A Christian Nation?

In a press conference on April 6, during his trip to Turkey, President Obama made a significant statement:  “One of the great strengths of the United States is … we have a very large Christian population — we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

When I heard about it, I had two immediate reactions- first, how great it is that a President recognizes the nature of the religious diversity and freedom in this nation and, second, a certain segment of that diverse religious population is going to be very upset. And so they have been, which occasions further reflections on the relationship of Christianity and the US.

David Corn of Mother Jones Magazine pointed out on the show Reliable Sources on April 12th that “. . .you know, here you have these people on the right, Lars Larson, Sean Hannity, again and again focusing, oddly enough, on the Christian end of the remark. You know, they cut off his quote when he said we are not a Christian nation.” Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor at the conservative Washington Times interrupted, “Because he says we are not a Christian nation. And that’s false.” She had previously declared that Obama “essentially threw Christianity under the bus the same way he did Reverend Wright.”

It’s an interesting question as to exactly how one could “throw Christianity under the bus,” but just how Obama has succeeded in doing so merely by stating what is true by law (constitution) and experience is baffling. However, as Louis Ruprecht points out at Religion Dispatches,

…in every case, Christian principles must be known if they are to debated with care and the respect they deserve. The problem is not only that sound bites make for bad theology; but they do not get us to the complexity of the issues before us. The real problem, as I see it, is the absence of religious literacy among the critics currently speaking in alleged defense of the Christian faith.

Finally, Michael Lind at Salon.com covers some historical ground and identifies four core arguments that religious conservatives use to claim the US as a Christian nation: that most citizens identify as Christians; that the Constitution is built on Christian principles; that Christianity provides the philosophical underpinning for the values informing the Constitution; and that historically, American leaders have seen an important role for Christianity in forming public virtue. Still, he concludes, “President Obama, then, is right. The American republic, as distinct from the American population, is not post-Christian because it was never Christian. In the president’s words: `We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.’ And for that we should thank the gods. All 20 of them.”

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