[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]
Is the United States a Christian Nation?
Should It Be?
Opening Statement by Ed Buckner
Before you start the time clock, I don't want this first part to count against my time, but I do want to say a few words of praise about John Rankin. Because he is famous, I think, for liking hard questions. Because it is rare these days, not just among Christians but among people in general, to find somebody who will stand up in a public forum and defend ideas and participate in exchanges like this. As your pastor said, I speak on this subject all over the country and I really enjoy it. I learn a lot every time I do that. But it is more fun when you test your ideas against somebody who disagrees with you. You learn a lot more from doing that. I think John Rankin is well aware of that. I have debated him -- debate is not the right word. He calls it a forum. He calls it a forum I think for a very good reason. I expect that we're going to find out tonight one of those reasons. Although we disagree very strongly on some very, very important things, including some of the things that are most important to both of us, we do agree on some things. I expect that in tonight's conversation we're going to find a number of areas of agreement. I hope so. So that's why it's a forum and not a debate. In a debate you win if you manage to disagree effectively with the other person at every turn. I think for John and I both, we win tonight if we learn something and you learn something, and we get a deeper understanding of some of these issues. I'm sure John will agree with me about that.

Two hundred years ago almost to the day, almost exactly two hundred years ago, the President of the United States sent a letter to a Protestant congregation in Connecticut. I'm sure since you're in Connecticut and a Protestant congregation you're probably familiar with that letter. It was to a bunch of Baptists - and I guess some of you are not Baptists - to the Danbury Baptist Association. And of course it was President Thomas Jefferson who sent that letter. Somehow that's important to me, that on exactly the bicentennial of that letter, John and I are going to discuss some of the issues related to this question.

I've debated on many topics. I've spoken on this one before. Most of the topics that I debate on - the existence of God, abortion, or a lot of other subjects - I honestly think there is room for reasonable people to disagree a great deal. I don't necessarily expect to win those debates in the sense of convincing everybody in the audience that in the main I'm right. I always want to do that, but I don't necessarily expect to do that. Tonight is a bit different. On the main point that I want to make, I actually expect to convince all of you. OK? So it's going to be a terrible disappointment if I don't get my way. I'm not saying that there's no room for disagreement on this topic, but I don't think there's nearly as much room for reasonable people to disagree on this topic as on many others.

I really think that it is indeed a choice between a free country and a Christian nation. I don't think you can say it is both. I think that all of you should, with rare exception, even most of the Christians I know, should agree with me that the preference should be for a free country. Free, of course, for Christians as well as for secular humanists and atheists and that sort of thing. This is a matter of logic and it is also a matter of history. The history is complicated. Jefferson's letter is only one small part of it. That letter I'm sure you remember is the one that first used the exact phrase, "to build a wall of separation between church and state." It's been pointed out many times that the First Amendment to the Constitution does not have the words "separation of church and state" in it. We can talk about that if you like. And he also said that it was approved of by the whole American people. He was not endorsing an anti-religious First Amendment by any means. He was not supporting an anti-Christian government. Those who have tried to prove that he wasn't doing that haven't had a very hard time proving it because he wasn't trying to do that.

But let's talk a little bit about the logic and then let's talk some about the history. I've already advised our moderator, and I'll advise you, this is a subject that it's pretty easy for me to get wound up on. I'm not keeping careful time. I'll try to keep time. If I go on too long and he stops me, that's what I've asked him to do, and I'm happy with that, that's not a problem.

We all think that we are right about religion. I love that bumper sticker I saw that said, "I'm a militant agnostic. I don't know, and neither do you." Even agnostics, and maybe not all of them, many agnostics at least, are sure that they are right about religion. Right that it is not possible to know. Those of us who are secular humanists and who don't have religious beliefs -- an atheist, freethinkers, whatever other term we want to use -- we tend to believe we're right too. Those of you who are Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, or followers of other faiths, tend to think you're right about your religious beliefs. The logic of complete neutrality is that you can't decide which of those points of view government should endorse via things like majority vote. I mean, whatever your religious views are, whether you're an atheist, Christian, or anything else, would you change your mind if fifty-one percent of the people in this room, or in this state, or in this country, voted that that was the wrong choice. I'm guessing that there aren't many. I hope there aren't any that would change their minds on religion, based on a majority vote. That tells me that you don't really believe that it's a thing we can vote on. You probably for similar reasons don't believe that it's something we can decide by some sort of show of force. You know, whoever beats up the other group, goes to war, or otherwise destroys the people who disagree with him. It would not make sense for us to decide what our religious views are going to be based on who's the strongest, who has the most votes. If we can't let the different factions fight to the death, or vote to decide what the government should endorse, then the only real choice, the only one that makes any… there are other alternatives. We could say, well, we'll appeal to authority. We'll let theologians decide. Or we'll let scientists decide. Or we'll let politicians decide, etc., etc. I'm sure I'd have no trouble convincing you that you don't want your religious views decided by any of those kinds of authorities either. And even if you agreed that it should be something decided by authority, then you have to decide which are the acceptable authorities, and we're not going to agree on that I'm sure.

The only alternative that can work, and in this country we have for the most part demonstrated that it can work, demonstrated that it can work for people of all religions and of none, as Tony Blair said recently, is to have freedom of religion, and to have neutrality on the part of the government, sustained, effective neutrality. Not opposition to your point of view or mine, but neutrality. In practice that's not possible to have all of the time at every turn, I understand that. But that should be the goal, that should be the ideal, and that's the only way we can keep from having religious wars or suppression or oppression of some people with religious views. If you think, I'm in the majority, I believe in God, or I'm a Christian, or what have you, and I would win … that could change. Majorities come and go. A generation from now, two generations from now, it might be majority Muslim, or majority Roman Catholic, or majority something else that you wouldn't find acceptable even if you do find acceptable a particular point of view now.

What we have is freedom. That's what we need. That's what we should keep. You can get it only with neutrality. We have freedom for those who believe that our rights come from a deistic god, from a god who wound everything up, set it in motion, set the laws and the rules, and then stepped aside and let the universe run itself. People like Thomas Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers. Deists they were called. There are a lot of Unitarians who hold similar beliefs now. We have freedom for people like John Rankin who believe that the first three chapters of the Bible, first three chapters of Genesis, lay out the primary truth that man is free to obey or disobey God. And to obey God and to get the rewards that go with that. Or to suffer forever in a lake of burning fire, or whatever it is that John Rankin's … what is it, Revised Standard? I can't remember your acronym. He's got his own biblical version, but not seriously. Whatever somebody thinks the penalties for not doing that are. And if somebody believes, as John Rankin does that the first three chapters of Genesis are fundamental in this and give us those rights, he has the freedom to do that. People who look at the Bible, biblical scholars and who see in the first three chapters of Genesis, and many of the other chapters of most of the other books, the work of many, many different human beings that have what appear to be quite contradictory messages and contradictory statements even in those first three chapters that John loves so well, have the freedom to believe that and to encourage others to accept their point of view.

I keep calling him John. I think I made it clear in my opening statement I have great respect for John Rankin. If in fact it was necessary to show you that respect by calling him the Rev. Rankin every time, I would do so. But for convenience sake he's going to call me Ed, I'm going to call him John. I would prefer that all of you call me Ed in questions and so forth too.

The logic of it in my opinion is truly unshakeable. I'm going to be interested to hear if John has any disagreement with that logic. Obviously it means freedom for secular humanists like me who don't think that the Bible or any other holy text is authoritative or ultimately useful. I certainly think the Bible has great interesting passages in it, wonderful literature. It has some lessons to teach us. It has some horrible things in it and so forth.

This is a free country. It's not a Christian nation. I'm convinced that that's true despite the fact that we have "In God we trust" on our money; despite the fact we say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; despite the fact we hear the occasional politician say "God bless America"; despite the fact that swearing in of officers often is accompanied by oaths, "so help me God"; despite the Mayflower Compact in which those fine, new, New England citizens swore that they were going to establish Christianity here and defend the faith; despite the Northwest Ordinance; despite the fact that the Declaration of Independence has four or five references to God in it; despite framers who started bible societies; despite the fact that Jefferson and Washington were vestrymen in the Anglican Church; despite the fact that there were established Christian churches in some of the original states as late as 1833 (Massachusetts was the last to abolish an established church); despite the fact that we have military and congressional chaplains; and much more.

I give you that list of straw men, which is what I think they are, in case any of you want to ask any questions about "How can you say this is not a Christian nation despite the fact that we say 'In God we trust' on money?" I've got very good answers for all of those. I don't have time to give them all to you now. I've got good answers.

One of the best answers, especially with respect to the Declaration of Independence, is on the table back there. There may not…. John lied to me. He told me there weren't going to be this many people here. So I didn't bring enough handouts I don't think. There are quite a few back there. Anybody who wants another one, you can email me and I'll be glad to send it to you. I'm very proud of that handout because of how cogently and effectively it describes the un-Christian roots of the Declaration of Independence and of this nation. I have to admit I'm also proud of it because it was written by one of the people I admire and love the most in the world. And no, that's not me. It's my son, Michael Buckner, who wrote that piece. I would encourage you to read it. I will talk some about some of the things he said in that, tonight.

Massachusetts, as I said, which is a state not too far from here, didn't disestablish its church until 1833. It was a Congregational church. Long before that, before there was a United States, before there was even the glimmer of the idea of the United States of America, in Massachusetts you could and in fact it actually happened, it wasn't just on the books, you could get a hole bored in your tongue with a red-hot poker if you were guilty of blasphemy, of saying the wrong thing about the God or the religion that was accepted then. That's just one of the many kinds of consequences that can occur if you don't have religious freedom, if you do have a Christian nation or a Muslim nation or an atheist nation. I don't want this to be an atheist nation, either. In 1774, James Madison, who was the father of the Constitution, wrote to a friend of his that he was horrified to discover that in the county next to his in Virginia, they were arresting people, preachers, for going around preaching things like: you should read the Bible for yourself, and other things that modern American Christians would take for granted, but which were against the law in Virginia at the time. Virginia was an Anglican state. The Church of England was the official state church. Madison was horrified at this notion. He wrote among things to his friend that "religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect." That was in 1774, and Madison's views became very important in all of this.

Seventeen-seventy-six we had a little thing called the Declaration of Independence. I know you're familiar with it. It does refer to God and nature's God and the supreme Judge and things like that at least four times in the document. There are a couple of things I need to point out to you. It was written by Thomas Jefferson with some help from some other people. Jefferson was certainly not an orthodox Christian, as a very famous preacher like, I think his name was John Rankin, wrote in one of his essays. Jefferson was certainly no Christian. He called himself a Christian interestingly enough. He called himself a real Christian, but he made it very clear that what he meant by that was that he was a great admirer of the philosopher, of the person, Jesus of Nazareth. But he also was very explicit in private letters that he did not believe that Jesus was… He actually used the word "deist" to describe Jesus, which is really strange. Thomas Jefferson was strange in a lot of ways. Let me make it clear, whatever founding father we're talking about, I can point out things that they were wrong about. I don't treat them as gods. I don't believe there's a Supreme Being, I don't believe that our founding fathers were gods either. They did all kinds of things that were foolish and wrong. So if in fact you can convince me that the original intent of the founding fathers was not to have separation of church and state, I would still be in favor of it. It just so happens that history is pretty clear that they were in favor of that.

But anyway, Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. It does have religious references in it. Those references are, however, fairly clearly deistic references, "nature's God." There is not any Christian reference in it. More important than that, the Declaration of Independence is not our governing charter. It was written in 1776 and agreed to in 1776. After the war of Independence ended in 1781, we existed under the Articles of Confederation for a while, which did have religious language in them. But it was not until September of 1787 that we agreed on, and it took a year or two to get it all ratified, the Constitution of the United States. That was the first significant governing charter in the history of mankind that did not invoke any gods. It didn't say, "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." It didn't say, "in the name of God Almighty." It begins and gives clear authority for the establishment of government to "We the people." In the body of the Constitution there is no reference to religion, except a negative one. In Article Six it says, "No religious test shall be required to hold office under these United States. It didn't say, "Only these religious tests…." It said, "No religious test…." It did say that people could swear or affirm, which gave freedom to those who did not want to swear to an Almighty God that they were telling the truth, to do that when they testified or took oaths of office, affirmations of office.

The First Amendment comes later. One more thing we need to talk about very briefly about the Constitution is that it was dated in the "eleventh (or twelfth) year of our Independence." And "in the year of our Lord one-thousand-seven-hundred-and-eighty-seven." Some people have said that proves that these folks intended for this to be a Christian document. I want to ask for a show of hands here if I might. How many of you worship the god Saturn. How many of you worship Thor or the goddess Freya. What's the relevance of these kinds of questions? Well, I'd be willing to bet you all of you call the day which we find ourselves in, Saturday, which was named after the god Saturn. You probably called yesterday Friday, which was named after the Norse goddess Freya. The day before that was Thursday, named after Thor. Probably none of you worship the sun or the moon, or the goddess Tue, or Mars, which is what March is named after. And on and on. Dating is something that does not convey religious belief. The conventional dating form of the day for all formal documents was to write "the year of our Lord," so that's what they did. They were very unconventional in adding "the eleventh year of our Independence."

If the founding fathers wanted to say this is a Christian nation, who was going to stop them? They had precedent after precedent: state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, any other governing charters they wanted to look at. All of which invoked religion, and they chose not to. It could not have been a mere accident, and in fact, the ratification debate that went on for a couple of years before the Constitution was ratified, that criticism came up over and over again, that we can't be adopting a godless document, this is a terrible thing. There were people who did not want to ratify it because of that, but those people lost. Just before the Constitution in 1786, a bill was passed into law in the state of Virginia. Now, a Virginia statue only applies in Virginia. That law is still in effect. It was written by Thomas Jefferson, but at the time it passed he was in France as our Minister to France, "our" meaning the Articles-of-Confederation government Minister to France. He wrote it, James Madison led the legislative effort to get it passed, and that bill says that no man shall be burdened in his body or person in any way for his religious opinions. I can give you the exact quote if you need or want it. Jefferson was prouder of that bill than he was of being President of the United States, or the Louisiana Purchase, or many other things. He had three things put on his tombstone. He wrote these out and said what shape he wanted the tombstone to be in. Three things. That he was the author of the Declaration of Independence. That he was the founder of the University of Virginia, which was the first university in this country that didn't have a divinity school. At that time in our history nearly all colleges were Christian schools, designed at least officially to produce Christian ministers. And the third thing was the Virginia statute for religious liberty. Jefferson was quite proud of that.

The examples in Virginia that were the primary influence, probably, on the Constitution don't stop there. James Madison succeeded in getting a petition before Patrick Henry was governor, or was a leader in Virginia and became governor. Patrick Henry and others wanted to establish in Virginia a multiple establishment of religion. They wanted to pass a rule to pay taxes that would support Christian ministers, but that it wouldn't be just Baptists or just Presbyterians or just Catholics. It would be all Christian ministers. Or most of them, I don't know how restrictive they were. They thought by making it a multiple establishment they'd get great support for it, and at first they did. Patrick Henry as I say was one of the leaders. He wanted that to happen. But that effort failed, mostly because of James Madison's leadership. He wrote a document called "A Memorial and a Remonstrance," in which among other things he said that if the government can take three-tenths of your property for the support of one religious idea, then it can take anything it wants for any religion. And that freedom of religion depends on not having that.

I'm getting funny looks. I've gone my twenty minutes. I've only got two or three more hours…! I'll come back. I've given you lots of stuff to ask me questions on. We'll hear from John Rankin now.

  [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]