Two Popular Myths About the United States

I don’t normally get political because that’s not what this blog is about. But because we’ll be celebrating our nation’s independence this week, I wanted to honor the occasion by looking at two common misconceptions about the U.S. government. Here they are:

  1. There is a constitutional separation of church and state
  2. Faith-based concepts should be kept out of the public realm

Let’s see if I can address these highly controversial topics in the least controversial way possible.

1. There is a constitutional separation of church and state

The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a “separation of church and state”—at least, not in the sense the phrase is understood today. In fact, that particular phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution.

So where did the wording come from? We find it in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. This group of Baptists was concerned about a potential restriction on their freedom to pursue religion as they saw fit. “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty,” they wrote, “…[and that] no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions.” If you read their letter in its entirety, you’ll see that they were not concerned about America being friendly toward religion. They were concerned about the establishment of a state religion that infringed on the rights of dissenting individuals.

Jefferson agreed with the Danbury Baptists. His response involved citing from the First Amendment (that congress would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and thus assuring the Baptists that this clause established “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

It has been argued ad nauseam about what that phrase means, and I won’t delve into the argument here. All I will say is that the First Amendment guarantees American citizens the freedom publicly to participate in (among other things) religion, speech, and the press. These rights are equally important and should be defended with equal devotion.

2. Faith-based concepts should be kept out of the public realm

This myth is closely associated with the previous one. As an illustration: During an argument I once overheard, one man made the following statement: “There is a very clearly defined separation between church and state, and arguments founded in faith have no place in the public sphere.” He said we need to have better reasons for policies than just “well, God says so.”

Now, there’s a certain sense in which I actually agree with this man. The United States is not a theocracy. Even so, such a blanket statement on this gentleman’s side of the argument ignores the reality that the seeds of our nation’s birth were cultivated in the soil of a “God says so” proposition:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.

The Declaration of Independence claims that all men should be treated as equals. Why? Because this newly established government says so? No, because something—Someone—greater than this or any government says so. Because there is a Creator who made us all equal and granted us certain rights.

The very reason the United States exists is because of its acknowledgement that “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” supersede the attempts of overreaching tyrants. Our Founding Fathers appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of [their] intentions” and placed “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” At its outset, the American way of life was bound to the idea that there is an Authority higher than any form of government.

For the sake of our purposes here, that Authority need not necessarily be the Christian God in whom I believe. The Founding Fathers represented a mix of religious beliefs, not the least of which was Deism. The point remains that they discerned an indissoluble link between human rights and Divine fiat.


Okay, so I’ve just made two controversial arguments. After reading them, you may have concluded that at least some of my political leanings could be categorized as “conservative.” Or you may have seen visions of me riding into the political fray on a rogue stallion, wearing an American flag, holding a double barreled shotgun in both hands, and firing rounds at anything that moves. Yes, political debates can so easily be derailed by generalizations and assumptions. To avoid that, let me quickly make a few clarifying statements.

There are several points I am not attempting to make with this blog post. First, I am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me on these matters is obviously a traitor worthy of deportation. That would be a gross and uncharitable assumption. Second, I am not saying that America was or is or should be a Christian nation. The true Kingdom of God is not of this world, and it cannot be reduced to being perfectly compliant with any man-made form of government. Also, I am not saying that we need to take back “our” nation from the radical secularists who have stolen it from us. This great nation belongs to all who live within its borders—religious or otherwise.

So what is my point in writing this blog post? Simply this: if we are going to have a productive debate about these and many other political issues, let us make every effort not to perpetuate falsehoods. Such confusion (intentional or unintentional) only serves to dirty the waters. And politics is a dirty enough topic to begin with.

photo credit: kyteacher via photopin cc