The blog of Frederick Clarkson

Theocracy vs. Democracy in America

with 6 comments

You can’t listen to Christian Right leaders, and more than a few GOP elected officials these days without hearing the phrase “America was founded as a Christian Nation.” What about separation of church and state, you may ask? What about the establishment clause of the First Amendment? Well, the Christian Right has it’s own version of history, it’s own historians, colleges, universities and even law schools. So what about `em? There is a war on for control of America, its institutions and its history. This essay is about one element of the struggle.

A crucial part of the war for the future of America is the battle to define the past. It is in this past that we find key understandings of the Constitution. It is also in this past that modern politicians, judges, and conservative evangelical religious leaders justify their contemporary actions and public policy views. The mythology of America as the once and future Christian Nation, is a powerfully animating factor for the Christian Right. The myth of Christian America is highly debatable. Well, let the debates begin.

Here in the age of “framing the message,” the Christian Right has done a good job with Christian Nationalism — so much so, for example, David Barton, one of the leading figures in the Christian Nationalist movement, works full time spreading the message of Christian historical revisionism. (The Republican National Committee put him to work this year touring churches. He is also the vice- chair of the Texas GOP.) There is no analogous figure fighting for a non-revisionist version of history (although Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has done a terrific job of debunking Barton over the years.) The idea that America was founded as a Christian Nation is prevalent and widely broadcast, by Christian Rightists like Rev. D. James Kennedy, and is largely unrefuted in public life.

Christian Rightists are able to compile a lot of information to support their thesis. They can quote from the Mayflower Compact, from the preambles of constitutions of state legislatures, to various religious statements by various “Founding Fathers.” Absent a grounding in American history and the development of the constitution, this stuff can be hard to refute. Do you have to be a constitutional lawyer or have an advanced degree in history to refute Christian Nationalism? Hopefully not. The political battles in our schools and in electoral contests are not usually going to be waged by folks like that. Somehow, the rest of us need to have useable renderings of our history, so we can go toe-to- toe at the school board, on the op-ed page, and in candidate debates.

I found a helpful place to begin, where the information and the implications are unambiguous. And that’s in Article Six of the Constitution.

For over 150 years of the colonial era, there were established churches, just as there had been in Europe for centuries before. In different colonies, there were different established churches. In Massachusetts it was the Congregational Church. In Virginia, it was the Anglican Church. As a general rule during this period, you had to be a member in good standing of the established church to vote and hold public office. What’s more, one had to swear a Christian oath, of one sort or another. Details varied and changed over time. But the framers of the Constitution had some knotty problems to resolve. They were well aware of the history of religious warfare in Europe, and indeed, of the religious persecution and bigotry in the colonies. One of the formative experiences of the young James Madison was witnessing the beating and jailing of a Baptist minister who dared preach the gospel as he understood it in violation of Virginia law at the time. In the previous century not only witches, but Quakers were executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jesuit missionaries, if any had shown up, would also have been executed.

How could the Framers of the Constitution stitch together a nation out of 13 separate colonies, each with its own established churches? How could they inoculate the new nation against the ugliness of religious bigotry and persecution, and the risk of religious warfare? They started to answer these questions in Article Six.

Article Six, Clause 3 states: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

What this meant was that for the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation would not be a consideration as to one’s qualifications for office. This clause, effectively disestablished the churches, by making religious equality the law of the land. It was a radical idea, and it passed overwhelmingly and with little debate. The Christian Right of the 18th Century didn’t like article six and unsuccessfully fought ratification in the state legislatures. The Christian Right spent much of the 19th Century unsuccessfully trying to amend the Constitution to acknowledge God or Christianity in some way. In the latter part of the 20th Century (through the present) the Christian right has tried to revise history to say that the U.S. really was a Christian Nation after all.

But its hard to get around the simple fact that there is no mention of God or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution. This was not because the Framers were irreligious. It was because they believed in religious freedom and did not want the government to interfere in religious affairs. Nor did they want the abuses of power that come from commingling state power with the power of the clergy. Its true that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution or any of the amendments. But the meaning has been unambiguously there from the beginning.

The Christian Nationalists have a tremendous problem in Article Six, so they either ignore it, or attempt bizarre interpretations. Still, growing numbers of people are getting steeped in the mythology, in Christian Schools, home schools, and events with the likes of David Barton.

But one prolific theocratic writer, Gary North, a longtime Christian right strategic thinker, is honest about Article Six. North, who holds a legitimate Phd in colonial history, writes that Article Six erected an explicit “legal barrier to Christian theocracy” and that the ratification of the Constitution was a “break with Christian America.”

Indeed, the colonies had been little Christian nations. But they were overthrown by the ratification of the Constitution by the 13 state legislatures. Each state in turn, gradually brought their state constitutions into conformity with the national charter. Acheiving religious equality did not happen overnight. Arguably, we could say that we have not acheived it yet. But we have come a vast distance in the past 200 years. And I believe that being able to describe that difference in a clear, factual and persuasive manner is one of the great tasks and challenges for all who are concerned about the Christian Right’s vision for America.

Christian Nationalism is an ideology that ought to be easy to demolish, from a powerful factual and moral high ground. Christian Nationalism presumes second-class citizenship at best for the religiously incorrect. The nostalgia for more theocratic times by the likes of Rev. D. James Kennedy and David Barton is offensive. The early colonies were hotbeds of legalized religious bigotry and persecution. That’s one of the reasons why the churches were disestablished. We don’t want to go back to that era. Teasing effective “messages” out of the facts and the history is not that hard, but our knowledge and our arguments are sorely in need of being updated.

We have allowed the Christian Right to own the phrase “religious freedom.” Its time to take it back. On the matter of religious equality and religious freedom, we are the political descendants of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Framers of the Constitution. Let’s act like it.

[This essay is partly adapted from my book Eternal Hostility. I recently posted an earlier version at The Daily Kos, where an interesting discussion ensued. — FC]

Written by fred

December 31st, 2004 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Theocracy vs. Democracy in America'

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  1. Sounds a bit over-manicheistic.

    As I understand it, the US did become more religious as a Country with the early 19th Ctry evangelistic revivals and that religious impulses for social and political reform have historically been important for us.

    The separation of Church and State has meant their autonomy, not their segregation, historically. The prevalence of the segregation motif has grown in the 20th Ctry with the ascendancy of the liberalism of the Democratic party.

    I’m against revisionism, but I think it is important to bear in mind that Christianity as it developed in the US was always involved with politics, but did so in a way that was not theocratic. Churches were among the first intermediary institutions between people and the state and they have every right to remain as intermediary institutions.

    The problem with the religious right is the general lack of highly-developed habits of political deliberation, which are in part theologically-discouraged. This, and the perception that Democrats are not faith-friendly and insensitive to Red American culture, makes it so too many people give their votes too easily to the Republican party.



    2 Jan 05 at 10:42 pm

  2. Thank you for your response.

    I think you misread my intentions.

    Of course religious views underly the political involvements of many
    if not most in history regardless of what thier political positions
    may have been. As I said in my essay, the framers made thier decision
    not because they were irreligious. (One can only cover so much in one
    essay.) .

    I am also not opposed to religion or to churches, and there is nothing
    in what I wrote that could be remotely construed that way.

    Our main area of disagreement may be that there have always been those who also advocate theocratic politics and governance. That tradition continues
    to this day. To ignore that truth, is to place at risk the errosion of
    religious freedom for everyone, in my opinion. I would invite you to
    look into it further.

    As for the hapless Democrats, they just don’t know how to defend
    themselves against viscious Republican smears on thier personal
    religious character, and the values of religious pluralism and
    equality that the party professes.


    Frederick Clarkson

    3 Jan 05 at 1:07 am

  3. I think there have always been those that thought they could improve things by capturing the gov’t and imposing their will on its policies. This is by no means restricted to theists, consider the USSR.

    It does come down to a matter of ecumenicism, where we love/respect our enemies/opponents by accepting that we need to compromise and agree to disagree on matters of significance.

    I fear your language comes across as too inflammatory and fails to help improve inter-cultural communication so as to reduce the faith-based political acrimony in our country. At least, that’s the tack I take at the Anti-Manicheist.


    3 Jan 05 at 8:36 pm

  4. I’m not going to follow your blog, if you don’t have the time to respond to my comments.



    15 Jan 05 at 11:50 am

  5. I thank both of you for your commentary. The essay was informative and well written. The concept of a “theocratic” America is a bit much for the average citizen and they do tend to ignore what our democracy really entails.
    Many have died in the past and will in the future defending our Constitution,
    never really understanding its scope.
    Your essay does reveal, partly, one aspect. Thank you for your efforts.


    11 May 06 at 5:59 pm

  6. Most of us who are of the Christian faith look to our religious leaders to speak out in support of candidates who will protect our religious freedom while avoiding the establishment of a Theocracy. So we must have questions answered by those candidates regarding their religious views.

    Presidential appointments such as Supreme Court nominees are crucial to our religious liberties. Therefore, having a President who is a Christian believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ is most important to us…regardless of which denomination the candidate belongs. This should preclude a Muslim or a Mormon being elected in either party.


    15 Dec 07 at 6:45 pm

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