Of Many Things

It seems that the governor of New Mexico and presidential candidate Bill Richardson thinks that Iowa is literally Gods country. In a bizarre episode last month in Sioux City, Richardson declared that Iowa, for good reason, for constitutional reasons, for reasons related to the Lord, should be the first of the presidential primaries and caucuses. Richardsons campaign later said that it was just a badly botched joke.

No one was laughing either when Senator John McCain also linked the Lord with the U.S. Constitution, recently telling the Internet site Beliefnet.com that he believed that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. Non-Christians and not a few Christians were appalled and roundly denounced McCain. In response, McCain did not claim that he was joking, as Richardson had, only that he hadnt meant what he said in quite the way he said it, thus adding confusion to the outrage.

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Perhaps we should not be too quick to pillory Senator McCain, however, considering that the majority of Americans agree with him. According to a recent poll released by the First Amendment Center, fully 55 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution established a Christian nation. Most people who have taken sixth grade civics should know that the Constitution did no such thing. In the middle of the last century, the political philosopher John Courtney Murray, S.J., rightly pointed out that the genius of the Constitution is that it declared a truce in the confessional wars, promising that the federal government would not take sides.

But the Constitution did not establish an atheist nation either. As Murray once noted, if this were the case, then the First Amendment, by virtue of having prohibited a state religion, would have in practice created one, namely a kind of established atheism. This makes no sense, of course, so the founders must have been up to something else. And they clearly did not envision a country in which faith would be banned from the public square.

Die-hard secularists do not like to admit that point, insisting that the constitutional separation of church and state intended by the founders is absolute. For the secularists, faith is grudgingly tolerated as a purely private affair, the stuff of Sunday morning church socials but never Monday morning governing. Murray warned us about such people, writing, We have to abandon the poetry of those who would make a religion out of freedom of religion and a dogma out of separation of church and state.

Similarly, I would add, we should beware of other extremists who seem unable to tell the difference between a nation created under God, and one created by God. This may seem far-fetched, but anyone watching the presidential debates might be justified in thinking that America is suffering from a messiah complex, thinking that we have some divine charge to lead the world. This national mythology has always been dangerous, and it still is, as our experience in Iraq would seem to indicate.

It is also frequently said in public discourse that we should adopt this or that public policy because the country needs to return to its Judeo-Christian roots or that we need to reclaim America for God, suggesting that the United States was founded as a Christian theocracy. It wasnt, and as historians have pointed out, many of the founding fathers practiced (if they practiced anything) a kind of Enlightenment deism, which little resembled orthodox Christianity and would properly be characterized today either as pantheism or, at best, agnosticism.

The American proposition is not a secularist or theocratic dogma. It is prose, as Murray wrote, and we have to talk prose, the prose of the Constitution itself, which is an ordinary legal prose having nothing to do with doctrinaire theories. We may not be atheists, but neither are we the last best hope for man on Earth. That role belongs to God and the church.

Joe Shufro of Sioux City told The Des Moines Register after Richardsons gaffe: I dont know what God had to do with choosing Iowa among other states. I found that a little strange. You found it strange, Mr. Shufro, because God didnt choose Iowa. Iowans, of course, should choose God. But the Constitution hasnt done it for them.

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