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Is America a Christian Nation? Readers Respond to Chuck Colson

November 22, 2011

On November 4, the Los Angeles Times published my Opinion Editorial entitled “What’s God Got to do With it?” (which I also posted on Skepticblog) about Congress reaffirming our national motto “In God We Trust.” I argued that trust does not come from God but from very specific social, political, and economic institutions.

Chuck Colson, the one-time special counsel for President Richard Nixon, one of the Watergate Seven who also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in his attempt to defame the Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg, and the man who found God and Jesus just in time for his jail sentence in federal prison, now blogs on political and social issues from a Christian perspective and has attempted a smack-down of my Op-Ed by arguing that “God Has a Lot to Do With It.”

His argument is summarized in his own words thusly:

It was Christianity, you see, that taught the West that all human beings are created in the image of God. Without that understanding, the very words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” could never have been written.

Most of all, our ideas about what constitutes a free and secure society are derived from Christianity. Political scientist Glenn Tinder has written about how much of what we celebrate in our society, like the “respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings,” has “strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity.”

Before I respond in my next blog with a deeper historical analysis of how equality, liberty, prosperity, and trust arose well ahead of religious doctrines (see, in the mean time, Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature for a thorough history of this development), I tweeted the link to Colson’s rebuttal and asked my readers to respond in their own way, which they did with some very cogent points:

Nicholas Johnson writes:

Those poor Greeks and Romans. They knew nothing, apparently.

Nathan George writes:

It should be pointed out that Colson seems to dismiss science by saying “the science Shermer puts so much stock in” as he types this very statement on his computer which science, not Christianity, is responsible for.

David Carmer writes:

It is the height of hypocrisy to say that we, as a nation, trust in a deity. If we truly had sincere trust we’d need no army, no judicial system, no anti-trust laws, no prison system, no government oversight, and so on. An honest deep felt trust in God would logically lead to us living in a lawless state wherein we expected our benevolent protector to handle the details and to keep us safe. To embrace the motto, shouldn’t we get rid of all those laws and government organizations that are designed especially because we cannot trust in divine intervention? 

Hans Van Ingelgom writes:

The biggest problem I face when discussing Christianity is that I don’t know what it stands for. Christianity is subdivided in countless branches, often with opposing views. You can’t simply discuss somebody’s views just by knowing he’s a Christian. Does respect for the individual include the right of gay marriage? Should the state be neutral to religion, respecting individual choices? It depends on what Christian you ask.

David Schumacher writes:

You might remind Colson that some of the Christian founders were still using spectral evidence to put people to death as recently as the witch killings of Salem.

David Allen writes:

The response to Chuck is easy—Christ was a wise man and Christian values are good, but no god is needed to come up with those values. And as for him citing the Declaration of Independence and the words “All men are created equal”—those words were written by men who held slaves, so the words ring hollow.

Mark Bowermaster writes:

Yeah, because nothing says free and secure like an omnipotent cloud wizard demanding your allegiance by threat of never ending immolation.

Adam Qureshi writes:

His argument does not even pass the null hypothesis. What the heck did we do before Christianity came along a mere 2 thousand years ago?

Eric Lawton writes:

The ancient Greeks were just as much a source of all these values such as the rule of law. Christianity plunged us into centuries of dark ages, superstition and theocracy. Of course those people, the early Protestants, who helped us to restore these values through the enlightenment were Christians, because it was pretty much illegal not to be. But it doesn’t prove that it was because they were Christians that they did that; otherwise it would have happened much earlier. It was the beginning of our escape from Christianity and a return to secular values which got us where we are, and is one of the reasons for the separation of Church and State in the U.S.

Peter McCully writes:

And what has Christianity given us concerning the rights of homosexuals, women, slaves or even animals? Most, if not all of the advances in human rights over the last two hundred years or so have been a gradual unpicking of the stitches in Christianity’s fabric. Nice of the church to take credit for it though.

David Serbin writes:

Colton is both right and wrong. Education, laws, and enforcement of laws do have some root in religion. But what Colton forgets is that these were bad things. Education for centuries meant hitting children, dress codes, and other awful practices that are only practiced today by private religious schools (although as we’ve seen with Penn State and other teacher’s scandals, public schools aren’t great either). Another problem is that citing the law from the Bible begs the question: which laws? Laws that stone adulterers or ban gay marriage? Surely those laws don’t make society any better off. Finally, Colton says that God is responsible for freedom of the individual, equality, and security. But banning gay marriage does not increase individuality nor equality. The Founders were of varying religious beliefs, but they fled in part due to the Church of England and they would be rolling in their graves if they saw the way that Christians have abused their 1st amendment right of freedom of religion to try and make this country a theocracy by using the state to put God on the pledge, the dollar, and anywhere and everywhere possible.

Jerry Jaffe writes:

When the bible tells us to stone our neighbors to death (Deut. 17 2–5) and we don’t, is that because we know right from wrong without reference to the bible, perhaps?

Andi Wolfe writes:

How very convenient that Colson forgets that the Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves and women. If you really want to invoke a religion that values all humans, respects individuals, and promotes the essential equality of all human beings, look to the Buddhists. They actually live their lives as if their beliefs have meaning.

Will Colon writes:

You might be inclined to point out that if religion—specifically Christianity—is in some way responsible for the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, why is it that historically theocratic nations or nations endorsing a particular religion have been home to some of the most illiberal treatment of humans in our species’ history. The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch is a good book that touches on this; specifically it highlights how the absolutism of religion—again, specifically Christianity—lends itself to scenarios like the Inquisition and the injustices that dovetail along with it. It’s also worth noting that while many of our Founding Fathers did hold some belief in a creator—a common belief of the time—a great number of them were Deists who were deeply skeptical of the Christian god.

Bob Makin writes:

As to the claim that a free and secure society is derived from Christianity, may I enquire as to what the practice of slavery, the Inquisition and pogroms against the Jews have to do with freedom and security? I would think that the capriciousness of that religion does more to inject a great degree of uncertainty into any civilization which finds itself under its influence. Given that God has been a merciless and cruel dictator given to fits of rage, widespread destruction of entire societies, not to mention the annihilation of the entire population of the earth, I fail to see that being created in his image is any kind of recommendation.

David Kaloyanides writes:

Colson ignores the foundation of democracy in Athens more than 500 years before Christianity existed. He ignores the code of Hamurrabi, which is our oldest codified set of laws that governed the behavior of humans. He also ignores the teachings of the New Testament where Christians were called upon to obey whatever governing authority existed at the time as such was established by God. Colson also ignores the amazing educational progress of the far east where most people were literate while the early Christians were not. Colson also equates the West’s scientific pursuits to Christianity when in fact it was the Renaissance—the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman culture and science that spurred the growth of both science and political thinking. Finally, the founders of our nation were “Christians” loosely speaking. But they were nothing like a Colson Christian. Nothing in Christianity supports democratic thinking. Rather, it promotes totalitarianism form of theocracy. It does not support capitalism, as Christians are expressly taught to shun the material and share all worldly possessions in common. The language of the New Testament lends itself more to a communist than capitalist economic world view. But as the New Testament was not interested in politics or economic policy, Colson is just wrong about how its teachings promoted our system of government today.

Joe Seither writes:

There is simply no expressly religious language in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights—except the parts that make absolutely crystal-clear that religion and politics should remain independent from one another. Now, this is a really important point, given that many of the founders were theists, but also with some deists, freethinkers and freemasons in the mix. Given this, it’s no accident or trivial point that they enshrined in the very first amendment a separation between government and religion. The fact that some or many of the founders were men of faith adds much gravity to the proposition that the anti-establishment principle and language they agreed upon—and signed their names to—was no mere accident. It was intentional.

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