12/03/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Common Grounds and Common Sense

"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
-- John Adams, 1797

In Austin, Texas, a trend has developed over the last decade in which people decorate trees with Christmas ornaments along major highways. The state transportation department has declared that this is not illegal. That is a bit dodgy though because littering is illegal, and if people do not remove the ornaments after the holiday they are littering and therefore committing a misdemeanor. But for argument's sake let us say there are no legal barriers to the practice. Is it acceptable, and if not, why not? And for now let's ignore that many people find the decorations ugly and trashy.

The answer is no, the practice should not be allowed. If it is OK for private citizens to put up Christmas ornaments on public land, then I can put up 7-foot-tall Islamic Crescents and Stars of David all along the highway. Or how about large images of Charles Darwin? Or huge 3D models of an atom? Since this is unregulated, I could line the entire highway with a solid wall of signs for miles in every direction. Or if you want precise equivalency, I could put up large crescents, Stars of David and Darwin photos on top of the trees. Why not? What distinguishes the two practices? If I am not allowed to do so then the state is favoring one religion, Christianity: a clear violation of the First Amendment. Put up the most elaborate, gaudy display of Christmas ornaments you want on your personal property or in your home; but leave our public space alone. It is for everyone.

This practice in Texas is troubling because much more is at stake than the ugly aesthetics of plastic balls hanging on trees. Many Christians believe that we are a Christian nation, or if not, that we should be. This explains why people cannot be satisfied with decorating their own land, their own space. This explains why people insist on imposing their beliefs, practices and rituals on others who do not share them. This march toward a Christian nation explains why we have this conflict at all: arrogance. Arrogance that everyone thinks it will be OK because you think is it OK; arrogance that it is assumed Christianity trumps all other faiths and personal beliefs. That idea is an existential threat to the nation.

That the notion of a Christian nation threatens our very existence can be understood best in historic context. England's King Henry VIII tired of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she failed to produce a male heir to his throne. But the Catholic Church believed that marriage was for life, and therefore did not allow divorce. So in 1527, the king solved his dilemma by ordering the Archbishop to grant him a divorce against the express wishes of the Pope. The Archbishop was fond of keeping his head attached, so complied. With this one act King Henry split from the Vatican and created the Church of England, to which he named himself head. He promptly married Anne Boleyn.

This lesson from this vignette was well understood by our founding fathers when they created a secular republic. We do not need a Church of America: what the founding fathers knew in 1776 holds true in 2011. In spite of right-wing Christian rhetoric to the contrary, that we are a secular nation cannot be denied. The facts supporting that conclusion are unambiguous, overwhelming, and indisputable. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation of 1777, the U.S. Constitution (1787), and the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) are purely secular documents. I have previously reviewed each in detail. Searching for references to god in any of these documents is akin to looking for Rick Perry at a gun control rally. Nowhere to be seen.

Our national obsession with god in politics is a recent phenomenon, and would seem completely alien to any of our founders. "In God We Trust" was first placed on United States coins in 1861 during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt tried to remove the words from our money in 1907 but was shouted down. Only in 1956 was that phrase adopted as the national motto by the 84th Congress. The clause "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was inserted only in 1954 when President Eisenhower signed legislation to recognize "the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty."

For the first 180 years of existence, the United States never included god in its motto, on its currency, or in any document creating the republic. We were born a secular nation and remained one for nearly two centuries.

The religious right claims, incredibly, to know more about the intent of our founders than the founders themselves. We really need to stop this ridiculous argument about being a Christian nation. If there should be any doubt, let us listen directly to the words from those who created our great nation. This from Thomas Jefferson in an April 11, 1823, letter to John Adams: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." He went on to say in his concluding paragraphs, "But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding... "

Jefferson said long before the United States existed that his statute for religious freedom in Virginia was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."

The final word, however, belongs to John Adams, who said when signing the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Since he helped found the country, he would certainly know on what principles the nation was founded. Should we not take his word over some preacher's interpretation almost 300 years later?

And yet in spite of the clear intent of those who created our country, we continue to argue the point. The Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, preaches to a flock of about 10,000 followers. The good pastor insists that only "followers of the lord Jesus Christ" are qualified to occupy the Oval Office. The Church of America.

Jeffress was in the news a long while back as a result of his accusation that Mitt Romney, as a member of the Mormon cult, is not a Christian. More noteworthy but overlooked was Jeffress's self-answered questions when he introduced Rick Perry at a Value Voter Summit, before the Perry campaign self-imploded:

"Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person -- or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?"

We do not need a Church of America; it is counter to every ideal on which this country is founded. We do not need Christianity imposed upon the rest of us on public grounds, which we own too. We do not need priests and ministers telling us how to vote while claiming tax exempt status as a non-political organization. We need each to respect the each other's beliefs and not impose one over another. This is not a war on Christmas; this is a battle for common sense. Practice your religion in peace and health, and in private; and leave everyone else alone. We are not a Christian Nation; we are the United States of America.