November 23, 2017

Civil Religion Series: The Other NRA

Tidings, Photo by Daniel Oines

Tidings, Photo by Daniel Oines

Civil Religion, part eight
The Other NRA

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

• • •

A 2000 poll of a thousand Americans about their views of religion and government asked this as one of the questions:

Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?

32%, nearly a third of the respondents, either “strongly favored” or “favored” that statement.

When I first read that, it surprised me. It shouldn’t have. I don’t recall having learned about such efforts before, but historian John Fea informs us that there was a time during the Civil War when amending the Constitution to make Christianity our official religion was a live public question in the United States.

In our last post, we noted that the Confederacy made an explicit point of including God in their Constitution in direct opposition to what they saw as the “godless” U.S. Constitution. This bothered many ministers and Christian leaders in the North. One called the omission of God in the U.S. Constitution “a national sin” and others explained Union military defeats as God’s punishment on the U.S. for neglecting to pay homage to him in its national charter. A group got together and did something about this in 1863.

In 1863 several ministers decided to do something to change this godless Constitution. They met in Xenia, Ohio, and proposed the following amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all] in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This group of ministers eventually became known as the National Reform Association (NRA). (p. 23)

Fea lists several reasons why the NRA felt such an extraordinary measure to be necessary.

  • Their religious viewpoint held that “the decision to leave references to Christianity out of the Constitution was an ‘error and an evil’ that ‘dishonors God.’”
  • Some proposed that the Civil War itself was God’s punishment for having a “godless Constitution.”
  • Others argued that since the “great majority” of Americans were [Protestant] Christians, the Constitution should reflect this.
  • They pointed to the Constitutions of the states, most of which explicitly invoked God, and some of which still required a religious test for officeholders.
  • They argued that a Christian amendment would be true to the history of our people and government, as this statement from the 1874 NRA national convention affirmed: “This country was settled and its institutions founded by those who believed in God and accepted His Word as the law of their lives.”
  • Many argued that this was an essential step to keep public education “Christian” in the U.S. Some states were considering laws at that time to prohibit Bible reading in public schools. An amendment was necessary, they argued, to fight the forces of secularism that were seeking to “obliterate every Christian feature from existing institutions.”
  • Another danger they saw was immigration, which flourished after the Civil War. This amendment sought to protect the U.S. from what the NRA saw as an invasion of dangerous European ideas such as Catholicism, Marxism, and socialism.

In another article in which he recalls the NRA and their recommendation to amend the Constitution to guarantee America’s status as a “Christian nation,” John Fea reminds us that this debate is nothing new, but has always been part of the fabric of our national conversation.

The movement to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution failed, but this did not derail continued attempts get such an amendment passed. The NRA renewed its platform again in 1894 and 1910 and continued to meet through World War I. In 1947 and 1954 the National Association of Evangelicals promoted an effort to add the following words to the Constitution: “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of God Almighty.”

Attempts to make the U.S. Constitution more Christian or to make Christianity the official state religion have been around for a long time.

By the way, John Fea wrote that article in the context of a 2013 effort by North Carolina legislators to make Christianity the official state religion. The impulse to declare America “a Christian nation” has not died out.

Comments

  1. others explained Union military defeats as God’s punishment on the U.S. for neglecting to pay homage to him in its national charter.

    And the fact that the South wound up with the majority of the strategic talent of the Army during the breakup was irrelevant? 😉

    Given the radicalness of the Gospel, *any* claim by any nation to be “Christian” is going to fall far short. Putting “In God We Trust” on our money hasn’t prevented us from worshipping *it* rather than *Him*…

  2. Interesting. I had not heard that efforts to make the U.S., at least legislatively, a Christian nation extended so far back. It’s ironic that the C.S.A. constitution included references to God in response to the “godless” U.S. Constitution in that it was partially in response to the “godless” U.S.S.R. that the phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by Congress in 1954.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And you’ve got that “Jerk with the Kirk in Moscow, Idaho” still carrying on that meme of the Godly Confederacy vs the Godless US.

      • Christiane says:

        Headless, I understand ‘that jerk’ is also a force influencing the law enforcement and the politics of the city. Kind of scary, this. Yes, I have heard about his defense of the Confederacy. I do understand he is one of the worst of the patriarchists when it comes to the treatment of women. ‘Jerk’ is kind, compared to what I think the title should be for men like this.
        What happens in Moscow, Idaho to private citizens who stand against him, I wonder ?

        • Burro[Mule] says:

          From what I’ve read, he takes punches and gives them out. He’s not the tin-pot Jim Jones of Moscow, Idaho by a long shot, but he doesn’t tuck tail and whimper when called rude names.

          Lots of people oppose him.

          Idaho State University, I had heard, in the 1980s had a level of per-capita liquor usage was off the charts.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Not surprised. One of my spies in Gettysburg told me that the local ER has an alcohol poisoning specialist onsite from Thursday through Sunday every week for ODs at Gettysburg College.

            That’s what happens when American drinking age (forbidden until the day you turn 21 then unlimited access thereafter) makes Alcohol into a Forbidden Fruit.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          But “Jerk” rhymes too well with “Kirk”.
          Either way, the guy’s a Real Piece of Work.

          And the Jerk with the Kirk is also Anglophile fanboy to ridiculous levels. Including giving his Kirk-owned subsidiaries Veddy Veddy British Isles names. His fanboys are known for going around Moscow with bowler hats, brollys, and Veddy Veddy faux-Oxford accents. On another blog, one commenter with experience at the REAL Oxford said that “bowler hats” were worn by University Security, not the student body.

  3. Rick Ro. says:

    Here’s the question that I’m sure has been asked before: does calling yourself a Christian nation necessarily make you one?

    More food for thought: would we agree that nations that call themselves “Muslim” or “Islamic” tend to be such?

    • The difference lies in the differing conceptions between the relationship between Church and State. Islam never really worked out a relationship of difference between the two (until forced to by colonial occupation). Christianity started (and remained for much longer) as a faith separate from (and often at odds with) the secular authorities. Even medieval Europe recognized that the monarchies and feudal structures were different from (and had differing powers from) the Church – and the United States was specifically structured to keep religion and the government separate. So, while it makes more sense to call a nation “Muslim”, it’s much less accurate to describe a nation as “Christian” except as a reflection of whether its population is majority Christian (and probably not even then).

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Christianity spent its first 300 years as an underground outlaw religion.

        Islam spent its first 400 years on an unbroken winning streak.

  4. Christiane says:

    if we ever give up our freedom of religion with its corresponding diversity, I suppose it will be to some ‘control’ freak(s) who demand complete obedience to their version of ‘the true faith’ . . . my guess is that they will be fundamentalists (of course) and they will garner all political power for themselves, and control the education systems, and change laws which now protect women’s rights . . . and then they will take away the political power of women altogether . . . huge death penalty execution rates, for the least infractions

    yes, I have read ‘The Handmaid’ . . . but I envision the coming of a type of ‘fundamentalism’ SO extreme that it would make the scenes in ‘The Handmaid’ look like a nursery rhyme (pardon the pun)

    and finally ‘freedom of religion’ will really mean what the Christian far right now says it does: they wil be permitted to act out their prejudices and condemnations on ‘unacceptables’ freely . . . no interference permitted

    I’m glad I’m not a true visionary, but if you take some of the ‘Christian nation’ demands to the limit, surely life in our country will not be something ‘Christian’ or any religion other than being worshipful of the ‘chief fundamentalist prophet’

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      yes, I have read ‘The Handmaid’ . . . but I envision the coming of a type of ‘fundamentalism’ SO extreme that it would make the scenes in ‘The Handmaid’ look like a nursery rhyme (pardon the pun)

      “Just like The Global Caliphate of ISIS, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”?

    • Apart from a comet striking the earth and fundies using the resulting chaos to take absolute power, I really don’t think there’s much danger of some kind of Christian fundamentalist Orwellian nightmare arising here in America. Secularization and popularized science-based philosophy will continue to gain ground for decades, perhaps centuries to come, and “Christian Culture” will continue to decline with its champions eventually losing anything resembling real political power. The self-appointed spokesmen for the religious right will make a lot of noise on the way out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if rightwing, conservative politics in this country eventually drifts away from religious attachments.
      Then again, if World War III or something truly apocalyptic ever happens, all bets are off. Who can say what might rise up out of the ruins of our current civilization?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Trivia question for old-school SF buffs:
        Does the name “Nehemiah Scudder in 2012” ring a bell?

    • Burro[Mule] says:

      “The Handmaid’s Tale’, one of the best propaganda pieces since “Battleship Potemkin”, is as likely to come to pass as “Logan’s Run”.

      For real prescient science-fiction from the late 60s early 70s, I recommend “Make Room, Make Room” by Henry Harrison, “Bug Jack Barron” by Norman Spinrad, or “Vermillion Sands”, by the clairvoyant JG Ballard.

      • Burro[Mule] says:

        Or “Camp of the Saints”, to be really nasty.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Looked that one up. Sounds like a really over-the-top version of “when immigration reaches critical mass, you’re not assimilating them, they’re assimilating YOU”. Probably done as an allegorical Ultimate Expression “What if?” similar to Kornbluth’s 1947 classic “The Marching Morons”.

          And you can tell what’s really worrying a society and time by looking at their Dystopian fiction.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I’m glad I’m not a true visionary, but if you take some of the ‘Christian nation’ demands to the limit, surely life in our country will not be something ‘Christian’ or any religion other than being worshipful of the ‘chief fundamentalist prophet’

    Robert Heinlein, “Revolt in 2100”, “If This Goes On”:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolt_in_2100

  6. Stephen says:

    Many commentators have noted the irony that the nations of Europe. most of whom have officially subsidized state religions, also have the least amount of active participation. In contrast our nation having the principle of secular government and separation of church and state embodied in its constitution has among the highest. The people who agitate for an official state religion might want to carefully think their ideas through. It’s possible that if we had made one of the dominant strains of Christianity the official state religion when this country was founded we might currently have European levels of active membership. Last time I saw figures the Finnish church was down to 7% of the population!

    Be careful what you wish for.

    • I suspect the prevailing motivation behind some European countries continuing with state sponsorship of certain church institutions is actually geared toward maintaining an established, well-ordered rest home in which organized Christianity can spend its final years before dying off completely. The future of religion-based political power in Europe is Islam.

      • David L says:

        Like many government programs, habit could be a big part of it. Once started no one wants to ever stop them. Or no one has the political will to do so.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        The future of religion-based political power in Europe is Islam.

        I believe someone was citing the novel “Camp of the Saints” earlier in this thread?

  7. 99 out of 100 times, people who wish to define America as a “Christian nation” do so on the basis of Christian morality, and not Christian dogma. Capitalism is based on the harnessing the depravity of man to incentivize him to work harder, so this arguably comes from the Christian concept of depravity to encourage the Christian virtue of diligence. Our form of government stems from a distrust of government figures who are also depraved sinners and not to be given divine authority. Thus the Christian virtue of accountability comes into play.

    But all these “Christian values” remain just as valid or not whether or not Jesus came and died. It has nothing to do with the Gospel. Whenever you see this sort of idea being promoted, take it to the bank, the people behind it have forgotten that which makes Christianity “Christian.” It isn’t our morality, it’s the person and work of Jesus. There’s only one kingdom that can be built on that.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    At least the picture up top has a 50-star flag.