It’s an election year and faith and religion is a hot topic, both for the candidates and for the voters. That is great! As a First Amendment-loving Baptist, the more we can dialogue about faith and politics, the better we understand the issues involved.
A difficulty arises, however, when religious-political propaganda masquerades as cultural-religious fact. No dialogue can happen in the presence of propaganda. This happened recently when an e-mail circulated (and may be circulating still) that offers supposedly factual tidbits about George Washington and the Washington monument.
The stated intent of the e-mail is to show that certain religious words or memorials etched in stone or concrete on Washington, D.C., landmarks underscore our country’s foundation as a Christian nation.
The e-mail notes that the term “Laus Deo” (“Praise be to God”) is engraved on the top of the Washington Monument, that a Bible was included in the cornerstone of the Washington Monument and that Washington’s “prayer for America” unveils the true intent of our Christian beginnings.
Some of the “facts” offered in the e-mail are true, but others are distorted, according to the urban legends Web site Snopes.com. A Bible was indeed included in the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, but so was a book from the Masons and scores of other items. The inclusion of a Bible in 1848, when construction on the Washington Monument began, does not imply that President Washington intended America to be a Christian nation any more than the Mason’s manual means that he intended the country to be a Masonic nation.
Washington’s “earnest prayer,” with its reference “to charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion,” was actually a letter written to the states’ governors. It could well be that this was intended as his “earnest plea” to them with regards to policy and politics.
Religious references attributed to America’s past leaders reinforce the reality that even our leaders are free to express their faith in the acting out of their offices. It is patently false, however to say that these concrete-enforced statements of faith prove that God is the head of our “Christian nation” and that this “fact” is under attack.
One version of the e-mail includes the absurdity that the Constitution does not and did not contain the separation of church and state.
Alarm bells ring should ring in the heads of Baptists everywhere, but sadly they do not.
The e-mail is correct about the separation of church and state not being in the Constitution only if you ignore the Bill of Rights. It is dangerous to draw conclusions about the founders’ intent from the main body of the Constitution without also paying attention to the first 10 amendments.
The first 16 words of the First Amendment include the prohibition of government in the “establishing” of religion and state that government cannot stand in the way of the “free exercise” of religion. The words “separation of church and state” do not appear there, but the spirit of the amendment demands it.
Too many Christians in America mistakenly believe that the separation of church and state is a bad thing. Lots of powerful, wealthy and media-savvy Christians are bending our belief in religious liberty so far that they have blurred the line between being a good citizen and a good Christian. When these two things come together, government always wins, because God lets us come to faith (or even reject faith) freely, but government demands compliance whether we want it or not. Do we want a government-enforced religious tradition? Baptists together should be able to shout, “No!”
It is true that the United States of America has a majority of Christians among her citizens, and that the Christian tradition has influence on our culture and even our politics. But having a majority of Christians means neither that we have established a Christian government nor that we should desire to do so.
Jeffrey D. Vickery is co-pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, N.C