Christianity was extremely influential in shaping the values of the United States of America, but not in the way usually claimed by Christianist politicians and theologians.
It is the freedom of religion — the refusal to involve the state in religion — that is one of the truly Christian things about America.
Freedom of religion is one of the most significant contributions of Jesus to the American Constitution.
Jesus made a second major gift to the republic. Spiritually, he is behind the wonderfully unrestrained statement, written in a time when “men” meant “human beings,” that “all men are created equal.” We know that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly meant that “all white men owning property” are created equal. But that's not what Jefferson wrote, and the phrase has echoed around the world ever since.
The fundamental value, the irreducible importance, of every single human being is a secular iteration of one of the most important elements of Jesus' teaching and ministry. Jesus treated every human being, regardless of class, race, religion, age or gender, as important in the eyes of God. There were no exceptions. By the grace of God, and perhaps by the fuzziness of Jefferson's articulation, one of the most important doctrines of our Lord was written into the secular documents of our nation.
Jefferson was controversial even during his lifetime. Two centuries ago he was mistrusted because he was more democratic and inclusive than his neo-aristocratic peers. Today, it is because he was a slave owner and denied the black half of his family. Both orthodox and biblicist Christians have always considered Jefferson suspect because he was a deist and because he created a version of the Bible cutting out all the parts he didn't agree with. All Christians do this — most just aren't that obvious about it.
But Christian theologians fail to honor the spiritual roots of the doctrine of human equality in the Declaration of Independence, and Jefferson's profound understanding of the freedom of religion. Jefferson wrote the original Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777, which passed the state legislature in 1786. It carried with it the spirit which Jesus manifested in his confrontations with the Pharisees, temple authorities, and orthodox religionists of his time.
That spirit had much to do with the spread of the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean to persons of many different religions until it was finally canned into state religion by Constantine in the first quarter of the fourth century.
In the opening paragraph of his statute, Jefferson wrote these words: “Almighty God has created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness. [They] are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion. [He was] Lord both of body and mind, [but] chose not to propagate it by coercions, [even though it] was his Almighty power to do [so].”
Therefore, the statute concluded, the state must protect freedom of religion. Since that time, in the nation where free religion was proclaimed, Christianity has been more dynamic than in any nation in which it was compulsory, or supported by the state. In fact, one might argue that competition has been both more effective and more pervasive in the religious field in America than in the economic field. Churches have refused to accept any long-term efforts to consolidate, or restrain trade, or buy up competitors. There is no such thing as a leveraged buyout of a denomination; new products are appearing all the time. Practitioners are constantly seeking to recruit new workers. New sites open every day.
Jesus insisted gently and persistently that allegiance to the God of the universe is a personal decision that a human being must make. It cannot be compelled or defined by one person for another. In America, this insistence takes the constitutional form of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The constitutional language may be secular to some, but it is holy to Christians. It is not the end of true religion; it is its beginning. Jesus is not afraid of the freedom of religion. For him, it is pure opportunity.
The enemy for Christians is not other religions. It is not non-Christian religions. The enemy for Christians in America, as in any other nation in the world, is evil — pure, hostile, vicious, insidious evil.
As readers of C. S. Lewis know well, it is the fundamental strategy of evil to appear as something other than itself. Few of your enemies will walk up to you and say, “I am evil.” They are far more likely to say, “I am good.” Evil loves to wrap itself in religion, any religion.
After 9-11, Americans are particularly aware of evil that has gotten wrapped in the cloak of Islam. They are less aware of the evil that gets wrapped in the cloak of Christianity. Religion is an excellent cloak for evil, as Jesus pointed out daily. It easily hides oppression, power, hypocrisy, theft and murder. It can pretend that evil, cloaked in holy vestments, is God's will. It can make evil the sacred duty of good people.
It is desperately important for our own survival to identify when, where and how evil gets wrapped not only in Islam but also in Christianity or Judaism, not to mention Hinduism, Buddhism, or other religions with which we are even less familiar. Jesus' discernment is simple and always true: The final judgment lies not in what you say, but in what you do. Our enemies are those who do evil, whether they are Muslim or Christian, Jew or Gentile, secular or religious.
There is no conflict between Christianity and freedom of religion. On the contrary, the freedom of religion is one of the most thoroughly Christian precepts in the American Constitution. Law-abiding citizens should uphold the rights of American Muslims to build a center in lower Manhattan, and politically conscious people should understand that these Muslim folk are our best hope for a healthy future. But Christian Americans should have the greatest investment of all: We positively believe in freedom of religion, and embrace it with gratitude. It is part of the foundation of our faith.
The Rev. Ben Campbell is pastoral director of Richmond Hill.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.