It may be a sign of the times that this year's holiday season has seen a notable influx in secular and atheist billboards and bus banners sarcastically challenging the veracity of the Christmas story. One in New Jersey reads: "You KNOW it's a myth. This season, celebrate reason."
It is also a sign of the times that this message has been promptly rebuked by religious leaders and commentators who, one could suspect, have fallen for the bait. While many lament that it is especially offensive, given the time of year, others more bluntly have described it as "kind of an asshole move."
With a creeping rise in secularists and nonbelievers today, some American Christian traditionalists see a politically existential threat, leading to reactions such as those mentioned. One could be reminded of John Kennedy Toole's cantankerously amusing character, Ignatius J. Reilly, in Confederacy of Dunces -- combative towards modern culture and nostalgic for the halcyon days of Thomas Aquinas. This traditionalist camp is deeply perturbed by new threads in the social fabric and insistent that America is a Christian nation -- demographically as well as politically.
This tension transcends a historical argument about the roots of American liberty. It goes to the heart of some of today's most trenchant political debates, such as same-sex marriage, prayers at town meetings, US foreign policy toward Israel, and end-of-life issues germane to health-care reform.
So is America really a Christian nation?
Demographics give a clear answer. In 2008, 76 percent of Americans called themselves "Christian." That's down 10 percentage points since 1990, but it's still an overwhelming and defining majority. Meanwhile, just 1.6 percent of Americans professed to be agnostics or atheists, more than double the amount in 1990.
History gives a more-muddled answer. The United States' political origin as a "Christian nation" is a far more contentious issue, often reduced to each side drawing lines in the sand with fanciful single-factor readings of complex past events. A prime example comes from Jonah Goldberg, writing in Reason a few issues back: "Our constitutional order rests on the conviction that we are endowed by our creator with certain rights. Both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were religious in nature."
Mr. Goldberg's oblique claim belongs to those who see American freedom as a Christian brand -- available for all, but religiously trademarked nonetheless. But those who state outright that Christianity was the driving force behind the settling and political conception of the United States rely on contrived historicism.
There are insidious intellectual implications to maintaining such a position: namely, the view that Christianity itself plays a defining, prerequisite role not just in the character and culture of America, but in its philosophical embrace of individual liberty as well.
A hefty segment of American Christians believes that its specific version of God is the inspiration for all men's conception of freedom. If the United States is a wholly Christian nation then it follows that the liberty it affords to all is specifically Christian-furnished.
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence does make quick mention of God and a Creator, but not one of its 27 specific grievances has anything to do with religious liberty, and the nature of that "Creator" is hopelessly vague. Most everyone for whom rights were secured at the drafting and signing of the United States Constitution was a Christian, but that document makes no mention of any god. And historically, some of the first settlers to America -- Christian separatist pilgrims -- were indeed seeking religious liberty, but they arrived at Plymouth 13 years after European bullionist policies had already sent the Virginia Company to settle Jamestown.
So, did Christian culture or religiosity alone derive American notions of liberty? Christianity has long been a mercurial political instrument used to justify the rule of despots and democrats alike, depending on the century.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine first brought Christianity into the political fold, his motivation was purely autocratic. And most of the centuries of Roman Catholic rule that followed were not kind to individual liberty. The 16th-century Reformation challenged the extant church-state alliance and certainly embraced a fresh platform of human individuality in religious affairs, but to say that Protestantism championed democratic political liberties -- as many do -- goes too far.
Martin Luther and his immediate followers opposed all calls for a popular revolution and, according to the English historian Lord Acton, "constantly condemned the democratic literature that arose in the second age of the Reformation." By Acton's account, even John Calvin, despite his moderate republican leanings, saw the general populace as "unfit to govern themselves," and instead advocated a form of aristocratic rule.
Thus historical arguments for Christianity's role in securing the modern American notion of freedom are seriously impaired, as there is equally compelling evidence opposed as in support.
Of course, the "Christian nation" argument also asserts that, despite its past shortcomings, it is Christian ecumenism itself that advises individual liberty and equal rights. Indeed, an important facet of Christian belief is free will under God. This seems to align with previous understandings of freedom, which often centered on individual agency.
Aristotle defined it quite simply as, "to live as one wants." Unfortunately, Christianity failed through much of its history to extend this position beyond personal, household religiosity. By contrast, at its outset, the notion of American freedom was predominantly political and populist in nature.
As the 20th-century philosopher John Dewey observed, "the freedom for which our forefathers fought was primarily freedom from a fairly gross and obvious form of oppression, that of arbitrary political power exercised from a distant center."
With this in mind, Dewey points out that American freedom at the time of the Revolution could essentially be boiled down to a libertarian skepticism of government generally, and the right to vote.
This formulation was not without complications. Dewey saw freedom as a moving target -- "an eternal goal [that] has to be forever struggled for and won anew." Indeed, as Tocqueville realized early on, strict majoritarianism in the absence of effective government to safeguard individual liberties has just as much potential for tyranny as any other form of rule.
Presumably, those in the majority who assert that the United States is a Christian nation prefer it this way. If they already see American freedom as derived from their own faith, then why shouldn't they?
The dangerous implications of thinking in such a way should be obvious. A case in point is this year's Texas school board curriculum revisions, which will recast American history in Christian terms and dangerously undermine accepted science.
Because the Texas board is a parliamentary body subject to majority vote and comprised predominantly of traditionalist Christians, these deliberations fulfilled Dewey and Tocqueville's warnings, as well as an observation from H.L. Mencken, who described American democracy as "a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance." It can be easily argued that this is a majoritarianism that does not adequately comport with the rights of the religiously neutral minority.
Seeing American freedom as Christian freedom sets the stage for political battles much larger than Texas school books and secular billboards during Christmastime. The historical debate over the Christianity or secularism of the Founders will continue to be caviled over ad infinitum. More urgent and insidious is the claim by members of one side that they have first dibs to the freedom all should equally enjoy.
Adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.