It’s so pervasive that it is easy to take for granted. We hear it on the news, from the mouths of politicians, from our teachers and in many cases our families. We are told that the United States is a country founded on “Christian principles.”
This little phrase slithers around lazy argumentation in many forms; sometimes you’ll hear ‘Judeo-Christian morality/values,' sometimes you’ll hear simply ‘Christian values’ or more insidiously ‘family values.' Almost always these expressions will be used in conjunction with the founding of the country. The case will be made that the founding fathers were Christians and Christianity influenced their thought or that our code of laws as written is based on the teachings of the Bible, or of Jesus Christ in particular.
Intuitively, to many Christians, this feels right. They believe that their religion is fundamentally just and that the system of justice and laws in their country is a representation of that higher authority.
But it isn’t.
In this article, I’m going to try to dispel with two of the major mythologies relating to ‘Christian values’ in the United States. The first is that there is one codified set of ‘Christian values’ that applies universally to all members of the faith and that those values are somehow best exemplified in America. The second is that the American system of jurisprudence has more to do with principles outlined in the Bible than say, the legal codes of ancient Rome or the philosophy of John Locke.
Okay, first issue, ‘Christian values.' This phrase implies that there is some sort of fundamental code of Christian precepts that is absolute and applies to all Christians. This code of values would put into practice the teachings of Jesus and apply them to every aspect of life. This sounds nice in theory. Even as an atheist, I can appreciate that Jesus had a lot of good ideas. The problem is that the people who use the phrase ‘Christian values’ are often very selective in where those values apply.
For example, you hear a lot about the Christian priority of preserving life above all else. Indeed, this belief has lead to some of the most stringent abortion laws since the initial legalization in 1973. However, this same fervor is seldom extended to those on death row, whose sentences are rarely protested with the enthusiasm of abortion clinics, despite the clear directive from Jesus to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Clearly, there is some wiggle room in what constitutes a Christian value.
There is also the conflation of Christianity and Judaism into the murky ‘Judeo-Christian’ designation. Take for example the president-elect’s favorite passage, 2 Corinthians 3:17, “ Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has mass appeal to Americans because it combines the spirit of God with freedom, and what could be more American than a freedom loving God? Except that this passage is about how the Old Testament under Moses was a ‘veil’ and that through Jesus Christ that veil is lifted and none of that old stuff matters anymore. Stuff like the prohibitions on diet (which we happily ignore) but also things like the prohibition on homosexuality, the notion of ‘an eye for an eye,' and plenty of other “principles” of Christian life that get lumped into the term ‘Judeo-Christian morality.'
The reality is that there is no fixed interpretation of the scripture, and therefore the idea that there are innately ‘Christian’ values is bullshit. Surely any good Christian would understand the evil of slavery. Or would condemn violence in all forms, as Jesus Christ did. But throughout the history of America Christians have behaved in direct contradiction to this guidance – could it be that maybe there is no definitive set of Christian values? And if there’s not – should we be legislating as if there was?
I think you all can guess my opinion on this.
And that doesn’t just come from the fact that many of the founding fathers were deists or disputed the miracles of Christ in some way (Thomas Jefferson even wrote a bible which excluded the miracles of Jesus and focused instead on his moral teachings). No, despite the fact that most founding fathers were not devout Christians, it is impossible to argue that they were not influenced by the moral philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, when it came time to write the actual Constitution they were much less interested in morality and much more committed to codifying a system of government which ensured justice, freedom and checks and balances to absolute power. They lifted ‘Due Process’ from the Magna Carta, the first document to ever strip the divine right of kings. They used the writings of Montesquieu, himself drawing from Polybius and the model of the Roman Republic, to enshrine checks to power in every branch. They took the notably secular philosophy of John Locke for the basic rights of life, liberty and property.
And when they said liberty, the first Amendment they made clarified that this included liberty from a state-imposed religion.
America is not now, and has never been a Christian nation. That place is as much a myth as the so-called principles upon which this belief is built. America is a nation composed primarily of Christians, who had the good sense to keep faith and government separate, who took principles from pagans and Christians alike.