[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?
 
Opening Statement by John Rankin
Ed, thank you so much. Since you began with time that didn't count against your clock, I will reciprocate for the sheer enjoyment of the evening. One thing Ed was trying to mention earlier in terms of the view of judgment was, in our last forum together in Buffalo, before the snow was as deep as it is now, I quoted the RSSV. Those of you who were in church last Sunday remember I quoted that, the Rankin Sub-Standard Version. I use it according to my own interpretive opinion of the moment. I actually quoted it to Ed as well, as I think I may have done last Sunday: "For God so loved the world that he gave each one of us the freedom to go to Hell if we want to." I'll follow on that a little bit later. The second thing as my pre-statement here is, Ed, I didn't lie to you about the numbers here. You asked how many would be here, and I said, oh, between seventy-five and three hundred.

ED:
That's not what I remember.

JOHN:
OK, but you see I'm a trusting person so I didn't tape record that telephone call. At any rate, he said, how many flyers should he bring. Should he bring a hundred. I said that should be OK. So you see, my sense was I didn't think you'd convert more than a hundred of our church.

[laughter]

ED:
I'll take a hundred.

JOHN:
I'm sure you will. Again it's a joy to be doing this forum and to be doing it here tonight at The Barn. If you're interested, look forward to doing this future times with other well qualified skeptics of my biblical presuppositions.

The question we have before us this evening is exactly the question that Ed said he wanted to address, which I was delighted to do. A double question, "Is the United States a Christian Nation? Should It Be?" Ed's publicist called me a month ago or so (they wanted to publicize this to fellow skeptics in Connecticut) and said, what is your answer to the question? They wanted to know ahead of time. I thought that was a pretty good way of finding out. I said, well, you can attend. No, I didn't really say that. I said, I'll have a nuanced answer. Let me give you that nuanced answer. My answer is "yes" and "no." Now let me explain what I mean by that.

Ed has talked about the Declaration of Independence, and that's also where I was going to start. Let me talk about it in terms of the origins of its understanding. The language that we're talking about in Jefferson's language, and Jefferson wrote the language, but he was composing it for a committee of about ten or twelve fellow signers, all of whom were orthodox in their Protestant confession. Jefferson, as I said last time in my forum with Ed, was not orthodox, but nor was he a deist. This is an easy confusion to make. A deist is someone who believes that God wound up the world and does not intervene. Jefferson did not believe that. Jefferson believed he and this nation were going to be judged for the sin of slavery. He was explicit about that. He wasn't a deist. He may have had many deist leanings, but he wasn't a deist. He was a rationalist. That's why he didn't believe in miracles. He thought they couldn't occur. He liked the ethical teachings of Jesus, but in his famous New Testament he took the scissors and cut out the miracles because he didn't believe they happened. He was a rationalist, but by the same token, and those with him in his understanding of how to found this nation, he leaned on biblical ethics. He did so because he and those with him had to have, in order to justify the revolution, the power and the self-confidence to appeal to a higher authority than King George III. He didn't appeal to the king of France. He didn't appeal to Thor. And he didn't appeal to the Pope. To whom did he appeal as someone of an Anglican background with his own skepticisms? Well, his language - and again it wasn't just his language, he was the one who wrote it because he was such a good rhetorician, and so good with his language - but the language they decided on was the following two well known clauses:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed."

In those two sentences we have dozens worth of Ph.D. theses topics. I just want to hit the core elements, much in complement to what Ed said, but going far deeper in terms of the question of the source of unalienable rights. In other words, when Jefferson said our "Creator," what I think is so marvelous about this, and here is where I say we are not a Christian nation at our founding, what we are is a nation founded by Protestant Christians who based our liberties on biblical ethics. Those biblical ethics can be found nowhere else but the God of Genesis. The God of Genesis is Christian, Jewish, and pre-Jewish, because the Jewish identity doesn't begin until Abraham in the twelfth chapter. It is a declaration in the Hebrew, Yahweh Elohim, he who is bigger than space, time and number, who has made a universe that is bound by those boundaries. As such, what we have in Genesis is the understanding of unalienable rights of life, liberty and property. Now I use the language "property" because that's not only the language that Locke used, but Jefferson borrowed off of. And they debated between "property" and "pursuit of happiness." But also, whereas the philosophical idea of the pursuit of happiness is in the Declaration, the legal enfranchisement of that in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution is "life, liberty and property." I'll explain a little bit about what I mean in a few minutes here.

But here's the first historical assumption that I make. When the Creator was referred to, and nature's God, the God over nature, not gods in nature, speaking about the Creator was an unmistakable pre-Christian, pre-Jewish assumption out of which both Judaism and Christianity flow. The beauty about this in my estimation is that there was no christological language talking about Jesus the Messiah, which was basically saying that we as Christians are affirming our source. And our source is that we believe Jesus is the Messiah of the God who made us, who revealed himself to the Jews, but the God who made all of us. And the God made all of us in his image, and that image is to be found anywhere on the planet, as Paul speaks of on Mars Hill. And hence my idea for the Mars Hill Forum. So, the historical fact is that Jefferson was not referring to Isis, or to Thor, or to Jupiter, or to Zeus, or to any other concept of deity in human history. His only concept and those with him was the God of the Bible. So we are not a Christian nation, but we're a nation founded by Protestant Christians who believed in the one Creator of us all, declared in Genesis 1 and 2.

Now what are these unalienable rights? They are that we each have life, liberty and property which may not be deprived of us unless first we deprive someone else. That's the explicit language in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. If you look at every pagan religion in history, and secular humanism. Secular humanism is not a religion, but if you trace its ethical ideas, they go back to Greek philosophers who were contesting with pagan Greek religion, but their ethics did not rise above pagan Greek religion at many levels and at one particular point. And that is that they believed, like much paganism does, that the universe is infinite, that we are produced by it and are swallowed up by it in the end.

Years ago I had the agreement of the late Dr. Carl Sagan to do a Mars Hill Forum, but he became ill with cancer and we were unable to do it. I was looking forward to posing him a question. The question was, Carl, what is the difference between paganism and saganism? I thought it was a good rhyme. I would have loved his answer. I'll tell you what my answer was since I never did get his answer. And using saganism for secular humanism, which he was. I would say the difference between paganism and saganism is, in paganism at least you have some interesting stories on what happens between dust and dust. But ethically in both cases you deny that there is an eternal good God who has an eternal good future for us if we choose to receive it.

I was doing a forum some years ago with Nadine Strossen, who is president of the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union. She quoted the Declaration, and our topic was homosexuality, the church and civil rights. When it came time for our interaction I said, Nadine, you've quoted the same source I was going to quote. My question for you is this. Jefferson, our non-orthodox friend, the "Creator," to whom was he referring? She looked at me, and Nadine is very quick and very sharp, she thought for a second and said, well, you have your Creator and other people have their Creators. I said no, you've just described polytheism, the belief in many gods. If you look at every polytheistic culture and religion in history, no concept of unalienable rights. A yearning for it in the human nature, which you trace back to the image of God. But no religious, structural or governmental concept of every person having unviolable life, liberty and property. That no one can take away except when you take someone else's life, liberty or property, and then the state has remedy at that point. So my question, my interest here is in historical terms alone: to whom was Jefferson, our non-orthodox friend, referring? And not that you have to believe in this Creator. But rather for the sake of history, to whom was he, and those with him, referring? She looked at me and said, why does it matter so long as we protect unalienable rights? This is the key point of interest I have, and this was my answer to her at that moment. If we don't know from where these rights have come, how will we know how to get them back if we ever lose them?

So my point of history, even with someone like Ed who is a professed atheist, is what is the historical source that gives us liberty that we both equally enjoy? A lot of the definitions that Ed gave to you I would agree with, but I'm going to push the deeper question. What is the source, the original historical source, of that idea?

What we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is that we are made in God's image. We are the crown of creation, and that life is inviolable. You know, in Islam they don't even have that idea. In Islam we are not made in God's image. We are higher than the animals, but still we don't have that value imbued within us. Pagan religion, we are in the images of the gods who do what? They beat up on each other and beat up on us. So in Genesis life is given. The whole reason for the universe is human life, man and woman, co-equal image bearers to enjoy the fruit of God's creation.

And then liberty. As I like to preach on often, as we look in Genesis chapter 2, we have the original definition of freedom. It's where we have the language, borrowing a little bit of Hebrew here, and Yahweh God commanded the man, in feasting you shall feast from any tree in the Garden. The NIV (that's a real translation) says "you are free to eat from any tree in the garden." And the Hebrew, two tenses of the verb "to eat," is in feasting you shall feast. But if you eat from the forbidden fruit, which in the metaphor, the language, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which means the knowledge of everything, that only God can possess. If you try to become God, is what's being said there. Then "moth tamouth," in dying you will die. You will surely die. And so two choices are given, in feasting you shall feast, or in dying you shall die.

Once we are made in God's image as an unalienable right, the second unalienable comes from God, and that is you are free. The radical nature of freedom, and radical means root-level, is that it is based in the metaphor of feasting. I love to take surveys when I'm preaching or speaking on campuses. How many people here genuinely don't like to have a good meal, assuming your health is OK and what not. I've asked this more places. First time I did it was in a Presbyterian church in Carmel, California. No one raised their hand, so I declared church unity and the pastor was pleased. I'll also declare human unity. The only reason people don't want to feast and drink is if they have health concerns. That goes back to the order of creation and sin, but I won't pursue that too far right now. The understanding of Genesis is freedom is likened to a banquet, a metaphor, an unlimited menu of good choices. Every other religious, philosophical origin text, it all ultimately goes back to Babylon, has no concept of this freedom. And so this is biblically unique.

And then "property" slash "the pursuit of happiness." The earth is given to us as a steward of God's goodness. You go through the Old Testament laws, he says in the Jubilee ethics in Leviticus at one point, I'm giving you this land, now take care of your land. We have this all the way through Scripture. God has given us property rights, and the property rights are that in an honest economy, there is plenty of freedom for everyone to build their own piece of land, to buy, to sell. Out of property rights comes the power to pursue happiness. That's also rooted, in a different context, within the covenant of marriage, because as a man leaves one household and joins his wife from another household, and the Greek word for household, eukonomos, is the word for economics, they form a new household. It's understood that when the covenant of marriage is honored, the greatest economic power is possible. It's based on acknowledging that what we have is a gift of God.

So that's the theological understanding. There's a lot of history, obviously, in between Genesis and the Declaration of Independence which we can examine. There is a lot of fallibility, a lot of human sin. What I think is so powerful about the Declaration of Independence was when Jefferson and those with him had to appeal to a higher authority than a covenant-breaking king, they appealed to the God of creation. They didn't have suffragette rights for women. They were conflicted on the matter of slavery. But the very appeal to unalienable rights is what set the slaves free and gave women the power to vote. Because they were ultimately being accountable to what we have in Genesis 1 and 2, the order of creation.

Ed pointed out correctly, the U.S. Constitution doesn't talk religiously. He mentioned, and I have this in my notes to begin with anyhow, Article Six, no religious test. He described that as a negative. In terms of Jefferson's letter where he used the language separation between church and state, that goes back to the First Amendment, and it says Congress shall make no law respecting establishment of a church. That's also a negative as it were. But both of them are negatives of negatives in order to secure a positive. What I think is so powerful about the Sixth Article, rooted in people that were based on biblical ethics, is they said, we as believers in the image of God in which we've been made, and therefore God who made us, are giving everyone the freedom to agree or disagree with that. And no one will have a religious test imposed upon them. No other society in human history has ever conceived of that other than the Jews, but the Jews were in a unique historical situation in terms of a theocratic nation among pagan countries. That's a separate subject. But the point being that it was biblical ethics that uniquely said you are free not to have to believe in the Bible. That is the basis for which I celebrate.

On this basis, if we look at history, and if we understand the source of unalienable rights, I come up with the following conclusion. That we are a nation founded by Protestant Christians, based on biblical ethics, which equals religious, political, and economic liberty for everyone under due process of law. Therefore it leads to my conclusion point. I am exceedingly, wonderfully, happily partisan in favor of the Creator, the God of the Bible. Having said that, how do I express that partisanship? One way I do so in a free society is I say to Ed, or I say to someone else, I do not desire one inch of greater liberty to say and live what I believe, than I first give to those who disagree with me. And I do so because of the God of the Bible.

So, at many ethical levels in terms of the topic tonight, I think Ed and I will agree. But the real issue of concern for me: what is the source of Ed's freedom to dissent to a nation that is made up mostly of people who say they believe in the God of the Bible? Whether they do is another question, but eighty-five, ninety percent of Americans say that. Why does he have freedom to dissent to that? And what other source is there in history that gives him that freedom of dissent? Or would give me that freedom of dissent if I were in a nation that were not founded on biblical ethics?

We'll break my comments here, and then Ed and I will chat with each other.


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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]