faith (or hope, or charity, or prudence, or fortitude, or temperance, or justice. . . .), as faith is a “virtue,” meaning something consistent with human nature.  Virtue signifies “human-ness,” and the task of acquiring and developing human-ness — i.e., becoming more fully human — is the meaning and purpose of life, if you must know.

Can a country actually be “Christian,” “Jewish,” or “Muslim”?  If that is meant that the predominate culture, not necessarily the religion, is “Christian,” “Jewish,” or “Muslim,” or that a determinate number of people in that country are adherents of a particular faith . . . we suppose so, but isn’t there a better way of putting it?

It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to have a religious state; something like the Sovereign Order of Malta (its unofficial name) is a religious order that is a “countryless state” and rather difficult to classify or deal with within the framework of modern political theory, while even in the Papal States Pope Pius IX attempted to disestablish religion as a branch of government (or government as a branch of religion) and separate the civil administration from the internal affairs of the Catholic Church — the acceptable Catholic version of “Separation of Church and State.”  This was not “secularization,” but an attempt to confine civil government and organized religion to their proper spheres.

De Tocqueville wants a better picture.

Ordinarily, however, linking government and religion together is a real bad idea.  As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, when a religion becomes tied in with political interests, it almost always means the end of the religion as a religious force.  A religion can’t serve two masters.

Yet with the advent of the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age, that is precisely what has happened.  It is important to realize that much of what people today take as the proper role of organized religion is nothing of the sort.  Churches, synagogues, and mosques (or temples, cults, or whatever) are not supposed to be social welfare agencies or quasi-governmental organizations devoted to carrying out government mandates.

On the other hand, those believers often classed as reactionaries who want to confine religion to purely spiritual matters are wrong, too, as are those who want to shuck the whole business and get away from it all.  As Msgr. Ronald Knox observed, such enthusiasts, despairing of an ungodly, sinful world, feel the need to separate in some fashion from the damned worldlings, even those of their own faith who fail to measure up to the minimum standard of holiness.  (Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, 2-3.)  As he said of this “enthusiastic” impulse, very strong in religious circles these days,

Ronald "Fort" Knox

Always the enthusiast hankers after a theocracy, in which the anomalies of the present situation will be done away, and the righteous  bear rule openly.  Disappointed of this hope, a group of sectaries will sometimes go out into the wilderness, and set up a little theocracy of their own, like Cato’s senate at Utica.  The American continent has more than once been the scene of such an adventure; in these days, it is the last refuge of the enthusiast.  (Ibid., 3.)

In this context we might mention Ave Maria, Florida, as well as the bestselling book by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).  The long and somewhat tedious historical tendency of Americans to go charging off to find their City on a Hill is also chronicled in such books as Chris Jennings, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (New York: Random House, 2016), and Adam Morris, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019).

Anyway, to return to the article in the Christian Post, we did wonder where the author has been for the past century and a half or so.  That the United States was, in a sense, founded on “Christian values” — meaning natural law principles as understood within the framework of Aristotelian-Thomism — was obvious from the very beginning.  No, this does not mean that the United States was founded as a “Christian country,” only that the political theory and general moral tone of the country (with some rather horrifying exceptions, such as chattel slavery and treatment of native peoples) were consistent with — but not determined by — Christianity.

Moses Maimonides

Frankly, not to annoy too many people, a similar case could be made for the United States being founded on Jewish or Muslim values, at least those consistent with the Aristotelian natural law theory of Maimonides or Ibn Khaldûn, respectively.  We actually know one Islamic scholar who insists — to the rolled eyes of other Islamic scholars — that the United States was founded on Islamic values.  Uh, huh.

And what specific “Christian value” was the founding principle?  The dignity of the human person.  Is that a purely “Christian value”?  We would say not — and therefore to try and make the case that the United States is a “Christian nation” on that basis is both weak and misleading.

In any event, if we confine ourselves to human dignity instead of arguing which religion (if any) has a monopoly on it, we might actually get to the heart of the problem.  Rephrasing the situation as “getting away from respect for human dignity” instead of “getting away from Christian values” just might get people to think about the problem more objectively, and then reach a viable solution instead of starting a religious persecution or a holy crusade.

And therein, as they say, hangs a tale . . . which we will look at in the next posting on this subject.