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Highlights in the History of a 'Christian Nation'

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In a recent Fox News colloquy, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin explained America's religious traditions to Bill O'Reilly. Discussing the recent National Day of Prayer, both underscored their belief that America is a "Christian nation," founded upon Judeo-Christian principles and the Ten Commandments. Speaking of the Founders and the nation's founding documents, Palin told O'Reilly, "They're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments."

But a review of the path blazed by Christians in both the colonial era and the nation's early life is not so tidy. Christianity, as we know, arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus, who crucified natives who failed to produce enough gold in rows of thirteen -- one for Jesus and each of the disciples. The Spanish conquistadors also introduced the "Requerimiento," which demanded conversion to Christianity and threatened slavery and death to those who did not. (The Indian converts were enslaved and killed anyway.)

Here are a few more of the highlights of the path blazed by Christians that take a bit of the luster off the myth of America as a "Christian nation." Most of them probably weren't in your textbook.

-Fort Caroline Massacre (1565): The first real contact between Europeans in what would become America took place in Florida, near modern Jacksonville, where hundreds of French Huguenots, the real first "Pilgrims," were massacred by the Spanish who founded St. Augustine for this purpose. The Spanish Admiral who led this search and destroy mission hung some of the survivors with a sign above them reading, "I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to Lutherans," by which he meant "Protestants" or actually "heretics." (This story is told in America's Hidden History.)

-Mayflower Compact (November 1620): Usually cited as the kickoff point for the "Christian nation," the Mayflower Compact did indeed recognize the religious underpinnings of the new colony. It also recognized the sovereignty of the King.

And by the way: Sorry, "Goodie" Palin. You don't get a vote.

-The Mystic Massacre: During the Pequot War of 1637, hundreds of women, children, and mostly old men were killed or burned to death in a Puritan attack on a Pequot Indian village. Governor William Bradford would later write that "horrible was the stincke and [scent] thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them...."

-The Boston Martyrs: On October 27, 1659, two Quakers, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, were executed in Boston, the Puritans' "shining city upon a hill," under a 1658 law banning the Society of Friends as a "cursed sect." In June 1660, Mary Dyer was executed and a fourth "Friend" was hung in 1661.

Religious dissenters Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson had also been banished from the Bay Colony for their opposition to the Puritan "theocracy."

And Catholic priests were banned in Boston, where for many years November 5 (Guy Fawke's Day in England) was celebrated as "Pope Day" on which rowdy, brawling, and usually drunken mobs wheeled an effigy of the Pope around Boston and ended the day by setting the carts and effigies on fire.

-Baptists arrested in Virginia: Between 1768 and 1778, Baptists were persecuted and arrested in Virginia, where the Anglican Church was the official church supported by public funds. (In New England, the Congregational Church enjoyed that support.)

The sight of Baptist preachers being arrested troubled a young James Madison who would later spearhead passage in 1786 of the landmark Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779. (The law is one of only three accomplishments Jefferson instructed to be put in his epitaph.)

-Ben Franklin's Prayer Request: At a deadlocked Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin -- as many religious conservatives and advocates of public prayer like to note -- suggested beginning the day's deliberations with a prayer. Alexander Hamilton worried that if people heard that, they would think the delegates were desperate. Another delegate pointed out that there were no funds to pay a chaplain. There the discussion ended as Franklin notes, most thought prayers "unnecessary." (By the way, Jesus, though no Constitutional scholar, took a dim view of public prayer. Saying that only "hypocrites" pray in public, Jesus advised, "Pray to the Father in secret." [Matthew 6: 5-7])

Contrary to Sarah Palin's statement -- "Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant" -- the U.S. Constitution does not mention God, the Bible, or the Ten Commandments.

-Burning of the Ursuline Convent (1833): A combination of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment led a mob of self-described "Sons of the Tea Party" to torch a convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, not far from the recently dedicated Bunker Hill Monument.

-Philadelphia's Bible Riots: Over the course of a few weeks in May and July of 1844, dozens of people were killed, hundreds of houses burned, and churches destroyed in the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic "Bible Riots." I recount this event and the Ursuline Convent burning in my new book A Nation Rising.

-"Church and Slave State": Abolitionism had its roots in Christianity. But so did American slavery, which cited biblical justifications for the "peculiar institution." In the 19th century, this divide led to splits within three Protestant denominations that divided North and South: the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. (In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its racist past and support of slavery, 140 years after the split.)

Of course, this is a mere handful of the landmarks in this so-called "Christian Nation." We haven't even gotten to the Mormons and the violence that confronted them in the early 19th century.

And of course, it would be quite easy to list a great many nobler moments in American Christianity. But the point is that calling America a "Christian nation" is simply another myth -- history as "bedtime story" or wishful thinking. History and Christianity deserve the truth -- which after all, the Bible tells us, "will set you free."


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