[Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening Statement by John Rankin][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
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Is the United States a Christian Nation?
Should It Be?
 
Dialog
JOHN:
And so at this point we will dialog and quiz each other before intermission and questions and answers. But since I just finished, you get to go and rake me over the coals.

ED:
Well, I don't want to rake you over the coals. I'll leave it up to your God to do that.

[laughter]

JOHN:
I trust him to be the arbiter of that.

ED:
OK, good. It's hard to know where to start. You're right on some things of course: the things we agree on.

[laughter]

But you really are very wrong on a number of other things. Let's just start with this idea that the Declaration of Independence is…. First of all, it's not our governing charter. But it is an important document and it set precedents, and so forth. You have said in writing before this, as well as tonight, that it is a Christian idea, or Judeo-Christian God that is being appealed to there. But if that's true, it makes no sense that these folks who were literate, reasonable people didn't put anything in the Declaration to tie it to Christianity. It makes no sense when you look at the long, long, long history of Christianity and you find no self-governing nations before that. It's not a Christian idea. If you look at the Bible, it is full of theocracies of God-ordained leaders. And these men who wrote the Declaration of Independence were rebelling against somebody that Paul would have said they should not rebel against: a duly appointed Christian leader. In fact, Paul didn't even want his Christian followers to rebel against the Romans, which was a much harsher and more anti-Christian leader than George the Third. I'm going to give you a chance to make your speech again, about how the Declaration of Independence is somehow has a Judeo-Christian origin. And that that God that they refer to is Christian. It doesn't make sense. It's not supportable.

JOHN:
Well, I'll give you a positive answer, and then give you a rhetorical question as we pursue this. A biblical worldview understands the order of creation is marred by freely chosen sin. The whole agenda from Genesis 3 to the end of Revelation is redemption, restoring us to the original qualities of the order of creation. What I think is so remarkable about the Declaration of Independence is if you take Martin Luther and the Reformation, in his initial thoughts where he was crying for freedom he didn't fully understand, and as you go through the religious wars and you go all the way up to the Declaration of Independence, and you look at the immigrations from the Mayflower up to 1776, we had one hundred and fifty years of tussling with each another. Of people who originally came here for religious liberty. I think part of…

ED:
For themselves anyway.

JOHN:
To begin with, you're accurate. And what happened was, when other people different from themselves, when the Quakers came over, when some Jews came over, when the Catholics came over, not to mention the problems with the Indians and justice, all of a sudden, there they were, different cells of religious liberty. Obviously, Roger Williams flees down to Providence, and that's the history of the Danbury letter in 1801 in terms of religious liberty and the Baptist concerns. But what we have is groups tussling with each other and finally realizing, you know, unless we give liberty to each other, we're not going to have the liberty we came for. And what I see in that is tracing back to the initial liberty given in Genesis 1 and 2.

You mentioned here the Bible is full of theocracies. Here is where I can ask you a rhetorical question. I have another rhetorical question if I don't forget what it is, so I'll answer this one first. And that is, what is a theocracy? There's only two theocracies ordained in the Bible. The theocracy of Israel, from 1446 B.C. to 586 B.C., Moses to Jeremiah. And then the theocracy of when Jesus returns. In both cases the theocracy is a community of choice. For example, the whole theme of the Bible is, the Messiah is coming, and Satan wants to destroy the Messianic lineage, who are the Jews at this point in history. So God builds a political firewall around them, rescues them from unjust slavery in Egypt, but before they take possession of the land he's given them, Joshua says, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods across the river in Babylon, the gods in Egypt, or the gods among the Amorites, the Caananites among whom you now live; but as for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh. And they say we will serve him. He says you can't, because you can't do it unless you really mean you want to. Well, the whole context of Joshua 24 is, if you don't think God is good, then don't come and live under his laws. You are free to go anywhere else you want to. And therefore, there's no imposition of law. Rather the law of the nation was for those who chose to be a part of the nation because, overwhelmingly, and this is the nature of Exodus, they believed that God was good. Now, with the completion of Israel, with the coming of the Messiah, we are to preach the Gospel with that same liberty to all people until the second coming of Jesus, who then gives the theocracy as a community of choice. So any sense of an imposed theocracy is actually a biblical oxymoron. Unfortunately, there have been many attempts at that in history. And I just gave reference to the Reformation as a beginning movement away from that possibility.

One other response to what you said, and then my rhetorical question. I deal with this in volume 2. When Paul talks about obeying the government, and when he talks to Philemon the slave owner, and uses his influence to get him to set the slave free, and you go back to Daniel in Babylon, who was obedient. Daniel had an ethic, and Paul imitates this, of obeying the image of God within rulers so as to deter them from evil. And Daniel succeeded phenomenally in Babylon. And so there is a very sophisticated argument in Scripture that respects the image of God in people. And that is that you can actually shame people into doing what is right. You can lift up the image of God. And there is place for war. There is place for rebellion. But it's very tightly circumscribed and has to be just. And that was the issue that our founding forefathers were wrestling over. So that's my basic answer.

Let me ask you this question then. Unalienable rights by definition are rights the government may not alienate from us, may not take away from us. We agree on that. I've given you the understanding of Genesis 1 and 2, which is how the Bible interprets itself. Do you know of any other source in human history for the concept of unalienable rights?

ED:
I think it was something that was invented by the Enlightenment and by Jefferson. I don't think it came from a single source. I certainly don't think that it came from Christianity and biblical sources. If it had, it would have happened an awful lot sooner. We wouldn't have had the divine right of kings. Whether or not there are theocracies, you can't name a government and a way of governing a country before we started this one, with the exception of some city states here and there, where representative government, where people elected their representatives. And Christianity was around for all that time. You can't find biblical examples supporting this notion that government comes form the people. You gave me the words "the consent of the governed," but that's not from the Bible at all. In fact, the Declaration… I'm not saying that Jefferson and John Adams and all these other folks were not influenced by Christianity. Of course they were. Of course they were influenced by many other sources, Enlightenment philosophy, the atheistic philosophs in France, the Greek philosophers that you discussed, and the new and burgeoning scientific revolution which at every turn was fought by the church and by religion as a dangerous thing. John Adams wrote that the… No one can look at the government we created and say, I'm not quoting him exactly but I can give the exact quote if you give me a minute, no one can look at this government we created and pretend that it came from conversations with the gods. This was based on reason and our understanding. Was there understanding influenced by their ideas and the world they lived in, including Christian ideas. Of course it was. But their sense of ethics and morality, Jefferson wrote at length, voluminously, to disprove the notion that our Constitution or our laws are based in some way on the Ten Commandments. He insisted that instead that they were based on the common law of England that preceded Christianity in England. There was much argument about this, this notion of liberty versus tolerance which you kind of touched on. John Leland, the famous Baptist minister of revolutionary times, said that tolerance was unacceptable. He thought it was a terrible thing. So did Thomas Paine. They didn't want tolerance. They didn't want somebody who said, OK, I'm a Christian, I've got the right answer, but I'm going to allow you to have a different answer. They wanted liberty. They wanted the government not to have anything to do with making their religious decisions for them.

And so if it's my turn to ask a question, the question I'd ask John is, are there areas of your religious life that you are willing for the government, the majority, or anyone outside of yourself, to make decisions for you on?

JOHN:
Well tell you what, let me answer that for you in a minute, but respond to some of the substance of your response. Because you raised a lot of excellent perspectives. You pointed out that why, if the clarity of my understanding of the biblical definition of freedom is clear, why didn't we have a society beforehand that gave that freedom. And again, to take the Bible on its own understanding, the answer is very sin. Very sin!? Is sin! It is very simple.

ED:
Is that Freudian or Christian?

JOHN:
What?

ED:
Was that Freudian or Christian?

[laughter]

JOHN:
Well, I'll pass on Freud.

ED:
Me too, by the way.

JOHN:
But what's interesting is, God said, in feasting you shall feast, or if you disobey, "moth tamouth," in dying you shall die. It's an active participle of death that grows throughout the human experience. Unless we reap what sow and realize what it is to be apart from our Creator, we're not going to see the need for a Redeemer. And so the whole biblical history is the testimony of God's grace in spite of the most profound failures of his people. And see, this is what is so powerfully unique about checks and balances and the consent of the governed in the United States. It's all based on the understanding of a sin nature. It's not based on Hobbes, it's based on Calvin. It's based on the understanding that we will violate each other unless there are restraints. But the restraints have to come from the bottom up. The basis of trust between husband and wife is the foundation for society. If you go through the Bible and you see this long redemptive history of God restoring to us what was in the Garden of Eden, you see this consent of the governed. You see that before God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, he came to Abraham and Abraham was allowed to lobby for him, over and over and over again. Why? He wanted Abraham to own his decision. He actually as the Creator was giving his creature consent from the one who governed him. The whole understanding of covenantal law in the Old Testament is that God is good and he holds to his promises, unlike the pagan deities who don't give the promises that are good, and who are destructive as well. You look at Samuel versus Saul. Samuel was a man who was rooted locally, and he went out and judged matters communally, but based on Yahweh as King. And so Yahweh as King gives freedom. And under his order, checks and balances, consent of the governed. And that's precisely what Joshua 24 is. You consent to be governed by God's goodness, but only after he's proven his goodness to you. But that's different given the theocratic nature of Israel to protect the Messiah, versus now that the Messiah has come. And until he comes again what I understand is that the Reformation has brought us to a point of constitutionally enfranchising freedoms back in the order of creation. So, if you take the Bible on its own terms you see this redemptive progress. And that is my understanding.

Your question, now that I've given answer to your answer, was, would I consent to…?

ED:
What parts of your religious beliefs, practices, etc., would you be willing to allow the government to control, or a majority to control?

JOHN:
That's the beauty of unalienable rights. You see, by appealing to the Creator we say that everyone has life, liberty, and property. And of course that goes into the First Amendment. Religious liberty, which is the predicate for freedom of speech, press, assembly and redress of grievance. Those are unalienable. And what that means is no one can take them away from you. So on that basis it means that I give everyone liberty to believe whatever they want to, so long as we don't beat up on each other. Therefore, I will submit to no government that tells me I have to deny Jesus, or I have to do an act of evil.

So take a look at Daniel in Babylon. Daniel obeyed the government even when the satraps tried to lay a trap for him and it didn't work. But when they told Daniel not to pray to the true God, Daniel prayed to the true God. That's when they threw him in the lion's den.

I have to tell a story at this point. I was addressing a secular humanist group at Harvard years ago. When I was invited there they said, here is John Rankin. He likes to be raked over the coals by skeptics. And the guy said to me as I walked in the room, welcome to the den of lions. And I said, well thank you. I'm honored. And then I leaned over, have you read the story? Do you know who won?

[laughter]

Do we know who won? Daniel and the lions. Daniel wasn't the meal. You know what Daniel said when he was lowered into the lion's den? This is in the RSSV. "Shalom! Peace to you, oh lions. I am not your meal but you will be fed." Again, that's the RSSV.

But anyhow, so back to my answer. On the predicate of unalienable rights which I honor for others before I honor for myself, I will submit to all authority which serves that. But if my faith is required of me, I will die rather than yield my faith.

ED:
And that's what you should have. That's called liberty. And that's fine, but it has to be for everybody.

JOHN:
Absolutely.

ED:
And therefore we cannot have governments pretending that only Christians are good citizens, that being patriotic after our country has been attacked means being religious. It's not the same thing. It's very important.

JOHN:
And I agree with you wholeheartedly.

ED:
As I said at the beginning, I think John and I are going to agree on many things about this subject, not on all of them.

In 1794, which was seven years after the Constitution, and five or six years after the First Amendment was passed, a minor, relatively unimportant treaty was agreed to. It was written by a guy by the name of Joel Barlow. It was a treaty with the bay and people of Tripoli, which is what we would now call Libya. They were harassing our ships and stealing our goods off of our ships. We entered into a treaty in November the fourth, 1796. A treaty was agreed to. It was ten or twelve articles, relatively short treaty. The eleventh article of that began with a reassurance to the Muslims that we were not going to engage in religious warfare with them. It started with the phrase, "as the government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion," therefore you don't have to worry about us beating up on you, and so forth. That treaty was under Washington's administration, but it was John Adam who was president by the time it got back over to this country. It was agreed on unanimously by the Senate of the United States. The president, then John Adams, proclaimed it to the country. That language was printed in the newspapers of the day, probably in the Hartford Courant. I haven't actually checked this out, but the Hartford Courant goes back to 1764 continuously, so I understand from reading it at the fine guest house that I'm staying at. This was John's choice, so it's not an attack. Doesn't mean they are secular humanists. I don't know whether they are or not, but they're here tonight, my host at the Marywood Bed and Breakfast. It's a wonderful place. I recommend it for those of you who have out of town company and you don't want them in your house.

[laughter]

JOHN:
Now, you were offered a house.

ED:
I know. I know. I must say that the hospitality and the graciousness both of John and of the other folks have been wonderful. More than I could have expected, and I'm very grateful for it.

The treaty of Tripoli was unanimously passed. There was no fuss. Nobody got excited. Everybody understood the government of the United States was not founded upon the Christian religion. Those senators who voted for it did not pay a price. They went on to become Speaker of the House, and reelected to the Senate, and governor of Georgia, and all these kinds of things. They were doing ordinary duties. It was translated into English. There's some controversies about the treaty, and I'll respond to those if anybody wants to talk about it. If in fact just a few years after the Constitution and the First Amendment we have this declaration that's just unequivocal about this - not founded on the Christian religion - why does that not carry weight with you as evidence that the Constitution (which is really all the evidence you need) isn't founded upon the Christian religion?

JOHN:
OK, three points very quickly on that. Something, perhaps, I didn't make explicit earlier. The Declaration of Independence is the philosophical basis for our Constitution, and particularly unalienable rights in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. That's why it's important. Secondly, you asked a very good question about 1796. Something you did in your original presentation was you gave us a long list of "despites." The many references to the godly nature of our nation and its biblical mores. John Adams, who is perhaps one of the two or three most biblically literate presidents we've ever had, a very convinced Christian, and in his writings with Jefferson he talked about that a lot. And so I understand that what he was saying at that level, perhaps differently than I would say it, but it's the same moral content, saying we are not a Christian nation in the classic sense of France or England. We are a nation of religious liberty. We take it all as an assumption that is rooted in the Creator. Therefore, we are not out to force Christianity upon a Muslim state.


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  [Contents] [About the Participants] [Opening Statement by Ed Buckner] [Opening Statement by John Rankin][Dialog] [Questions from the Audience] [Closing Statements]
[Return to Mars Hill Forum]