Deeds vs. actions

Separation of church and state

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


Due to other occupations, namely tabulating Biggest Little Best Of Northern Nevada results, I was unable to make it to a church, mosque, temple or synagogue this weekend. But Dennis Myers’ excellent feature story in conjunction with our own popularity contest and the upcoming election had me thinking along certain spiritual lines so an essay seemed more appropriate than usual.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that will be considered sacrilegious from the get-go: I don’t believe there’s a practical separation between church and state, and if there is supposed to be, the difference between a United States with a separation and one without is so slight that it seems merely semantic.

I get emails from the conservative Christian side of my family that make the claim that the Founders of this country were Christian, and therefore this is a Christian nation. These texts often make the case that the founding documents of this nation were based in Christian thought, although I will point out that there were non-Christians who signed some of the earliest papers, the Declaration of Independence, for example. (See for more on this.)

I also get the emails and Facebook postings from my atheist and agnostic friends and family who argue that this nation was founded as a secular country. There’s plenty of historical evidence for that, as well.

To me, the first part of the First Amendment is the primary written source for arguments about how the Founders felt about religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Founders had all the opportunity in the world to establish Christianity in that document if they’d chosen. Instead, they chose to enshrine the less precise term “religion.”

But there’s a huge difference between the words and the actions of both the founding of this country and how we run it.

From my point of view, the determination of whether someone is Christian is how they act—not just on the day the particular sect chooses as the Sabbath.

In the years following the founding of the country, white Europeans and their slaves settled a continent. To decide whether we had a Christian government then, all we have to do is look how the government treated the human beings around it—you know, that whole “Love thy neighbor” thing from Matthew 22:36-40. The most Christian people I know honor the 10 Commandments, as must a Christian government in order to be called a Christian government.

So when the “founding” Europeans conquered a landmass and its native people—the majority of human beings on the continent—did they murder, did they steal, did they bear false witness (in treaties), did they covet their neighbors’ houses, their neighbors’ wives, their neighbors’ servants, his oxen, his donkeys, or anything belonging to their neighbors?

That history aside, we’ve had 234 years since the Declaration to develop our government’s Christianity. I don’t see much in the way of proof that we live in a Christian country or even a moral or ethical country. There are innumerable instances where our government and its representatives have murdered, lied, stolen, dishonored our elderly, and shown extreme covetousness for the property of its citizens and its neighbors.

I guess that’s why I say it doesn’t matter whether some citizens say we’re a Christian nation founded in Christian principles and some say we’re founded on secular principles. Those ancient documents and the arguments for and against Founders’ thinking don’t carry much weight against empirical evidence. The question of whether there’s a real separation of church and state would be totally irrelevant if we as a nation could show we practice some kind of principles.